Rafael Osasuna, crash of a Mexican hero

Feb 26, 2016, 11:12:10 AM

Rafael Osasuna, crash of a Mexican hero
As the Mexican Open is currently being played in Acapulco, we look back on the tragic fate of the greatest player in the history of the country, Rafael Osuna.

As the Mexican Open is currently being played in Acapulco, we look back on the tragic fate of the greatest player in the history of the country, Rafael Osuna. His career, marked by Grand Slam titles and great achievements in the BNP Paribas Davis Cup, was brutally ended at the age of 30 only, in a plane crash. Traumatized since June 1969, Mexican tennis has never really recovered from the tragic event.


Rafael Osuna’s life ends in a huge roar, on the June 4th 1969, at precisely 8:42. The Mexicana airline Boeing 727-64’s black box, found after the crash, enables to establish that it was at that precise moment that the plane collided with the side of the Cerro del Fraile - the monk’s hill - as it was starting his descent towards the airport of Monterrey, located approximately 20 kilometers from there, where it was supposed to be landing. The collision leaves no chance for the 79 passengers on board, including 7 cabin members. Among the passengers of this domestic flight departing from Mexico are two celebrities : the politician Carlos Madrazo, father of Roberto, who will run for presidency in 2006, and the tennis champion Rafael Osuna. His biography, Sonata in set Major (Sonata en set mayor), written by his sister Elena and published 1990, relates that Rafael almost nearly missed that flight, as the taxi bringing him to the airport was held up by a police check. As he isn’t just anybody, but the most popular Mexican sportsman at the time, the captain spontaneously suggests to wait for him, even if that means delaying the flight for a few minutes. An offer submitted to the other passengers who immediately accept and even cheer for him as he enters the aircraft. A last round of applause before disappearing along with his companions of misery, leaving a whole country orphaned and traumatized, unable to understand what happened in the few seconds before the crash. The scenario of an inflight attack is even questioned, after the aircraft was found smashed at the bottom of the hill. A theory which was never confirmed… The fact remains that Osuna now belongs to the past. A tragic death, the year he turned 30.


« He can’t play but he moves like a god »


The champion’s surprising career begins twelve years earlier, in a BNP Paribas Davis Cup round played against Finland, in Helsinki. At the time, Osuna isn’t even really a tennis player, but more of a promising sportsman, who’s good at many different sports : basketball, table-tennis and tennis, which he learns somewhat belatedly. But as the team is leaving to Finland, a substitute is missing and Osuna is called up to fill in the empty spot. As one of the first-team player gets injured, Osuna is chosen to feature in the doubles, easily won without a single set conceded. The next day, he confirms the good impressions by snatching another single match in the fifth set, even if there is nothing at stake. The pleasure he takes racket in hand is obvious, and he decides to put basketball and table-tennis aside to focus exclusively on tennis. One of his BNP Paribas Davis Cup teammates, Francisco Contreras, pulls a few strings for him to join the university of Southern California. At the time, the tennis unit of this prestigious college is ran by George Toley, a genius coach who will notably train, a few years later, a certain Stan Smith. « He doesn’t know how to play tennis, but he moves like a god », Contreras tells his coach. In fact, Osuna discovered the sport very late in life and his technical shortcomings are obvious. But he’s a tenacious one, who easily deals with the intense training sessions imposed by Toley to level up his shots with his exceptional physical abilities. The kid is tireless, light, always moving. He doesn’t run, he dances.


In the final at the US Open, success for the cha-cha-cha operation


In 1960, he is still a perfect stranger arriving at Wimbledon to take part in the doubles with one of his training partners, the American Dennis Ralston. The pair, aged 21 and 17, have very little mutual experience. Not far from being knocked out in the first round, they finally manage to qualify for the semi-finals. In the semis, they achieve the impossible by defeating the Australian favorites, Rod Laver and Bob Mark, before dealing with the Brits Mike Davies and Bobby Wilson in the final. Not even ranked before arriving in England, George Toley’s lieutenants end up winning the most prestigious tournament of the professional circuit ! For Osuna, it is the start of a superb career, as he will notably win the doubles at Wimbledon for a second time (in 1963, alongside his fellow countryman Antonio Palafox), as well as the doubles at the US Open (in 1962, already with Antonio Palafox) but also the singles in New York in 1963. During that year, the Mexican overcomes the Wimbledon title-holder in the semi-finals, Chuck McKinley, before putting on the perfect tactical masterplan in the final against the giant Frank Froehling, 6ft3, and who is known to be the best server on the circuit. To counter his opponent’s power, Osuna puts on what will be later called the « cha-cha-cha operation » : breaking the rhythm of the match by returning his serve with long and lobed balls, from the baseline. Having to look up to the sky to see the ball, Froehling loses patience and multiplies unforced errors, to finally lose the match.


He defeats Australia single-handedly ten days before the fatal crash


Osuna finishes the year 1963 as the world number 1. A year earlier, he leads his country to the BNP Paribas Davis cup final, an unprecedented feat which still remains unique to this day. The heavy defeated conceded against Rod Laver, Neale Fraser and Roy Emerson in Brisbane made him and his fellow countrymen understand how long the road to success still was against the best nation of that time. Even after his victory in the singles at the US Open, he would always say that his biggest dream in tennis was to one day defeat Australia in the BNP Paribas Davis Cup. A dream he finally fulfilled less than two weeks before his death. On the 23rd, 24th and 25th of May 1969, in Mexico, he defeated Australia almost single-handedly after winning his two single matches and the double alongside Vincente Zarazua. His masterpiece. Ten days later, his body was identified thanks to the Rolex he was wearing, a present made to the surprise winners of the doubles at Wimbledon in 1960. Mexican tennis never truly recovered from the loss of it’s hero. The BNP Paribas Davis Cup team hasn’t appeared in the World Group in almost 20 years and the best Mexican player on the circuit, Tigre Hank, is currently ranked 446th at the ATP Race…


By Régis Delanoë