By Peter Keiser
Forty-two years ago, Herb Fitz Gibbon and John Beck, a pair of large, agile Princeton graduates, blasted their way to the 1974 Nationals Championship held at the Fox Meadow Tennis Club in Scarsdale, NY. Featuring heavy doses of aggression and hard hitting, the physically imposing pair (Beck at close to 6’5”, Fitz Gibbon, 6’3” with a giant wingspan) blazed their way through the draw demonstrating a power game considered revolutionary at the time.
Today we hear how the game has changed, how the new professionals have revolutionized it by parlaying their extensive tennis talents and backgrounds into a sport that at its top levels accentuates new heights of speed, skill and athleticism. The parallels between the two eras are striking.
In his book Winning Platform Tennis (1977), Doug Russell wrote: “Platform tennis has grown far beyond what Cogswell and Blanchard, its founders envisioned…. The level of play has improved dramatically. The basic style of platform tennis has changed from a patient, defensive game to an aggressive forcing style of play pioneered by Herb Fitz Gibbon and John Beck in 1974. No longer do teams stand at the baseline waiting for the opposition to make a mistake. Fitz Gibbon, a … world- class tennis player, and his partner, John Beck, served hard and attacked the ball at every opportunity. They won the National Championship in 1974 and since then, other teams adopted this style to varying degrees.”
It was Beck (sadly for the paddle brotherhood, deceased in June 2015 at the age of 82) who introduced Fitz Gibbon to the game. While the pair appeared to burst upon the scene, winning every tournament they entered in the 1973-74 season including The Nationals, they had spent many hours working together to develop a style of play that was uniquely theirs.
“I pounded the ball,” says Fitz Gibbon of his forehand. “I was tall and serving became an advantage to me. My hands were not too quick so I had to have a set pattern when I approached the net. It took four years for us to get the pattern of our game. John played net on my return of service and when he returned serve, I would be at the net.”
When he thinks back on it, Fitz Gibbon counts the ’74 Nationals at Fox Meadow as probably his most memorable paddle match. “John and I were ranked Number four for 4 1/2 years. To win the Championship for the first time was tremendously gratifying. Winning the Nationals with Hank Irvine in 1977 and 1978 was almost as gratifying but not quite the same as the first one.”
Fitz Gibbon and Irvine had known each other during their tennis careers. Fitz Gibbon had achieved a number 14 U.S. Men’s Singles ranking, played Davis Cup competition in 1965, and was a 1968 gold (mixed doubles) and bronze (singles) medalist at the Olympic Games when tennis was a demonstration sport.
Irvine from Rhodesia, now the Republic of Zimbabwe, represented his country in Davis Cup play (1968, 1969) and was ranked number one in his country in both 1970 and 1971. “I knew Herb from the tennis. He was playing with John Beck who was getting on, so Herb and I decided to team up together.”
While it was true that Beck was nine years Fitz Gibbon’s senior, age wasn’t the only factor. “Guys caught on to what we were doing,” Fitz Gibbon says. “They started to serve better. Also, the old wood courts were being replaced with aluminum surfaces, a livelier ball was introduced and the screens were tighter.” These technical improvements plus adjustments by other teams began to temper the scorched earth aggression and power of the Fitz Gibbon/ Beck tandem. “I think the aluminum courts made the points last way too long. Our game benefitted from the less consistent wood courts, a deader ball and looser screens. When those things changed, you could get to the ball hit past you at net and keep it in play off the back screen. Rallies became endless, a little tedious if you ask me,” says Fitz Gibbon.
In Irvine, Fitz Gibbon found a year younger contemporary whose racquet skills had been tested in the crucible of international amateur and professional tennis. Though their paths there were different and distant – a Hemisphere and a Continent a part – both players felt the turbulence of the 1960s and 70s in their personal and professional lives.
For Fitz Gibbon, born and raised in Garden City, NY, tennis was his sport early on. When he was seven years old, he played in his first tournament at the Cherry Valley Club. Through his formative years, he had enthusiastic and unwavering support from his father both on and off the court.
“He loved it. When he was young, he managed the M.I. T tennis team. He was a good club player and was always involved in tennis. He built his life around his family and his hobbies. He was the USTA treasurer and devoted so many man hours to the game.”
” I always liked and was trying to do stuff with him,” continues Fitz Gibbon. “We played a lot of Father – Son tournaments. He played backhand and I played forehand. That changed one year when I played the backhand and we beat a team in the Father –Son Grass Championships, 6-0, 6-0 that we lost to the year before, 0-6, 0-6.”
Through high school, Fitz Gibbon compiled a striking record. Playing three years of Garden City High School varsity tennis, he won four New York State high school singles titles. His success at that level served to reinforce a motivational observation that would further bind him to the game. “I learned pretty early that people really admire something other people do well.”
He moved on to Princeton and there played on three teams that never lost an Ivy League match. Furthermore in his senior year, he captained the team that beat the University of Miami thus breaking that university’s record 137 dual match, intercollegiate winning streak.
After graduating in 1964, he joined the amateur circuit where the effectiveness of his play won him a place on the 1965 U.S. Davis Cup team that took him to Australia. He would continue to play matches there into the fall and then do a tour for the State Department throughout Southeast Asia in February 1966. In March, the outside world altered to some extent Fitz Gibbon’s plans to move forward in the world of tennis.
The Vietnam War, not classified as such at the time, came calling in the form of a Selective Service notice. Fitz Gibbon got drafted and was stationed at West Point where he coached freshman (Plebe) tennis and squash. A ROTC Second Lieutenant by the name of Arthur Ashe would join him there. Ashe officially assigned as a data processor, also would run the Academy’s tennis program.
The two had been four -year adversaries and allies already, dating back to when Fitz Gibbon had defeated Ashe at the Southampton (Long Island) Invitational in August of 1962. A year later, Ashe returned the favor beating Fitz Gibbon in the Eastern Grass Court Championships. Both stood together when chosen for the 1965 Davis Cup team.
“I was a tennis player who had just come off the circuit,” he says. “I was looking for something to do in the winter. When I grew up in Garden City there weren’t any courts that I knew of. I was 26 or 27 when I found out about the game.”
Hank Irvine came to the game a few years later. Born in the Republic of Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), Irvine was a talented athlete. Clearly the acorn hadn’t fallen far from the tree. His father excelled at four sports – tennis, cricket, field hockey, squash – and played tennis at Wimbledon. At one time, he captained the South African field hockey team as well.
“He had such an incredible relationship with me and my sister, too. I couldn’t wait for him to come home so we could go out in our back yard and play all kinds of different sports. He played at Wimbledon in 1952 and that’s why it was such a thrill for me to play there as well. There are not many father and sons who have done that today [Emersons, Stolles, Mottrams, Dents] and there were even fewer back then.” The young Irvine excelled at the same sports as his father. He played all of them at Prince Edward High School in Harare (Salisbury). He would then go on to college and pursue teaching as a vocation.
In 1964, he had the chance to go to the Olympics in Tokyo as a member of the Rhodesian field hockey team. His love of racquet sports steered him away from that course. Tennis was the main culprit, but Irvine was also a world ranked squash player and would play in international matches against Australia, South Africa and Great Britain.
“When I finished college, I decided to play tennis. Sometimes I think that if I had concentrated on it at an earlier age, I would have been better. I spent five years travelling, playing the tour. The last three years (1970-72) I played Wimbledon and got to the Mixed Semis with Helen Gourlay in 1970. In 1972, I played Stan Smith and lost in the second round. He won the title that year and was a very worthy champion.”
One of Irvine’s strongest memories was an off the court incident that mirrored some of the signature turmoil of the decade impacting Fitz Gibbon as well, but perhaps not so overtly. In 1968, Irvine had gone to Sweden with the Rhodesian Davis Cup team to play what would be his initial match of Cup competition. The day- match was to start in Bastad, a town located an hour or so south of Stockholm. Before it started, thousands of students arrived to protest both Sweden’s and Rhodesia’s participation in the event given that country’s compliance with and support of apartheid.
“The police were in riot gear and we knew we had to leave. We knew we would play somewhere but not there. We were all set and ready to make a quick exit in our cars and buses when someone remembered we had left all our equipment back in the locker room.”
“Well, I was the one chosen to go back and get it. I was pretty blonde and the rest of the team thought I looked like a local and I did as long as I didn’t have to talk. Luckily, I didn’t and I went back and got all the equipment, all the racquets. We did play the match only it was in Nice by way of Copenhagen and on a different court surface than we had prepared for.”
Subsequently, Rhodesia was barred from Davis Cup participation, an unfortunate circumstance for Irvine who would attain the number one tennis ranking in his country for both 1970 and 1971.
Irvine also remembers vividly his first full time teaching job in the U.S. He had procured it when he played at the Orange Lawn Tennis Tournament as a tune up for the U.S. Open. “In those days you were billeted with a family while you were playing the tournament,” says Irvine. “ I stayed with the Macrae family and the father Don, was an influential member of the Short Hills Club. He knew that the pro there for 37-years, Tommy Ianacelli would be retiring soon. Don and then the club asked me if I would be interested in the job. I took it knowing that on January 1, 1973, I had to be there.”
“ I got there and it was snowing. I had never seen snow before and I thought it was wonderful. The next day, I thought it sucked! I got introduced to paddle a few days later when Macrae took me to what looked like a big hen house. He gave me a Dick Squires book to read in order to prepare for an upcoming paddle clinic. My first clinic the people in it knew more than I did!”
Irvine’s capabilities as a teacher shone through as he constantly searched for ways to make the information he could grasp so quickly, available and understandable to those he taught. He also had handy sources of support among club members, not the least of whom were the Bairds: father Chuck and sons Steve and Chip. Their dedication to and love of the game helped provide what Irvine calls his “incredible apprenticeship” when it comes to paddle. There was enough familial competitive spirit to go around and it may have on a few occasions spilled over into animated language and behavior. They all cared about winning. Irvine put it in simpler terms: “Chuck Baird hated to lose to his sons.”
Irvine could not escape the pull of the game especially when he saw and played it at a high level with people who so obviously enjoyed the sport. “I really got into it and four years later Herb and I won the Nationals.”
“We basically played tennis on the paddle court – wooden courts, dead screens, dead ball, nothing like now. When he was receiving, I would go to net. There were no rallies. We only lobbed once to change sides. We volleyed well, served well and strategically played some of the worst paddle you ever saw.”
“Here’s a funny story,” says Fitz Gibbon. “You know Arthur Ashe. He won the first U.S. Open at Forest Hills in 1968. He was a huge presence at that time and got even bigger. But before that he had a reputation as well. He was on that team (Davis Cup) that went to Australia. I beat him on grass in Adelaide and went back to the locker to put on my tracksuit and be ready for the press. Nobody came. All the press gathered around Ashe and he had lost!”
So now two major markers of the age had been writ pretty large on the canvas of Fitz Gibbon’s life – Vietnam and Civil Rights as Ashe was the first African American male to reach and triumph in (three Grand Slam titles) the top echelon of tennis. More markers to crowd the Fitz Gibbon canvas would come.
There was the professional tennis movement, the fractionating of the sedate world of amateur tennis by a group of its top players. The International Lawn Tennis Association for years the unchallenged ruling body of the sport suddenly had to deal with its biggest names jumping ship because they believed that there was more than enough revenue generated in the sport for the players to be paid. Factions formed, first the National Tennis League (NTL) then Lamar Hunt’s World Championship Tennis (WCT) and finally in 1972, the founding of the Association of Tennis Professionals.
Going on 50 years later with the sport of tennis thriving, the acrimony, agony, risk and rancor so much a part of the fledgling professional –amateur split has disappeared as if it never happened. But it did. And Fitz Gibbon in his own way bore witness to it – with humor to boot.
“It was 1968, the first year of open tennis,” he recalls. “It was the French Open at Roland Garros Stadium. All of France was on strike. Kids were ripping up the streets. No one was working. I remember Cliff Richey having to bring in all our racquets.”
“No one was working so there were a lot of people in the stands. I was playing against Ken Rosewall in one of the later rounds. I had won the first set easily and was up 4 or 5-1 in the second. Back then you had to win three out of five. I remember thinking that he (Rosewall) wasn’t that good on clay. I lost in four sets and Rosewall went on to win the tournament!”
Fitz Gibbon got a measure of satisfaction later on in the year when he became the first amateur player to beat a professional, defeating Yugoslavia’s Nikki Pilic in four sets at Wimbledon. Though he would become a professional himself and play matches into the mid 1970s, it was his last year on the circuit. Early in 1969, Fitz Gibbon began his new career on Wall Street going to work for F. Eberstadt as an institutional stockbroker. Shortly thereafter paddle tennis entered his domain.
Maybe … But the combination of what each player brought from tennis – Fitz Gibbon his missile- like forehand and heavily spun serve; Irvine his effortless, devastating strokes and all-around game plus his squash playing instincts to retrieve balls hit behind him – made them formidable opponents.
In 1976, the pair lost to the Baird brothers in the Nationals, but the following two years saw Fitz Gibbon and Irvine win the coveted prize. They would also reach the finals in 1980 and again lose to one Baird brother (Steve) and Rich Maier.
By this time, Fitz Gibbon’s “other life”, the real one of work and responsibilities drew him away from the game. He did however co- author a book titled “The Complete Racquet Sports Player” published in 1980 by Simon and Schuster. “I was trying to establish myself as a racquets expert. With tennis expanding, I hoped to possibly break into TV commentary, write articles. John Newcombe, coming off the circuit, dashed that illusion. I realized I was not a creative talent so I went back to Wall Street.”
On the other hand, Irvine’s vocation as 23-year Head Pro at the Short Hills Club kept him in the game he had learned to love, mandating that he both teach and play platform tennis. In his mid-forties and after knee surgery, he teamed up with Greg Moore to wrest the Nationals from Baird and Maier in both 1986 and 1987, interrupting what is still the most incredible run of championship wins and finals appearances in the history of the tournament. He also bagged nine Senior Nationals partnering with among others Doug Russell, Steve Baird and Jeff Hodges.
Fitz Gibbon and Irvine didn’t just win back -to -back Nationals in 1977, 1978. They dominated. “Dominating was very meaningful to us at that time,” Fitz Gibbon says, referring to the team’s undefeated streak that lasted from half way through the ‘77 season to the end of the ‘78 season.
Included in that streak were victories on a professional circuit sponsored by Tribuno Wines. Once again, Irvine and Fitz Gibbon entered the play –for- pay versus love- of- the- game tug of war that they had witnessed with the dawning of the open era in tennis. Paddle was much smaller potatoes, but the core issue remained the same: would money spoil the spirit of the game?
Money tournaments started formally in November 1973 with The Vat 69 Gold Cup in Hilton Head, S.C. By 1975, Tribuno sponsored a nine- event tour culminating in April of 1976 with the Tribuno World Platform Tennis Championship held at the globally renowned Forest Hills, Queens tennis venue. Based on the tournament’s tremendous success, Uniroyal agreed to sponsor the PRO-Keds Classic in October, featuring eight teams. They would play on a court erected in mid-town Manhattan at the site of Burlington House, a 50-story building located on 54th Street and Avenue of the Americas. It was a huge promotion that included instruction, exhibition and competition with Bob Callaway presiding over clinics that included 80 kids.
By defeating Keith Jennings and Chum Steele, Irvine and Fitz Gibbon won the tournament and the $10,00.00 prize money that went with it. The win presaged the string of successes that would bring them their consecutive Nationals titles.
Reflecting on the time they spent as partners, Irvine says: “I think the toughest paddle match I ever played with Herb or with anybody was the finals of the Rye (NY) Invitational (Tribuno Men’s Circuit) in 1976 against Gordon Gray and Doug Russell. It was at The Westchester Country Club on a Sunday, the same day as the Super Bowl. At that time, the game was still played in the afternoon.”
“What I remember was that crowd we had at the beginning of the match disappeared. Everybody left to watch football on TV. But when that game ended, we were still playing so they all came back. Our match must have been four or five hours long. At the end, Herb could barely stand and I was running around trying to get everything. We lost [6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 7-5, 13-15] and I have to tell you that Gordon Gray is the toughest competitor I have ever played. He was an Iron Man.
On the lighter, less grueling side, Irvine remembers a match at Fox Meadow featuring Danny the Doorman. “His name was Danny Agro and he was a member at Fox Meadow for years. Herb and I were playing there in a semi-final match against Steele and Jennings. We were down 3-4, 30-40 in the deciding set. We were playing the point and on a ball that goes down the middle, the door that leads into the court swings open.”
“We keep playing but Danny gets up from his seat next to the door and closes it. We lose the point, but Keith Jennings says we’ll play a net on that point because of the distraction. We replayed the point they had already won and won it ourselves. We went on to win the match all because of Danny the Doorman. And also because of Keith Jennings’ call which tells you what kind of special sportsman and person he is.”
Speaking of sportsmanship, there are few people regarded more highly than Irvine in this arena. It is part of him, part of his heart. It is ironic that a white man born and raised in a country barred from Davis Cup competition on the grounds of racism should develop a positive relationship with Gregg Brents, for years the only African American male presence at the upper tier of paddle competition and maybe in the game at large.
“We had a great time. He was wonderful, a phenomenal athlete. He’s the only guy I ever saw who when he would go up to hit an overhead, I could see his sneakers above the net. It was a delight to be on the same court with him. He and Greg Moore put a finish to Herbie and me.”Both Fitz Gibbon and Irvine live in Florida now and each is a Platform Hall of Fame member, Irvine inducted in 1996, Fitz Gibbon, 2007. Irvine still keeps in touch with a game he says, “Gave me so much pleasure.”
Twice a year he travels up state to The Villages, a huge retirement community located near Ocala, where he conducts a three-day certification course for Volunteer Instructors. Nobody gets paid anything. The platform tennis program has mushroomed dramatically with 18 ground level courts seemingly occupied all the time.
“You’ve got to be passionate about what you teach,” Irvine says. I go up there and teach people who teach others. It’s all voluntary. This is how you help other people to enjoy the sport. It’s a fun thing and they’re happy to promote the game.
” The warm weather appears to have helped keep Fitz Gibbon away from the game. The last time he saw real tournament play he admits was 20 years ago and the game has changed significantly. However, he still assesses his game just as he would when he played it and was dubbed “Dean” of the “New Breed” of paddle player. “I had to play backhand because I couldn’t play the other. My partners, they were the ones who had to adapt. They had to adjust which takes a lot of talent.”
Today’s “New Breed” appears to have adjusted. The game has gotten faster on the court but the points seem to take as long or longer to finish. Even shots that were kill shots (maniacally spun drop shots, wicked spins from every arm slot) just a few years ago are being retrieved and kept in play. The present day pros have the capacity to hit as hard as their predecessors. They also have been schooled to use what works rather than abiding by iron clad rules that may not apply. As such, they are breaking the mold and creating a new one, building on the legacy of those avant -garde aggressionistas, Beck, Fitz Gibbon and Irvine.