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August 15, 2006 > Local resident in tennis Hall of Fame

Local resident in tennis Hall of Fame

by Steve MicheI

A tennis player who flirted with all-time greatness is San Leandro resident, Art Larsen. Described as "a sleek left-hander with a splendid touch" In Bud Collins' Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis, Larsen won the 1950 U.S. Championship at Forest Hills, N.Y. and was ranked among the country's top 10 from 1949 to 1955.

Nicknamed "Tappy" because he would tap his racket on the ground and net posts hundreds of times throughout a match for good luck, Larsen also won three other U.S. titles: Hard Court (1952); Clay Court (1952); and Indoor (1953). He was the first man to take U.S. championships on all four surfaces, and he eventually entered the National Tennis Hall of Fame in 1969. However, a serious motor scooter accident in 1956 ended Larsen's tennis career.

Larsen took up tennis at age 11 and said he would practice 9 hours a day, which included 2 hours of hitting a ball against a wall and 7 hours of matches against one of his cousins. "The key to developing my game as a young kid came from my desire to practice, practice and then practice even more," he said. "I loved to play tennis, and I loved to practice. Never got tired of playing the game."

Before Larsen graduated from San Leandro High in 1943, he began a string of successes by winning a title in the first event he entered, a junior tournament in 1939 at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He was 14. A few short years later, World War II changed everything. "I drove a jeep and manned a Tommy Gun," he said. "I didn't enjoy military service, but I did what I had to do for my country." From 1943 to 1945, Larsen had to put his array of touch, cut and spin shots on the back burner.

Upon returning home, Larsen resumed his career at the College of the Pacific in Stockton. A year later, he transferred to the University of San Francisco, where he soon became recognized as one of the best college players in the United States.

In 1950, he won the U.S. title against fellow Californian, Herbie Flam. Larsen, the No. 5 seed, was down two sets to one against the No. 2 seeded Flam before winning 6-3, 4-6, 5-7, 6- 4, 6-3. "I would always hit the ball away from my opponent and put as much spin on the ball as possible," Larsen said. "In my prime, I hit many different kinds of shots better than anyone else in the game. My game was not power, but rather touch and spin."

In 1950, Larsen rose to the No. 1 men's ranking in the United States and was chosen by Sport magazine as Male Tennis Athlete of the Year. He was also ranked No. 3 in the world behind J. Edward "Budge" Patty and Frank Sedgman. He made world top 10 in 1951 and again in 1954. Much of his star quality sprang from his many superstitions, including tapping his racket on different objects, sometimes even his opponents. In Collins' book, Larsen is described as "unsophisticated, flaky; eccentric and totally original." Said Larsen: "I know now at the age of 81 that all those crazy things I did on the court when I was a young man playing tennis in all those major tournaments did not help me become a great tennis player. It was the hard work and dedication to practice that made me a great tennis player."

In 1956, Larsen was riding a motor scooter on what is now Interstate 880 when he was struck by another vehicle. "I still cannot remember what happened on the day of my scooter accident," he said. "I draw a total blank. When I came to, I knew my body was damaged and my days of playing big- time tennis were over." He went into a coma and doctors predicted he would never come out of it. Larsen did recover, but his right leg was badly damaged and he lost sight in his left eye and hearing in his left ear. His hands were also damaged.

Larsen ranked his five toughest opponents as Lou Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Sedgman, Pancho Gonzales and Tony Trabert. He tabs Rod Laver as the greatest player ever, and puts himself at No. 25. Of his entry into the U.S. Tennis Hall of Fame in 1969, Larsen said he was "a little surprised because my career was cut short by injury. But I guess I accomplished enough in six years to be considered one of the game's greatest players."

He has resided in San Leandro the past 45 years. He taught tennis for the San Leandro recreation department in the early 80s at the courts on 143rd Avenue. Larsen said he regretted not being able to play tennis in the big stadiums. "I think I always played better in front of a large crowd." But, he added, "I can't complain too much. Because of tennis, I did get to travel all over the world, playing in all the major tournaments and minor ones as well." Collins also says of Larsen, "He had a great gift for the game, and a magnificent touch." Of Larsen's win over Flam in the 1950 U.S. Open, Collins notes it was "a lovely match of wits and angles."

These days, Larsen no longer plays tennis, but he still watches the game on TV. Plus he attends the second-longest running tournament in the US, the SAP Open in San Jose. And he still is winning battles. In 1998, he beat a 58 year smoking habit!

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