Remembering Gordon Forbes, Good Player, Great Writer
By Richard Evans
Gordon Forbes, who has died at his home in South Africa at 86, was a fine tennis player. But a better writer. He was, in fact, a writer of unique style and observation; a writer with the priceless gift of sprinkling stardust on the characters who inhabited his books, turning backhands and banter into tales infected with laughter.
At his side throughout most of his life, on court and off, was his doubles partner Abe Segal who died in 2016. Larger than life could have been a phrase invented for Big Abe who partnered Forbes in numerous Davis Cup battles for South Africa, twice taking their nation to the semi-finals. Together, they reached the final of Roland Garros in 1963, the same year they were Wimbledon semi-finalists. As a singles player, Forbes won the South African title in 1959 and 1961 and was runner-up four times.
Segal would probably have become a legend in the game anyway but Forbes’ descriptions of him ensured his name would live on. A sample from A Handful of Summers goes like this: “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.”
Forbes was equally, unsparingly, perceptive about himself. “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 Nicola Pietrangeli or Giuseppe 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.”
Gordon’s intellect was always more powerful than his self-confidence. He was forever questioning himself as well as life itself. He thought deeply and too much. But his melancholy was always tinged with the humour that made his writing and his company so irresistible.
He became a voice that demanded attention at the Enshrinement Committee meetings for the International Tennis Hall of Fame that we attended at Wimbledon every year, sometimes offering detailed numerical studies in an effort to ascribe ranking points to candidates. He became a little fussed when some of us could not follow his Forbesian logic.
Gordon Forbes had a son, Gavin, who is a Vice-President at the International Management Group (IMG), and a daughter, Jeannie, a fine writer herself, who died far too young, from his first marriage to fellow South African player Valerie Kootzen. And then another son, Jamie, from his marriage to Frances, his second wife, who survives him.
I shall miss our earnest talks over tea in the Last Eight Club at Wimbledon, laced with sudden flashes of sardonic laughter. The rest of us will have no need to miss his writing. It will live for posterity.
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