Trabert, Marion Anthony ("Tony")
TRABERT, Marion Anthony ("Tony")
(b. 16 August 1930 in Cincinnati, Ohio), tennis champion and television commentator known for his impeccable sportsmanship.
Trabert began playing tennis at age six, but never gave up his interest in other sports; he was especially good in basketball. At the University of Cincinnati, he was a member of both the tennis and basketball teams and was the president of the junior class. By 1950 he was already a standout for his All-America appearance and great serve.
Trabert entered amateur tennis in 1950 and came under the guidance of Bill Talbert. Also from Cincinnati, Talbert was a great doubles player who had overcome the handicap of juvenile diabetes to become the U.S. Davis Cup captain six years in a row. Talbert and Trabert won the doubles crown of the French championships at Roland Garros in 1950. Paris became the scene of some of Trabert's greatest victories; he won the French singles title in 1954 and 1955 and the doubles three times (once with Talbert and twice with Victor Seixas).
The U.S. Navy called Trabert to active duty in September 1951. Trabert put his navy stint to good use and returned as an even more effective player in June 1953. On 7 September 1953 he stunned the U.S. Open crowd at Forest Hills, New York, by routing Seixas 6–3, 6–2, 6–3. Observers called it one of the most striking turnarounds in tennis history, because until that point Seixas had been the senior member of the doubles duo.
At the peak of his skill, Trabert was known as a thinking player. The six footer possessed plenty of power, and his serves and volleys had a crispness that few could match. Trabert seldom simply overpowered opponents; he out-guessed them and outfought them. If he had a single obvious weakness, it was in movement; he lacked Ken Rosewall's dexterity or Jack Kramer's speed to the net. Ultimately, Trabert overcame this weakness through his court sense, which he claimed was developed through years of playing basketball. He also had an uncanny ability to lift his game for the big matches; he won all five finals of the major championships he reached.
Trabert's finest year was 1955. He won the singles titles at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and Forest Hills, and did not concede a single set at the latter two. He surprised the fans by beating Lew Hoad in the U.S. Open semifinals and then by demolishing Rosewall in the finals. Over the course of the year, Trabert won 105 matches and lost only 6, one of the best records of any era. Only a semifinal loss to Rosewall at the Australian Open prevented Trabert from attaining the coveted Grand Slam. One of the finest compliments paid to Trabert came from the player Gardnar Mulloy, who in October 1955 in World Tennis wrote that Trabert was "sounder than Hoad and more dominating than Rosewall. He has had a completely astonishing record this year, losing only one big match and two lesser ones."
Trabert turned professional in December 1955. Until 1968, when the era of open tennis began, there was a marked separation between the amateur and professional tours. Trabert had accomplished all he could as an amateur; now the time had come to test the professional waters. He was thrown in against the hungry shark Pancho Gonzales, a Mexican-American player who had harmed his own career by turning professional too soon, in 1949. Gonzales ached for revenge on any player who came his way, and defeated Trabert 74–27 sets in the one-on-one matches of 1956. Playing against Trabert, Hoad, and other champions, Gonzales remained the king of the professional tour until about 1964.
Trabert lived in Paris from 1960 to 1963, and he helped Jack Kramer manage the European side of the professional tour. Trabert retired in 1963. He never achieved great success as a professional player, but he had already made his mark. Twice the champion at Forest Hills, twice the champion at Roland Garros, and once the Wimbledon champion, Trabert's fame lay in his clear attacking game and his sportsmanship. His successes at Roland Garros were particularly impressive. After Trabert's wins in 1954 and 1955, no other American took the French title until Michael Chang in 1989. U.S. greats like Stan Smith, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe were undone on the soft clay, where Trabert had thrived. In 1970 Trabert was named to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Trabert joined the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) as a sports commentator in 1972. Soon his voice (and that of Pat Summerall) became a regular part of tennis, especially as the sport's popularity boomed in the late 1970s. Trabert was a calm, methodical commentator. He rarely speculated about winners and losers, and unlike many other commentators, almost never chose to say that a ball was "in" or "out." Rather, he would note, "It's hard to say from the angle here." This measured judgment matched with his earlier reputation as a fine sportsman on the court. With CBS, Trabert assessed the careers of such tennis greats as Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, and Andre Agassi. Although his comments were never explicit, one gathered that he approved most heartily of the attitude of Borg and Pete Sampras, both of whom were models of good on-court behavior.
Trabert found time to serve as the captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team between 1976 and 1980. His teams won two cups, and his win-loss record was the highest for any U.S. captain. Managing players like Connors and McEnroe was a difficult task, but one that brought Trabert pride.
Trabert outlived many of his former opponents and friends. Talbert, Gonzales, and others died in the 1990s, leaving Trabert as one of the last voices of the pre-Open era, in which tennis had been segregated between amateurs and professionals. Like other longtime survivors such as Kramer, Trabert probably was appalled at the size of the money awards granted, and at the lack of patriotism exhibited by many players. Trabert and his wife, Vicki, who had four children, retired to Ponte Vedra, Florida.
Trabert was a fine player with a keen eye for the court, and he understood the body mechanics of the game better than anyone else in his era. While he lacked Hoad's outstanding power or Rosewall's finesse, Trabert had a profound influence on the sport; he was one of the best representatives of U.S. tennis in the second half of the twentieth century.
For more information on Trabert's career see Jack Kramer with Frank Deford, The Game: My Forty Years in Tennis (1979); Bud Collins, My Life with the Pros (1989), and "Better than Ever," Time (19 Sept. 1955). Additional information can be found on the website of the Tennis Hall of Fame at http://www.tennisfame.org.
Samuel Willard Crompton