He did everything like James Dean. He was an American who loved women, nights and alcohol, Arthur Larsen, excellent racquet from the 1950s and French Open finalist in 1954, had a serious car accident one evening on his way home. Before dying in anonymity, many years later, and mark his era forever. With the ashes of his cigarettes.
The tourists are still there, even more numerous perhaps. Neon lights still illuminate the neighbourhood but crooks deserted and girls changed sidewalk. If the Parisian area of Pigalle isn't as surfurous as it used to be, nostalgia is still there, that of a crime capital and prostitution of the 1950s and 1960s, with its illegal gambling dens and its popular strip shows appreciated by Parisian and international night owls. Amongst them, Arthur Larsen also known as "Tappy", an American legend of post-war tennis. The player used to go to bed 10 hours before his matches. If he had to play at 2pm, he would go to bed at 4am. "Anyway, I never know what to do in the morning," he once said. At that time, the lack of sleep didn't prevent him from playing well. In 1955, he defeated the French Georges Deniau in three straight sets in a third round match at Roland Garros, after a night crawling in local bars. Around Pigalle, obviously. "I used to go to bed relatively early” says Deniau, who was out for a dinner with friends that night. “One day I met Tappy and my friends told me: 'Don't worry George, Larsen is far from his bedtime. And you know, we'll arrange him for you tomorrow.’” Nobody knows the exact time Art - his other nickname - finally came back to his hotel room. One thing is certain, he left the party at around five in the morning, two eggs with ham and a last beer in the stomach. Before, a few hours later, crushing his opponent 6/0 6/2 6/2. "In the third game of the first set, during a change of ends, Larsen even told me, 'you know George, I was drunk last night. And when I'm drunk, well I'm the best player in the world!'"
«He was an alien of OCDs and fetishism»
Finalist of the Paris tournament in 1954, Arthur Larsen fascinates even more today than in his hours of glory. For without this shooting star, Roland Garros would certainly lose some of its mythology. The legend of the star, on its part, finds its source in the sad corpses of the Second World War. American descendant of a very athletic Danish family - his father was a boxer and his grandfather a baseball player - Larsen was the only survivor of his section during the landing at Omaha Beach in June 1944. "He stood alone amid a pile of corpses and got lost like a sleepwalker in the Normandy campaign. Bombed by his own aviation, Art Larsen escaped death miraculously and continued the war through France, Belgium and Luxembourg as an automaton of misfortune”, remembers Patrick Proisy in The Incredible destinies of tennis stars. “All my brothers in arms died across Europe and you can never forget something like that,” he once said. “During my career, the fear of death turned into a fear of losing." Of these events Larsen didn't retain any physical injury, but serious psychological scars. His nightmares multiplied and his sweet madness took over.
At the Forest Hills tournament in 1950, only Grand Slam victory of his career, he asked for the giant eagles in light marble overlooking the court to be covered by a tarp, ensuring that these sculptures wouldn't disrupt the sensitivity of the imaginary eagle, that, he said, had been living on his shoulder for years and served as his guardian angel. If he eventually won the tournament after a five-set final against his compatriot Herbert Flam, he said after the match: "It irritates me, this black eagle... Now he even follows me in the dressing rooms". Patrick Dominguez, in his book The Love of tennis, said: "He was an alien of OCDs and fetishism (...) To the point that some days he didn't even dare to open his tennis bag with his clothes and shoes, convinced that there were snakes coiled or hidden inside it! Some days, the process of opening his bag could take up to half an hour, and then, when he was finally dressed up, Larsen had to move his head to the right to 'hunt the eagle that 'was there' so he could put on his shirt or sweater." Clothes that Larsen, after returning to the dressing rooms after the match, didn't want to remove and kept, soaked, until he woke up the following morning...
Drop shots and pork tenderloin
However, he also knew how to perfect his look and reputation. Evidenced by this little snippet of the French magazine L'Equipe in 1954, "It's three o'clock in the afternoon. Cream trousers, black shoes, light brown coat interspersed with orange transversal lines, beautiful Leica over the shoulder which he hasn't used yet, cigarette in his mouth, a few racquets in hand, Larsen enters Roland Garros for lunch." Every day, the late riser had breakfast and lunch together at the stadium, to save time. Orange juice, scrambled eggs, soups, spaghetti Bolognese, fries, pork tenderloin, wine, beer... Larsen could play after eating, even with a full belly. Digestion was irrelevant to him. In a match, he could down up to 20 cans of Coca. Because he never knew what to do with his hands, he used to smoke sixty cigarettes a day, and according to Philippe Chatrier was nicking some to everybody. Sometimes he even entered the courts with a cigarette. "For that Larsen was tireless, but that didn't seem to actually do him any harm", said his compatriot Budge Patty. On the courts indeed, his excesses didn't prevent him to have good results, to be in the American team for the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. Good technician, his speed and pace were daunting. At Roland Garros, the turbulent D stand was in love with him; Parisians loved his magic touch, he who was able to make the stadium laugh with his improbable series of drop shots. They also liked the fact that he was different, with a beautiful movie star face. "Not a clean-cut kind like GI Trabert, his brother in arms in 1954, said Jean Lovera in one his book. “No, he had a more European style, most northerly, with a touch of mystery and drama. Irresistible!”
If tennis was serving as a distraction for this man traumatized by World War II, the figure of death eventually caught up with him with full force in November 1956. A few months after the fatal crash of James Dean, his perfect equivalent in American cinema, he was also driving too fast on his way home one evening. Victim of a motorcycle accident he ended up paralyzed on the right side, lost his sight and hearing on the same side. He then had to give it all up. And left a world of tennis that would never hear from him again but didn't ask for anything neither. To the point that in 2010, on Radio Bercy, Georges Deniau, talking about his match against Larsen at Roland Garros in 1956, said: "Larsen had a scooter accident a few months after our match. He died a few years later." In fact, Arthur "Tappy" Larsen died in December 2012 at 87. Information reported by the website of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 1969. In general oblivion. But in the legend until the end.