Tony Trabert, who has died aged 90, was an all-American athlete in every sense of the term, projecting a personality as powerful as his physique. He reaped the rewards of both during a long and highly successful career.
Although he went on to become a winning Davis Cup captain and long-time commentator for CBS television, Trabert will go into the record books as having enjoyed, in 1955, one of the most successful years in the history of tennis.
Before he turned professional and was banned from the world’s great championships under the stringent rules of the day, Trabert won the French championships, Wimbledon and the US championships to become one of a rare breed to have won three Grand Slam titles in a single year. Virtually unbeatable during that run, Trabert added the US indoor clay court title to his list of 35 all told, which covered 104 match victories and only five defeats.
In fact Trabert won at Roland Garros and Forest Hills twice each, and it was not until Michael Chang claimed the French title in 1989 that another American was able to conquer the world’s premier clay court tournament. But, inevitably in the days when the Championships stood head and shoulders above all others, it was winning Wimbledon that cemented Trabert’s position in the game.
In his widely acclaimed memoir A Handful of Summers, the South African player Gordon Forbes describes Trabert that year. “He was unbelievably all-American. Open faced, smiling wide, freckles and a brush-cut. And massive ground strokes that came at you like hurled medicine balls. He’d beaten Kurt Nielsen in the Wimbledon final that year. ‘It was like a tank moving infantry, Forbesey,’ said Abe Segal [Forbes’s doubles partner]. Trabert was driving the tank. Nielsen machine-gunned him but the bullets just bounced off!”
Davis Cup provided the other major highlights of Trabert’s career, both as a player and captain. In 1953, he played one of the greatest matches the competition has ever seen at Kooyong in Melbourne against Australia’s new teenage star Lew Hoad, and lost.
The following year, in front of 28,000 people at Sydney’s White City Stadium, Trabert gained his revenge against Hoad in the opening rubber and the United States reclaimed the cup. “Strangely, I think I played better than Lew in the first match and Lew played better in the second,” Trabert recalled. “But the results didn’t reflect that.”
From 1976 to 1980 Trabert led his country to two Davis Cup triumphs as captain – one against Britain in the final at Mission Hills, California – before he started to find the generation gap between a very young John McEnroe and himself a little too wide for his liking.
Born in Cincinatti, he was the son of Arch, a sales executive for General Electric, and his wife, Bea; Tony was middle America through and through. While at Walnut Hills high school and the University of Cincinnati he played both tennis and basketball. He believed in old-fashioned American values and joined the US navy (1951-53), serving aboard an aircraft carrier at the time of the Korean war.
He owed his start in tennis to Cincinnati’s other great player, Bill Talbert, who took the strapping youngster under his wing and travelled the world with him, creating a doubles partnership that hit its peak in 1950 when Talbert and Trabert beat Jaroslav Drobný and Eric Sturgess in the final of the French Championships. “Billy taught me almost everything I know about tennis and a lot more besides,” Trabert said of a man who went on to be a popular tournament director at the US Open.
In 1953 Trabert married Shauna Wood, and they had a son, Mike, and a daughter, Brooke. Towards the end of Jack Kramer’s reign as the tsar of professional tennis, in 1960 he appointed Trabert as his European director, based in Paris, where Shauna continued working as a model.
A friendship quickly developed between the Traberts and Philippe Chatrier, the future president of the International Tennis Federation, and his English wife, the British player Suzanne Partridge.
The quartet were often out on the town, frequenting discotheques such as Castel’s, where the manager, Jacques Renavand, a French Davis Cup player, was a close friend.
In later years, Trabert occupied himself with tennis camps in California, latterly run by his son Mike; after-dinner speaking; and as a well-respected voice on CBS television at the US Open. His first marriage ended in divorce and in the 1980s he met and married Vicki Valenti.
They settled in Ponte Vedra, Florida, where Brooke as manager of the pro shop at the nearby ATP headquarters. Trabert was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1970 and eventually became chairman of the select committee that meets every year at Wimbledon to recommend players for induction.
He is survived by Vicki, Mike, Brooke, three stepchildren, Valerie, James and Robbie, 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.