Robert Falkenburg was a former American amateur tennis player and entrepreneur. He is best known for winning the men’s singles title at the 1948 Wimbledon Championships and for introducing soft ice cream and American fast food to Brazil in 1952. He was the founder of the Brazilian fast food chain known as “Bob’s”.
Bob Falkenburg was born in New York City and grew up in Los Angeles, California, in a tennis-playing family. His parents, Eugene “Genie” Lincoln Falkenburg (an engineer involved in the construction of the Hoover Dam), and Marguerite “Mickey” Crooks Falkenburg were also amateur tennis players.
While employed by Westinghouse, Eugene was transferred to São Paulo, Brazil, where he moved with his wife and three children to. There, Mickey won the state tennis championship in 1927. Mickey was always involved in tennis.
In the book “The Game: My 40 Years in Tennis,” renowned tennis champion Jack Kramer wrote that Mickey Falkenburg was “the first person to ever suggest to him the idea of a team-tennis league,” something he later created.
Bob’s sister, Eugenia “Jinx” Falkenburg, a famous American film star/model, was also an amateur tennis player and his brother Tom had a successful tennis career as well.
Bob started to play tennis in 1936 when he was 10 years old. Like other tennis players from Southern California, he frequently played at the Los Angeles Tennis Club in Hollywood, which was located very close to the family home. Bob also played at the Bel-Air Country Club, where he won the junior tennis tournament in 1937 at 11 years of age. As a youngster, Bob participated in different tournaments around the city.
In 1942 and 1943, while attending Fairfax High School, Bob won the National Interscholastic singles title and won the national doubles title with his brother, Tom. In 1943, Bob became the Los Angeles city singles title holder. The following year he claimed the United States doubles crown with Don McNeill at Forest Hills, New York. In 1943, Bob became one of the youngest players to enter the US Top 10 amateur ranks. He remained in the US Top 10 for 5 years.
During World War II, he served in the military as an air cadet. However, being enlisted in the service did not put a complete halt to Bob’s tennis career and he continued to play occasionally while in the Air Force. In 1946, while attending the University of Southern California, he won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) singles and, with his brother Tom, doubles titles. Bob was very agile and was known for his powerful serves. At the age of 20 he was considered to have “the fastest serve in tennis.”
In 1947, Bob paired with Jack Kramer and together they won the Wimbledon doubles title. A year later, in 1948, Falkenburg reached the pinnacle of his tennis career by winning the Wimbledon singles championship. Exceedingly tall, Bob understood the limitations of his game and took full advantage of his greatest opportunity. At Wimbledon in 1948, he exploited his big serve and took calculated risks at the right times, coming away with that coveted title. In the final, the Australian John Bromwich was serving with a 5-3, 40-15 fifth-set lead over Falkenburg. Despite being double-match point down, Falkenburg won four consecutive games, recording an improbably victory, 7-5, 0-6, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5.
Falkenburg won Wimbledon because he was not only a great tennis player, but a great strategist. Fellow tennis player Tom Brown, who was a runner up in the 1947 Wimbledon Championships described Bob’s competitive approach: “He would review the situation, figure out what was likely and take chances.”
After marrying a Brazilian, Bob moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1950, where he played on the 1954 and 1955 Brazilian Davis Cup teams.
Bob Falkenburg not only found success on the tennis court and fast food industry, but he also had a successful amateur golf career. He played in many international golf championships and won the Brazilian amateur championship three times. He took part in renowned golf tournaments including the Bob Hope Desert Classic, where his team won in 1967; the Bing Crosby Pro-Am in Pebble Beach, where he played several times; the Eisenhower Cup, where he played for Brazil in Rome in 1964, Mexico City in 1966 and Melbourne in 1968; and the British Amateur Golf Championship, where he led the American contingent on the first qualifying round after having a hole-in-one at Carnoustie, Scotland.
Bob had a total of 14 holes-in-one during his life. He also participated as an amateur in various European golf championships in France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and several Scandinavian countries.
In 1970, the Falkenburgs moved back to Southern California and in 1974, at the age of 48, he sold the “Bob’s” chain (which at the time had 12 stores) to Libby of Brazil (later acquired by Nestlé). Retired in Los Angeles, Bob spent a lot of time playing golf at the Bel-Air Country Club, where he would often play with former Laker player and good friend Jerry West and others. Later, Bob went on to become the president of the club.
Bob Falkenburg has been inducted into numerous Halls of Fame, including: the International Tennis Hall of Fame (1974), the Intercollegiate Tennis Hall of Fame (1985), the Fairfax High School Hall of Fame (1999), the USC Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Southern California Tennis Association Hall of Fame (2010).
Bob Falkenburg died on 6 January 2022 at his home in Santa Ynez, California. He was 95.
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