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For the love of the game

Submitted by on Saturday, 4 October 2008No Comment
For the love of the game

During an illustrious career Gordon Forbes held 10 South African Open titles and claimed the scalps of five Wimbledon champions. He also had a lot of laughs.

You played in the amateur era, a lovely, ‘Boys Own’ romantic period of idealism, where sport was played for all the right reasons. How do you feel about the commercial nature of the game today, where even lower ranked players earn veritable fortunes?

Imagine being young and having money in the bank… (smiles). In my day we had to play and at the same time wonder about our lives, our hotel bills and how we would live when our sport was over. We had to budget for everything, count our money and decide whether we could have a steak in the evenings, or not. We used to stay in small hotels and catch trains to the tennis. Now the top players have sports cars and millions of dollars in the bank. Sport these days is business – no longer ‘sport’ as we knew it. Then it was a game. Victories were private little triumphs that got you into the next round and helped you get better lunches for next week’s tournament! The qualifying rounds these days; seem to be more like the tournaments of our time.

Do you think modern day sportsmen are spoiled?

They do what they have to do in the world in which they find themselves. However, I was amazed the other day, watching one of our top cricketers being interviewed in England and asked why there had been such a terrific difference between the tests and the one-dayers in terms of performance. He answered, ‘I think our guys probably just lacked motivation.’ Bloody Hell! Here are people getting well paid to do nothing but play cricket and they ‘lack motivation’? Imagine the CEO of a company who has bad results, saying to his shareholders, ‘Sorry about that! I think we probably just lacked motivation’? (Laughs) He would be fired, for sure!

Given the same opportunities in terms of coaching, support etc., how do you think the champions of your era would have fared against the likes of Nadal and Federer?

Given the same opportunities and the same equipment I think they would be just as good, if not better. Although the standards today are very high, in my time there was more creativity and variety in games. Take a guy like Rod Laver, he didn’t play tennis – he composed it. It was extraordinary what he could do with a tennis ball. He would invent shots. If you took the top fifty players when we played, every single guy played his own style. So you always had two, ‘styles’ beautifully dressed in white, playing each other. In those days every one dressed the same, and played differently. Today everyone dresses differently and plays the same (laughs). But they also hit a lot harder than we did!

You beat Rod Laver in the year that he won the Grand Slam, (Australian, French, Wimbledon & US Open), and he is one of only two people ever to have won a ‘calendar’ Grand Slam – (the other was Budge). That was some achievement, tell me about that.

Rod was a very good friend of my late sister Jean and I too, knew him well. Anyway we had to play a tournament in Tuscaloosa in the Southern States of America. I was supposed to be cannon fodder, but to everyone’s surprise, especially mine, I got into the final and played a good match against Rod and won in four sets. Somehow I did seem to be able to play individual matches as well as anybody; in fact I beat all the Wimbledon champions of that era, Hoad, Drobny, Olmedo, Santana and Laver. But to win a Grand Slam tournament you had to string about seven of those games in a row and I wasn’t very good at that (smiles). Oh and in 1956, when Hoad won Wimbledon, only two people beat him the whole year – a chap called Bob Howe and myself (laughs).

If Lew Hoad or Rod Laver had to play tennis for your life, who would you choose?

If it was for a given game or match, I would choose Hoad. It would be a very difficult choice, because both were masters, both very similar in their talent. Except Lew was a couple of inches taller. He was also stronger than Rod.

The officials were also amateurs; they must have made some interesting calls?

Yes (smiles). Once Mark Cox and Tom Okker playing at Queen’s Club, were in a tie-break when the umpire, quite a pompous type, called ‘One nil – CoxOkker’. At which after an initial silence, there was some sniggering. Then he called, ‘Two nil – CoxOkker’, which produced a sprinkling of laughter. By the time he called, ‘Three one – CoxOkker’, everyone was laughing, including the players. So Mark Cox went up to the umpire and said, ‘Sir, could you please reverse the order of our names?’ The old bloke then realised what was going on and got into a complete state. The next point he called, ‘Four one – OkkersCock…’ (Laughs).

… (laughing) That’s a classic!

And the one with Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle? Emerson and Stolle were both quite crusty, especially Fred. Anyway in a tournament in Houston they had to play doubles against Kreiss and Freddie De Jesus, pronounced, ‘De Haysoos’. Well the umpire, this Texan of about seventy, announced the game. ‘Welcome to the Men’s Doubles Semi-final between – on my left Emerson/ Stolle, and on my right – de Jesus Kreiss’. (Smiles) At which there was a great roar of laughter. In the momentary silence that followed Emerson said to Stolle, ‘Could have a bit of trouble here Fred…’ (Laughs).

By all accounts there were some interesting characters in tennis when you were playing, like the eccentric Torben Ulrich?

Yes. (Laughs) He frequently used to do and say unusual things. For example, Tony Roche, only eighteen and playing his first Wimbledon had to play against him. They were hitting up and Torben was at the net and Roche gave him about three lobs, which he smashed. Roche then asked, ‘Would you like another lob Torben?’ He replied, ‘Do you have any left?’(Laughs). And of course, as you probably know, Torben is the father of Lars Ulrich, drummer and co-founder of heavy metal band Metallica…

… yes. Wasn’t Torben also a musician?

He was. He played the clarinet and tenor sax and loved jazz. I remember one day Don Candy gave him a record of marches to play. Torben examined the record, then handed it back. ‘I can’t play this’ he said. ‘Why?’ Candy asked. ‘Because,’ Torben said pointing to his gramophone, ‘this is a machine which plays music. It cannot perform other functions.’ To which Candy said, ‘Well this is a musical recording – it cannot for instance be played through a washing machine.’ Torben said, ‘It would not surprise me if it was not better to play that record through a washing machine…’ (Laughs)

Your book ‘A Handful of Summers’, is arguably one of the funniest and profoundly charming books on Sport, ever written. The number of people I’ve come across, who have read it and rank it in their all time favourites is quite astonishing.

Thank you. It does seem to have become a bit of a cult book in the tennis world. There are even young players who read it. Monica Seles wrote to me about it and Andy Roddick asked my son Gavin about it. They find the old days a bit curious, I think, and can’t quite believe that tennis was once played in such a simple way. At one point, on the women’s tour it was handed out to many of the younger players – I think to show them just how fortunate they now are to play for money, in relative comfort. It is very gratifying.

Apparently Mark McCormack the founder of IMG (International marketing Organisation), used to give a copy to every player he signed to show them where the tennis world they were in, had come from?

Mark was a great supporter of the book, which was very nice for me. He used to buy them by the dozen and he must have given away hundreds. It’s been reprinted about 7 or 8 times and must have sold, because at the moment there don’t seem to be many left. But it’s not a best-seller by any means – like, for instance, Jake White’s book, which, I believe, sold hundreds of thousands.

Your doubles partner Abe Segal features large in both your books, which is an interview in itself. Do you still see him?

Oh yes frequently, once or twice a week. We don’t play much tennis anymore because we’re a bit a shaky about the shanks. We now play what we call ‘golf’. (Laughs). Abe hasn’t changed much. He still does one or two odd things.  He’s written a book about his adventures. It’s called ‘Hey, Big Boy’, and although he’s split a few infinitives, and ended the odd sentence with a preposition, it produces a lot of laughs.

Your second book, ‘Too soon to Panic’, was more poignant and philosophical. Why was that?

Well, when very sadly my sister Jean died, I sort of felt that I should try to tell her how tennis had changed, which I do in the book. Especially as she had encouraged me to write a ‘Handful of Summers,’ where I was writing about players that I knew very well. We’d all been ‘part of the circuit’.  ’Too Soon to Panic’ was a bit more arm’s-length.  I couldn’t write the same way about the modern players – McEnroe, Borg, Courier, etc, because I never knew them like that.

In ‘A Handful of Summers,’ you tell a story about a girl and the King’s Road…

(Laughs) It’s not really a tennis story. But it involved two mad young Australians, playing at Wimbledon in1968, when London was also a bit mad. The Aussies had girls who sensed a source of Wimbledon tickets and who in their quest for them would tend to do outrageous things.  One girl had this fantasy where she wanted one of the Australians to make love to her, while she leant out of their flat window and waved at her friends on the King’s Road. So they set it up and half way through as arranged, the other Australian knocked on the door, and through a fancy bit of  footwork managed to take over without her knowing. She being too busy, waving at her friends. The first Australian then ran out of the flat and came strolling along the road, smiling and waving up at her! A bit lowbrow, now, but it seemed funny at the time! (Laughs)…

Business is littered with ex sportsmen who failed. You however followed your tennis career with a successful business career in industrial lighting, how did that happen?

Well Abe found me a job as a lighting salesman and we fortunately came upon a new recipe in an exciting industry. The lighting world in those days was dominated by two big companies that only went for big volume business. We went for the more specialised, lower volume business – such as the outdoor lighting or corridors. Often that would get us the chance to quote on the big stuff.  (Smiles) Once we managed to get the order for some, ‘air handling’ toilet fittings. We supplied them, and my French partner, Guy said, ‘Now Gor-DON,  one of us better go and have zee crap to see if zay work’ (laughs).

If tennis didn’t exist, what sport could you have excelled at?

I loved cricket. In my matric year I was invited to play in both the Free State junior Tennis team and the Nuffield cricket side. But my father advised me to play tennis, because it would be easier to continue after I left school. As it turned out, he was right.

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