Abe Segal a 'big boy' in all respects

Abe Segal (BLD Communications/Tennis Archives)
Abe Segal (BLD Communications/Tennis Archives)

He sent me a copy of his book Hey Big Boy after it was published in 2008 with the inscription "For the only player to put his opponents into a psychiatric ward!"

That was Abe Segal, outspoken, with an individualistic, flamboyant sense of humour, a friend of the rich and famous and no mean tennis player of international fame and repute.

He died in Cape Town on Monday night of cancer a mere four months after he was still attempting in social, but invariably fiercely-contested encounters at the age of 85 to emulate his fearsome, left-handed serves of heady, bygone years.

He explained the title of his book to a function of famous luminaries he had attended in his prime "not knowing who half of them were and not remembering the names of the other half.

"Under the circumstances," explained Abe, "I thought I would just reply to everyone I was introduced to with the gusty greeting 'Hey big boy.' It served the purpose and became something of a signature response of mine when I met anyone."

Better known in a wider context was the comforting advice he gave long-time doubles partner and bosom buddy Gordon Forbes when the duo were heading for what seemed an inevitable and crucial defeat against Germany in a Davis Cup encounter.

"Forbesy, it's too soon to panic", advised Segal - and he proved correct, with South Africa going onto win the match and the tie.

Forbes, who penned the sporting classic, "A Handful of Summers," for which Segal's antics and exploits provided much of the humour, later wrote another book and called it "Too Soon to Panic."

As for Segal's own book, the foreword was provided by Sean Connery.

"Read it lying down and armed with a stiff Scotch," advised the most famous James Bond of all about digesting the exploits of the 'rough diamond' who was brought up in Johannesburg's Doornfontein district.

It was for the uninitiated a replica at the time of a Jewish ghetto and not unlike New York's Brooklyn, which might explain the twang in the American accented-voice Segal shared with long-time friend and Sun City hotel magnate, Sol Kerzner.

Ellis Park, the headquarters of South African tennis, was situated in Doornfontein and more out of curiosity and mischief than anything else, the tough 'boykies' in the area, who were more interested in soccer and cricket, "jumped the fence" to find out more about the goings-on in tournaments.

It sparked a career in which Segal rose to a ranking of top 20 in the world, if not higher, in singles and universally acclaimed with Forbes at the couple’s peak as one of the five best doubles combinations in the world.

He reached a Wimbledon singles quarter-final, dispatching the third-seeded Rex Hartwig along the way, and played in French Open Grand Slam doubles finals with Forbes and Australian Bob Howe.

He beat Forbes to earn his only South African singles title and won five national men's doubles titles with Forbes and Eric Sturgess, who remains acclaimed by many as South Africa's best-ever tennis player.

He was an old-fashioned serve-and-volley exponent who thrived in playing on Wimbledon's grass courts where his top-spin serves jumped so high they would have been proclaimed "no balls" were they delivered by a bowler in cricket.

Ironically, therefore, one of his most memorable singles performances occurred on the slower surfaces of the United States Clay Court Championships where he beat top-seed Arthur Ashe and third-seeded Peruvian Alex Olmedo before losing in the quarter-finals.

He was also fiercely-committed to representing South Africa in Davis Cup competition on numerous occasions, proclaiming he would have "given an arm and a leg" for the honour of representing his country - while making no bones about criticising current South African No 1 Kevin Anderson for declining to make himself eligible for the Davis Cup during the past five years when "he could have made the world of difference and emerged a national hero."

Segal knew everyone. And that is only a minor exaggeration. Among them were Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Kirk Dougles, Irving Shaw, George Best, James Hunt and Connery, of course. Above all the tennis players and acquaintances, he worshipped Lew Hoad.

He lived like a multi-millionaire and that was not because he was one - but if he had reached his peak in today's big-money environment of the sport, he might well have become one.

However, many of his friends were multi-millionaires and treated him royally.

Kerzner made Segal the resident professional at Sun City after he retired and it was no surprise when Abe answered the phone and told you he was sight-seeing in Alaska, or something such-like.

More of a shock was the fact that he could write a book as entertaining as Hey Big Boy, even if his adoring partner of many years, Deborah Curtis-Setchel, was responsible for much of the spadework - and following this up with an art exhibition with some of his works also illustrating his book.

He was married to and divorced from the former Heather Brewer, a vivacious world top 10 women's player, with whom the couple had daughters Susie and Nancy.

And like so many others, this exponent of dispatching opponents to psychiatric wards shed a tear on hearing the sad, sad news on Monday.

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