Obituary: Pancho Segura, tennis player from poor background who became a great of the game

Tennis player Pancho Segura.
Tennis player Pancho Segura.
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Pancho Segura, who rose from poverty to win six US Pro singles and doubles championships and was one of the world’s top amateur tennis players in the 1940s and professionals in the 1950s, has died. He was 96.

Segura went from ­amateur to barnstorming pro, then became a coach, including to Jimmy Connors, an eight-time major singles champion. “Sad day – lost my friend-coach and mentor,” Connors tweeted.

Francisco Segura was born into poverty in Ecuador. Childhood rickets bowed his legs. Too weak for soccer, he took to tennis while working as a ball boy at a club in Guayaquil.

“I taught myself to play,” Segura told ESPN in 2009. “I worked at it, day after day, for hours.”

Segura became a South American champion and went to the ­University of Miami on a scholarship. He was a singles semifinalist four times at the US Championships, known today as the US Open. He also won the US Clay Court Championship in 1944 and the US Indoor title in 1946.

Only 5ft 6in, Segura held his own against more powerful players and had a unique two-handed forehand. “I played with the speed of a bullet,” Segura told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1987. “Great eyes, great hands, great under pressure. I was a killer.”

Segura turned pro in 1947and traveled around the world on barnstorming tours.

“I played on islands that were specks in the Indian Ocean,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “I played for the sheikh of Kuwait, and at midnight in Madrid for $1,000. Errol Flynn would send a car to pick me up.”

Segura won the US Pro Tennis singles title from 1950 to 1952 and the Pro doubles title in 1948, 1955 and 1958. He played his last US Pro in 1962 when he was 44 and his last US Open singles match in 1970.

Coming from poverty, Segura discounted the view of tennis as a sport of the wealthy.

It “doesn’t take more than a racket and a heart,” he told ESPN. “It’s a great test of democracy in action.”