Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Chuck Bednarik, and Bobby Clarke are all part of Philadelphia sports lore, but it is unlikely that any of their names would resonate with sports fans in Paris, London, and Rome. You can certainly forget New Delhi, India; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Wellington, New Zealand.
Another Philadelphia athlete would, though oddly he’s far from a household name in his own hometown. That would be tennis great Vic Seixas, a Philly boy whose roots go deep in local sports history. A product of Dimner Beeber Junior High School and Penn Charter High, Seixas became one of the postwar era’s greatest athletes.
Seixas recently celebrated his 96th birthday and thereby solidified his title as the world’s oldest living Wimbledon champion.
“I’d be just as delighted,” he jokingly adds, “if I was the youngest.”
That much-revered British title came in 1953 and would naturally become one of the old legend’s most cherished memories. He went on to win the American title the following year and dozens of other titles, but Wimbledon’s tradition and prestige have earned a special place in his heart.
“I think most tennis players would agree,” Seixas told me in his Mill Valley, Calif., apartment, “that if they could win only one title, the one they would choose would be Wimbledon.”
Born Elias Victor Seixas (pronounced Say-shus) not far from St. Joseph’s University, he would became a lawn tennis phenomenon before the “Open Era” transformed the staid amateur game into a high-profile, multimillion-dollar industry. Seixas’ father was the owner of a South Philadelphia plumbing supply business and a devoted tennis fan.
He often played on the courts at the Overbrook School for the Blind. As a child, Seixas accompanied his father and tracked down his father’s errant shots. With the passage of time and practice, the onetime ball boy was defeating his elders.
“At 10 I was as good as anybody in the area,” Seixas proudly proclaims, “and winning matches against much older players.”
No one-trick pony, young Seixas was a formidable athlete who also starred on his Penn Charter basketball, baseball, track, and squash teams. In fact, Seixas went on to play guard on the University of North Carolina’s freshmen basketball team, but tennis remained his favorite sport.
His collegiate career was cut short by the Second World War.
“I was 18 and knew I was about to be drafted,” said Seixas, “so I joined the Army Air Corps. They taught me how to fly planes and then posted me in the South Pacific. I remember shipping out on a 23-day voyage to New Guinea and sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge not knowing what I would face.”
Seixas was assigned to test-fly combat planes before they were sent into battle. He claims with a chuckle, “There were no tennis courts on the island. It was all business.”
Over the next 3½ years, he mastered the controls of 14 types of aircraft and did his part against the Japanese forces. At the conflict’s conclusion, he returned to North Carolina and earned his bachelor’s degree in commerce.
Along the way, he quickly regained his athletic prowess and reached the finals of the 1948 and 1949 intercollegiate tennis tournament. Though he lost both matches, his best years were not far off.
By the early ’50s -- through force of will, competitive spirit, and genetic makeup -- he climbed the ladder to the game’s highest levels, winning tournaments in far-flung locales and defeating the likes of Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and Lew Hoad.
In addition to his Wimbledon and American singles titles, he won five doubles and eight mixed doubles major championships. By using an aggressive, net-rushing strategy, Seixas quickly closed off opponents’ shots, won matches, and was ranked among America’s top 10 players 13 times between 1942 and 1956.
One of his most cherished victories was the tight match with Rosewall down under for the 1954 Davis Cup championship.
“It was the only time I beat him,” Seixas recalls of the gifted Aussie. “We played alike, but he had a better backhand and better passing shots.”
That victory over Rosewall enabled America to raise the cup after years of Aussie grass court dominance. Seixas, Tony Trabert, and the other members of the American team were treated to a ticker-tape parade in New York City on their return.
Hardware -- trophies, plaques, and medallions -- was his reward for his hard-fought triumphs. The game’s strict amateur rules at the time dictated no monetary compensation. He sustained himself economically by working in his father’s plumbing supply store.
He’s fond of telling the story of a customer who remarked he hadn’t seen Seixas behind the counter for a while.
“I’ve been playing tennis for three months in Australia,” Seixas replied. “Gosh, you didn’t have to go that far,” said the customer. “There are tennis courts right down the street at 33rd and Columbia.”
An interesting raconteur and perceptive observer, Seixas is a wealth of information about former players and the game’s evolution.
“The game has changed a lot,” Seixas says wistfully. “They’ve cut out foot faults. At least one foot had to be in contact with the ground when serving. Grass courts dominated the game, and rackets were thick-handled and made of heavy wood.”
One of the more curious facts about Seixas is the debate about his religious affiliation. Many -- including Wikipedia -- identify him as a “Jewish tennis player.” Seixas is a well-known Jewish Sephardic name, but he was raised Presbyterian.
“I never met my grandparents. My mother was Irish, and my father’s family left Portugal and immigrated to the Dominican Republic some time ago," he says. "Neither went to church nor were they particularly religious. It’s quite possible my father’s family was Jewish 500 years ago, but I was brought up and married in a Presbyterian church.”
Seixas continued to play competitively until 1970, and then the seniors circuit until 1988. “I thought that was about enough. I had played 70 years. I started to lose the enjoyment.”
Injuries and physical problems greatly contributed to his declining interest. The old grass court warrior was in decline and hobbled with an array of infirmities. “I had both knees done in 2005, and now my hips are shot, and one leg is completely dead. I’m nearly blind now.”
Adding to his physical woes is the need of a catheter and his relegation to a wheelchair. Approaching the century mark, the once-stellar physical specimen is a shell of his former self.
“It’s not very easy for me now. You start to feel pretty helpless when you’re 96,” says Seixas. “I still have my marbles. I haven’t lost too much mentally, but physically I’m a wreck.”
Friends couldn’t help but notice his physical and financial problems. Terry McGovern, for example, started a Go Fund Me campaign for him.
“I used to see Vic around at the Harbor Point complex,” the tech company adviser says. “He was well-liked, never boasted about his achievements, and tended bar to earn a little extra money. His decline was increasingly obvious. A neighbor found him one day wedged between the toilet and shower after he had fallen and was unable to free himself. He is definitely in need.”
McGovern is pleased by the public’s response. The Go Fund Me is nearing $40,000, and other fund-raising efforts have lifted the total to $56,000, McGovern said.
Few Philly boys have contributed so much for their country on both the battlefield and athletic field. As McGovern says, “The guy has given so much to the tennis community over the years. He’s certainly deserving of our support.”
Allen M. Hornblum is an author of numerous books, including “American Colossus: Big Bill Tilden and the Creation of Modern Tennis.”