There was a time when professional tennis was considered beneath the dignity of the top players, although in many instances, top Australian players, whilst prohibited from collecting prize money, were employed by sporting goods companies.
Lew Hoad was one of those players. He had a respectable career, whether you choose to call him an amateur or a professional, and in one magical season, 1956, he came close to winning a Grand Slam, making the tennis world take notice as he won the Australian and French Opens before conquering Wimbledon, finally failing in the U.S. Open.
During his era, tennis players were expected to participate in all disciplines, so they played doubles and mixed doubles to go along with their singles responsibilities.
Lew Hoad did manage, with his partners, to win a career slams in doubles, playing in three mixed doubles Grand Slam finals and winning the French Open with his American partner, Maureen Connolly. Ken Rosewall figured prominently in Hoad’s doubles results.
Born 23 November 1934, Hoad grew up as the oldest of three brothers in the working class Glebe suburb of Sydney. He got his start early, in multiple senses of the word early, when he was the recipient of the gift of a racket from a local social organisation. For reasons modern youngsters could not possibly comprehend, he would get up at 5 A.M. to hit tennis balls against a wall and a garage door, much to the displeasure of his neighbors. Hoad capitalised on that displeasure to gain permission to practice on the actual tennis courts of the Hereford Tennis Club.
As many a tennis player of any age or ability level knows, one of the key ingredients to developing proficiency is the opportunity to play against slightly better players. The issue that becomes involved is that those slightly better players also want to do the same thing, so that they themselves can get better. Hoad was to demonstrate such ability that he often played as a boy against Ken Rosewall, who remarkably was just exactly 21 days older than Hoad.
The two played together and were seen about so often that the pair was known as the Sydney twins, although everything about each was so different from the other. Their first official match, part of an exhibition betwixt the U.S. and Australia, found Rosewall drubbing Hoad in two sets at love.
A lessor competitor might have given up over that embarrassment, but Hoad, in the manner of the great, used it to fuel his motivation and get him into the gym and training as a boxer. It was during this time that he was introduced to former Australian champion tennis player Adrian Quist, who at the time was an executive with the Dunlop Sporting Goods Company. Quist was sufficiently impressed with Hoad’s ability that Hoad was able to leave school at the age of 14 and undertake his career as an ‘amateur’ tennis player on Dunlop’s payroll.
Lew Hoad was but 15 in November of 1949 when he won the junior title in the New South Wales Championships.
Tennis players are sometimes classified according to the surfaces on which they do best. Some are called grass specialists, others are called clay specialists. That same weekend after taking the junior NSW title, Hoad, displaying remarkable versatility, added ping-pong specialist to his resume by reaching the final of the junior table tennis championship in his hometown.
Hoad’s amateur career essentially ran from 1951 through 1957.
His first Grand Slam appearance was in 1951, in the Australian Championships, but he could not get beyond the second round. He won the singles title at the Australian Hardcourt Championships after being taken to five sets by Rosewall and it certainly must have felt satisfying after the embarrassment of losing straight sets at love earlier to Rosewall.
The rest of Hoad’s amateur career was a seemingly endless quest to get past Vic Seixas, an American from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and senior to Hoad by nearly 10 years. He also played doubles with Rosewall as his partner, along with staging frequent battles against him.
There was nothing dismal, however about his performance. He won doubles titles in 1953 in three of the four Majors, failing only in the U.S. Open. He made it as far as the semi-finals in mixed doubles at Wimbledon in that year. He teamed with Rosewall in the Australian Open, and again at the French Open. Rosewall got past Seixas for the singles title. Hoad and Rosewall took doubles at Wimbledon in an all-Australian final against Rex Hartwig and Mervyn Rose that sent the Brits to the exits early. Hartwig and Rose would prevail at the final Major of the year, the U.S. Open.
Stints in the National Service, along with some back issues, were at times limiting to Hoad’s participation in tennis, but he did put his stamp indelibly on the game in 1956.
He beat Rosewall for the singles title at the Australian Open, and then crossed over to Rosewall’s side of the net to take the doubles, staging a marathon that concluded 10-8, 13-11, 6-4 against fellow Australians Don Candy and Mervyn Rose.
In that year’s French Open, Lew Hoad defeated Sweden’s Sven Davidson for the singles title. He teamed in doubles this time with Ashley Cooper, rather than Rosewall, and those two were not much of a match for Don Candy paired with American Robert Perry.
Wimbledon found Hoad playing his ‘twin,’ Rosewall for the singles title, which Hoad took in four sets, fairly convincingly. Once again, they paired to play doubles, and decimated the Italian pair of Nicola Pietrangeli and Orland Sirola, losing only eight games in a three set victory.
All of Australia watch in anticipation as Hoad went into the 1956 U.S. Open in Forest Hills, New York. Once again, it was Ken Rosewall that stood in Hoad’s way. Rosewall won in a rather lopsided affair, coming back from losing the first set to close out the match 6-2, 6-3, and 6-3. Those two would add another doubles title to their trophy case by beating Americans Ham Richardson and Vic Seixas, but then Rosewall would take mixed doubles paired with American Margaret Osborne against Hoad and American Darlene Hard.
Lew Hoad would repeat as Wimbledon Singles Champion in 1957. He also won his third Australian Open. He played as a member of Australia’s Davis Cup contingent in 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956.
When he officially turned pro, he won eight professional majors betwixt 1958 and 1963. His last Wimbledon appearance came at the age of 37, but he could not get past the first round.
Critics of Lew Hoad would say that he lacked focus and always went for the big shot regardless of the situation. Pablo Gonzales, however, one of the greatest to ever play the game, had this to say about Hoad: “He was the only guy who, if I was playing my best tennis, could still beat me. I think his game was the best game ever.”
Summing up Hoad’s career, it is possible to say that he may have been a little casual in his approach. It must be granted, however, that his back problems were a major contributing factor to his seeming lack of interest in practicing.
Regardless of which side of that debate you take, the wins in major tournaments were there. Not just singles wins, either. By routinely playing doubles and mixed doubles, Hoad’s schedule was something that is entirely inconceivable in the current era.