In 1953, Vic Seixas had a year that most tennis players not named Roger, Serena, Novak, or Rafael could only dream of. He started the season by making the semifinals at the Australian Championships, then took second at Roland Garros, won Wimbledon, and was the runner-up at the U.S. National Championships in Queens. This was before tennis’s “Open Era,” when the sport got rid of the distinction between professionals and amateurs, like Seixas, who could play the most prestigious events but didn’t make any money doing so. That’s why the tournament names look a little funny — the U.S. National Championships became the U.S. Open in 1968 — and why Seixas’s dream year didn’t make him rich. Novak Djokovic and Simona Halep each received $2.9 million for winning Wimbledon this year. When Seixas won, he got £25 to spend at a shop in Piccadilly Circus. He bought a sweater.
“You could travel the world and live like a king,” Seixas says from his Bay Area apartment. “And you didn’t make any money.” Seixas, who is now 95, looks and sounds 15 years younger, deploying jokes he’s been honing for decades: He is the oldest living Grand Slam champ and the oldest living member of the Tennis Hall of Fame, but neither designation appeals to him. “I’d rather be the youngest,” he says.
Seixas grew up in Philadelphia near a local club where his father was “a mediocre club player.” Vic picked up a racket at 5 or 6, and when asked how long it took for him to beat his dad, he says, “I think about two weeks.” In 1940, at 17, he played in his first U.S. Championship, winning his opening match and going up two sets to none against Frank Kovacs. “Everybody said, ‘Who’s this kid from Philly with a funny name who’s beating Frank Kovacs?,’ ” says Seixas, which is pronounced Say-shus. He blew the match but played in the tournament a remarkable 27 more times, winning the singles title in 1954. (He missed two years while stationed in New Guinea and Tokyo during World War II.) Seixas didn’t dominate like some of the era’s more famous names — Pancho Gonzales, Ken Rosewall, Althea Gibson — but he played a scrappy serve-and-volley game and covered the court with a Djokovician athleticism that kept him near the top for years: Roger Federer would need to play ten more U.S. Opens — here’s hoping! — to match Seixas’s nearly three decades of appearances. “His game was a little bit wristy, with this nice slice backhand, but the thing I remember the most is how well he moved,” says Stan Smith, the former world No. 1 and current sneaker icon. Seixas beat Smith in Queens in 1966, when Smith was 19 and Seixas was 43. (Years later, Seixas published a book called Prime Time Tennis: Tennis for Players Over 40.)
For Seixas’s generation, tennis was a part-time job, and he spent much of his time off the court learning his father’s business — plumbing supplies — in preparation for one day taking it over. A handful of top players became pros, but just as money started to flow into the game, Seixas’s body stopped keeping up. Toward the end of his tennis career, he started working as a stockbroker at Goldman Sachs. He then got a job as the tennis director at the Greenbrier, a luxury resort in West Virginia, where he and Sam Snead, the golf legend, were tasked with traveling around to sales meetings and drumming up business. (More recently, Pete Sampras was the resort’s “Tennis Pro Emeritus.”) Seixas says he was tapped to be the head pro at the new Caesars Palace in Atlantic City in the ’70s, but construction got delayed so he ended up at a hotel in New Orleans instead.
Like many top athletes who played before being good at sports meant becoming rich, Seixas occasionally struggled financially. In the late ’70s, when the price of silver soared, he sold some of his trophies for cash. (It didn’t help his financial situation that he had divorced his first wife to marry a tennis instructor he hired at the Greenbrier, whom he also later divorced.) Seixas moved to the Bay Area in 1989, after his second divorce, and got a job as the “morning bartender” at a café, serving screwdrivers and martinis to anyone getting off the night shift at 6 a.m. Most patrons didn’t know his past, although one of his regulars spilled the beans to a group of cops who came in one summer morning while Seixas had Wimbledon on the café’s TV.
Seixas still keeps up with the modern game, and for years he came to the Open even after moving to California, when the tournament was an excuse to meet up with his then-girlfriend, a former Pan Am flight attendant living in Boston. But Seixas is now largely confined to a wheelchair (he will turn 96 in the middle of this year’s tournament), so traveling is difficult and he hasn’t been back to Queens in years. He lives in an apartment next to a tennis club in Marin County, where he tended bar and taught tennis until 2005, when, in his early 80s, the physical strain ended both careers. “I’m very lucky in that I have a great many wonderful friends where I live,” Seixas says. “One of them is on the line with us right now.”
He was referring to Terry McGovern, a financial adviser to tech companies, who befriended Seixas at the club. Seixas, whose only daughter lives in San Francisco, is in relatively good health but needs a full-time caregiver, so McGovern started a GoFundMe to help cover his expenses. Thus far, 135 people had donated a total of $31,335, with an additional $20,000 coming in from other donors. Some of his benefactors remember seeing Seixas play in Forest Hills, or Puerto Rico, or Australia, or on small black-and-white TVs at home. Pam Shriver, a Tennis Hall of Famer who is now a tennis commentator for ESPN, met Seixas in the ’70s when her coach took her to the Greenbrier for a few training sessions. Shriver works with the Women’s Tennis Association to administer a “hardship fund” for players who suffer financial setbacks, and she donated to Seixas’s GoFundMe. “Someone like Vic, if they came along 30 years later, would have been so comfortable,” Shriver says. “Whether it’s golf, tennis, or baseball, each sport has to figure out how to take care of their pioneers. I don’t think we do enough.”
Seixas isn’t one to gripe about his situation, and he’d recently gotten some good news. At 95, he was offered his first apparel deal. Last year, Stan Smith was having dinner with the CEO of Adidas and mentioned Seixas; the CEO liked the idea of having a nonagenarian on the company’s roster and decided to make Seixas its most elderly endorser. “I’m an ‘ambassador,’ ” Seixas says. “I don’t know what an ambassador does.” The deal isn’t quite the $300 million Federer got from Uniqlo in 2018, but it’s more than Seixas ever made for winning a tournament — $2,000 a month for two years, with an option to renew if Seixas is still kicking after that. “The only reason it will stop is if Adidas goes bankrupt or I die,” Seixas jokes. Smith says there is no immediate plan for Adidas to put out a signature Seixas sneaker, at least for now: “That’ll have to wait until he’s 100.”
*This article appears in the August 19, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!