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Still a Go-Getter : ’59 Wimbledon Champion Alex Olmedo Keeps a Fast Pace as Teacher and Player

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alex Olmedo had forgotten his tennis racket and needed one as a prop for a newspaper photograph. So without hesitation he walked to the small tennis office of the public park near his home and asked the attendant if he could borrow one.

“Got any ID?” asked the young man as Olmedo pulled a racket from a shopping cart filled with green balls.

The question seemed to irritate Olmedo, 58, a former Wimbledon champion and well-known teaching pro.

It was difficult to tell whether Olmedo, an affable man with a ready smile, was more annoyed at the mistrust or the attendant’s failure to recognize him.

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“Sure, Kid,” said Olmedo, who promised not to venture far with the racket. But then Olmedo noticed a racket manufactured by his sponsor and asked to borrow that one instead.

“No,” came the response. “I need it to give a lesson. I’m late as it is.”

Perhaps it was the attendant’s cockiness, or his unwillingness to take Olmedo seriously, but the old champion had had enough. He returned the original racket with some parting shots.

“That’s a bad racket, Kid,” he said. “I’ll just go home and get mine.”

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The counterattack was vintage Olmedo. As he did on the court, the man who was inducted into the international tennis Hall of Fame in 1987 found a way to disarm his opponent. This was no journeyman the young man had encountered, especially with verbal volleys.

Once one of the world’s best players, Olmedo spent nearly three decades teaching the sport before returning to competition two years ago. Now, he is virtually unstoppable in age-group tournaments.

Last week, he advanced to the final of the U.S Tennis Assn.'s 55-and-over national singles hardcourt championships at Huntington Beach but lost to Larry Dodge of Piedmont, Calif., 6-4, 6-4. Olmedo was the two-time defending champion in the division.

“He’s my hero,” Dodge said before the match. “He’s the class of this place.”

Back in the late 1950s, that was a standard comment about Olmedo.

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Alejandro Olmedo was born in Arequipa, a city in the southern Peruvian Andes, and was introduced to tennis by his father, the resident pro and caretaker at a local club.

By his early teens, Olmedo had developed into a promising player and caught the eye of Stanley Singer, an American coach in Lima, Peru’s capital. When Olmedo was 18, Singer sent him to live with a friend in California, where the youngster spent several months in night school learning English. He later attended Modesto College and then transferred to USC on scholarship.

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At USC, Olmedo won the NCAA men’s singles titles in 1956 and 1958. By then, he had met Perry Jones, the septuagenarian who ruled organized tennis in California in those days and who became one of Olmedo’s staunchest supporters.

“Jones was the czar of tennis in Southern California,” said Olmedo, who was nicknamed “Chief” because of his Inca heritage.

“He was strict and wouldn’t allow stuff like you see today. He made players wear white and cut their hair short. When he sent us out to give clinics at schools you had to be dressed properly. If your shirt was hanging out over your shorts, that was a big no-no.”

In 1958, Jones became captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team and selected Olmedo for the squad. Many in the American tennis community, however, questioned why a non-citizen was awarded a berth. But Jones held firm. Peru, he said, didn’t have a team and Olmedo deserved the chance to play.

The United States breezed through the preliminary rounds with 5-0 victories over Venezuela, Canada, Argentina and Italy before meeting three-time defending champion Australia in the finals at Brisbane. There, Jones slipped Olmedo into the No. 1 singles slot and reserved Ham Richardson, the top-ranked U.S. player at the time, for the doubles competition in another bold move that raised eyebrows back home.

“It used to be 110 degrees and very humid (in Brisbane),” Olmedo said. “Ham had diabetes and Jones was worried he wouldn’t last three days in a row in that heat, so he gambled.”

It paid off.

On the first day of the three-day match, Olmedo defeated Mal Anderson in four sets, but Ashley Cooper, then the world’s top player, got Australia even with a four-set victory over Barry MacKay. The next day, Olmedo and Richardson beat Anderson and Neale Fraser in a marathon 10-12, 3-6, 16-14, 6-3, 7-5 match that put the United States ahead, 2-1. The 82 games in that match rank sixth in Davis Cup doubles competition.

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That set the stage for one of Olmedo’s biggest victories.

With the United States needing only one victory to clinch the Cup, Olmedo took the court on the final day of the match to face Cooper. When it was over, Olmedo had a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 8-6 victory and established himself as an international tennis power and a national hero in Peru.

Even the Lima Lawn Tennis Club, once off-limits to Olmedo because of his socioeconomic background, made him an honorary lifetime member, and Peruvian President Manuel Prado awarded him the “Sporting Laurel of Peru.” The president should have waited a year.

After his magnificent play in Australia, Olmedo continued his rise to stardom with a superb performance in 1959.

He won the Australian Open and lost to Fraser in the U.S. Open but left his mark forever at the most prestigious tennis championships--a three-set victory in the Wimbledon final Australian Rod Laver, who later won the tournament four times.

Last year, Olmedo attended Wimbledon with longtime friend Pancho Segura, the Ecuadoran who was a top pro for many years and a former coach of Jimmy Connors. The two sat in the Royal Box.

“Look at me,” Olmedo said then, “I won it 34 years ago and I get treated like a king. You go to any other tournament I won and you have to get in the line to get a ticket. . . . winning Wimbledon was a great feeling, a great honor.”

Soon after he completed college in 1962, Olmedo signed to play on a new professional tour controlled by Jack Kramer, but he quit after one year because he grew tired of the travel.

“In those days, we were playing indoors and on canvas and the fast conditions were not suited for my game,” he said. “I had to play against (Pancho) Gonzalez and (Ken) Rosewall and Segura, who had great ground strokes. The whole thing was more or less a circus. . . . That year took a lot out of me.”

Olmedo wanted a job closer to home to spend more time with his wife Ann and their three children. He became the head pro at the Beverly Hills Hotel and worked there for 27 years until it was closed for restoration two years ago.

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The famous pink hotel, a veritable landmark in Los Angeles, might be undergoing cosmetic changes to conceal the scars of time, but the years have been kind to Olmedo.

Still svelte and energetic, with only a slight touch of gray at his temples, Olmedo stays trim by running several times a week, teaching tennis in his Encino back-yard court and playing in age-group tournaments.

The tournaments, Olmedo said, are particularly enjoyable because he renews ties with players he faced or played with in doubles matches years ago. Among those Olmedo beat on his way to the title match with Dodge was Alan Roberts, one of his old foes, in two sets in the quarterfinals.

“He was cat-quick and he was always balanced,” said Roberts, a semi-retired Beverly Hills orthopedist and former U.S. junior champion. “He’s still very fluid. He’s like a panther. I tell him, ‘Chief, we are going to have to put some weights on you to slow you down.’ ”

Slim chance. Whether teaching, playing, running or getting in a few rounds of golf, Olmedo likes to stay active. It has been his way of life and Olmedo refuses to sit idly.

“The tournaments keep me a little busy,” Olmedo said. “I used to rely on trying to force my opponents into errors. Now I rely on the same thing, but with more patience and slower motion.

“And I enjoy teaching. My method is very simplified. Just the basics. The game has become so powerful that all the players rely on the topspin. But I think they abuse it. I see guys teaching the topspin even to little old ladies and I think it’s crazy.”

He could have told that to the attendant at his neighborhood park, but he probably would have been asked for his credentials.


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