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Gordon Forbes: 1934 – 2020

Gordon Forbes died at his home in South Africa on December 6 aged 86. He was an excellent tennis player but he will be best remembered for his contribution to tennis literature and, in a ‘Handful of Summers’ is credited in having written the best book ever on the sport.

Gordon’s life was full of accomplishments, too many to list. A Handful of Summers is my favourite book of all time. My thoughts are with Gordon’s family at this sad time. Craig Tilley

Based very much around his own time in the amateur days of the fifties and sixties, his observations and portrayal of his fellow players, all penned with a humorous twist, proved a major hit. He brought to life a bygone era which is fast fading with the passing of many of the characters who are featured.

Forbes was born on the 21st February 1934 and won the South African title in 1959 and 1961 as well as reaching the final on four other occasions.

He also competed in all the majors reaching the last eight at the 1962 US Open (then the US Championships).

He scored wins over the likes of Australian legend Rod Laver and represented South Africa in the Davis Cup.

As a doubles player, Forbes won the mixed title at Roland Garros in 1955 alongside Darlene Hard. He also reached the French doubles final in 1963 with his compatriot Abe Segal but lost to the Australian-Spanish duo of Roy Emerson and Manuel Santana.

The South Africans also reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon that year.

Segal, who died in 2016, and Forbes were partners in numerous Davis Cup ties and helped their national Davis Cup each the semi-finals on two occasions.

The pair were great friends and led Forbes to describe him in his ‘Handful of Summers’ book as follows: “Abe was really rough and ready (when we first met). He used to wear purple T-shirts and sing The Nearness of You very loudly, with his mouth full of Chiclets…. He’d already been on one hectic, do-it-yourself tennis tour – had worked his passage on a freighter, lived on the smell of an oil rag, been mistakenly billeted in a brothel, harvested apples, befriended several surprised millionaires and once alarmed an ancient English umpire at Hurlingham by shaking his seat and implying he was blind.”

As regards his own ability, he also said in the book: “Having learnt my tennis in Johannesburg at an altitude of 6,000 feet, I was a true net rusher and had only a scanty selection of ground shots, none of which were really well produced although they were better than Abe Segal’s. Rushing the net on a really slow Italian court while using the Pirelli balls of the early sixties was an eerie experience – like being in a movie, half of which was speeded up while the other half was in slow motion. I was the speeded up part. I would come barrelling up to the net, only to arrive there far too early and have to hop about in a frenzy of suspense while my opponent (who often seemed to be Pietrangeli or Merlo) decided on which side to pass me. Desperate anticipatory decisions had to be made. Lobs were too frightful to contemplate and had to be blanked out of one’s mind to preserve sanity.”

Forbes brought to life many other contemporary players, amongst them the hearty Roy Emerson, the ethereal Torben Ulrich, the daffy Art Larsen, plus a host of others that made up the tennis circus of that era.

“Torben was, and is, a remarkable human being,” wrote Forbes. “With him in view one would automatically consider such phenomena as intellectualism, the power of the mind, mysticism, things deep, Gurudom even.”

The playing style of Australia’s Rex Hartwig also fell under Forbes’s scrutiny: “His game ran around him like a covey of quail escaped from a basket—darting and beautiful, but almost impossible to get together.”

Forbes followed Handful of Summers, first published in 1978, with two more fine volumes, Too Soon to Panic and I’ll Take the Sunny Side.

One of the first celebrities to pay tribute to Forbes was former World No.1 and four-time Wimbledon winner American Billie Jean King.

“Gordon Forbes was a terrific South African tennis player, and also a gifted writer. I loved his book on tennis ‘A Handful of Summers’.
“Our condolences to his son Gavin and the rest of his family.”

Craig Tilley, the South African born CEO of Tennis Australia and tournament director of the Australian Open, also played tribute to his countryman. “Thinking of the great Gordon Forbes. I will be forever grateful for his support. I cared for him deeply.

“Gordon’s life was full of accomplishments, too many to list. A Handful of Summers is my favourite book of all time. My thoughts are with Gordon’s family at this sad time.”

His sister Jean was married to Cliff Drysdale and his son Gavin is a senior executive at the prominent sports marketing firm, International Management Group (IMG). He had another son Jamie, from his second marriage with Frances who survives him.



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