The day I played ‘Pancho’
Friday, 10th January, 2014
Even though it occurred over fifty years ago, local Arthur Hodge can still vividly recall his brush with tennis royalty.
The year was 1954 and the now-retired navy seal was a bushy blonde haired teenager and keen junior player in Broken Hill.
His encounter with fame and a piece of rare memorabilia came when ‘the pros’ came to town in January of that year.
To put the tennis world into context, the tour at that time was split between amateur players and professionals.
The amateurs competed on the circuit for Grand Slam titles including Wimbledon and the Australian Open, while a select few professional players earned a hefty pay packet, playing exhibition games around the globe in what was essentially a travelling circus of tennis.
Four of those pros, including Americans Richard ‘Pancho’ Gonzales and Pancho Segura and Australia’s Frank Sedgman and Ian Ayre, arrived to play in the Silver City on January 17 and 18.
By the end of his career Sedgman was regarded as one of the greats of Aussie tennis, after winning a total of eight Grand Slam tournaments and eight Pro Slam titles.
But the biggest name of the group was the big-serving Gonzales.
The six foot two right-hander finished the season at number one in the world a record eight times.
He also claimed a remarkable 113 titles across his 25-year career.
The quartet put on a show across two nights at the former Tennis Association courts in Blende Street, which is the current location of the Council Chambers.
“I remember they played from 8pm until about one in the morning ... they stayed at the Royal Exchange Hotel, played cards all night after that and then played the next day and were out of town,” Arthur said.
An article from the Barrier Miner on December 31, 1954 estimated that the stands had a capacity of 900, although Arthur reckons there was a few more to watch the legends play.
“The crowd was huge, there were people packed in everywhere,” he said.
“Blokes were driving semitrailers up to the back of the stands to catch a view ... you could barely move.”
Arthur was a ball boy at the courts and received a surprise when Gonzales, still widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, pulled him aside after he beat Sedgman convincingly.
“He said to me in a joking fashion: ‘Look son, I can’t get a decent hit here, so you take my racquet, we’ll have a game and make the crowd laugh’,” he recalled.
“I was nearly having a heart attack at that point - he was practically the only bloke in the world who could serve over 100 miles per hour, which was a fair task with the old wooden racquets.
“But he was stumbling around and missing the ball and the crowd were having a great old time.
“We had a few hits and then he came up to me at the end and said ‘you’re too good for me, you better not turn pro’.”
The American then presented a starry-eyed Arthur with one of his very own black and white personally-signed wooden racquets.
But Arthur didn’t let it sit idle on the shelf, he used it in many of the junior tournaments around town.
Much to his disappointment, the racquet’s lifespan was brief and it was, remarkably, thrown away with the trash.
“I played with it for about twelve months,” Arthur said.
“I really can’t believe that I didn’t keep it ... I just kept using it and eventually it broke, so I got rid of it.”
Arthur joined the navy as a mechanical engineer as an 18-year-old in 1958 and won the navy singles titles in ‘58 and ‘59.
Although he no longer plays, he still has one treasured racquet in his possession - one that he definitely plans to keep safe and secure.
“My uncle got this one for me, it was originally Frank Sedgman’s and is about 60 to 70 years old ... so I’ll never get rid of this one.”