The ATP 500 of Barcelona is being played on clay this week. A tournament which has seen illustrious winners, like Rafael Nadal, Ilie Nastase, Björn Borg or Vic Seixas, winner of the tournament’s first edition, in 1953. A legend of the post-war american tennis, who played at a time where players were still amateurs and didn’t really manage to live off their passion. The reason why he still has to serve coffee in a Californian bar to make ends meet. At 92 years old.
There are more than fifty trophies filling up the Chinese cupboard stuck in the middle of his living room. One of his rare signs of wealth. At 92 years old, Vic Seixas lives alone, in his little studio apartment in Mill Valley, a Californian town located a few miles away from the north of San Francisco. On the shelves, the oldest trophy, his first, was won at a junior tournament in 1937 ; it stands alongside memories of his victories at Wimbledon and at the US Open, in 1953 and 1954. But a few pieces are missing to his collection. At the end of the seventies, Vic Seixas sold a big chunk of his cups and medals, when the silver rate was rising endlessly. To make a little pocket money. To simply live, in fact. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, he’s one of the rare amateurs of the fifties to not have turned professional. Strangely, it’s after his 50th birthday that he took his chance by taking part in the Grand Masters Circuit, a pro tour reserved to the 35 year-old and more, which started in 1975. His highest prize ? 2000 dollars. A pittance. « I have played tennis at a time where trophies, and not cheques, were the only reward for a victory, he explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1999. Some say there were backhanders for some players who needed money, but I have never seen them. »
A few years earlier, in 1958 and outside of tennis, Seixas tried to make ends meet as a real estate broker, in Philadelphia. A business which finally lasted for 17 years. He then became a tennis teacher in New-Orleans until a childhood friend offered him, more than 10 years ago, a part-time job as a bartender at the Harbor Point Racquet and Beach Club, a nutrition and sports centre in Mill Valley. Seixas was then almost 80 years-old. Today, at 92, the hyperactive still serves a few espressos. « When people ask me why, at my age, I still serve them coffee, I answer : ‘Because I get to drink it for free’, he laughs. Actually, in one morning shift, you can make 30 dollars in tips. It’s easy money and it doesn’t take me a lot of time. » This time spent behind the bar also enables him to tell his veteran’s story, and tell his clients about his feats. And there are many : Seixas is still today the record-holder for the number of US Open played (28 between 1940 ans 1968) ; he’s won 15 major tournament in the singles, doubles and mixed doubles, as well as a BNP Paribas Davis Cup. At 42, he also won one of the longest matches in history. It was in 1966, in Philadelphia, against Bill Bowrey, an Australian who was 20 years younger than him. The score : 32-34, 6-4, 10-8. 94 games played in total. Energetic and powerful, the American counterbalances a pretty classical style of play with an incredibly efficient topspin lob and an exceptional physical condition. Which never really left him. « I haven’t put on a pound since I retired, he boasts. When I started as a bartender, I woke up and did a series of abs and pushups. At 73, I was doing 73 pushups and 73 abs every morning. Now, I can hardly do 15, and I don’t really want to wake up at 4h30 anymore… »
« It made my head spin »
Only marks of the passing time, his knees, in which the cartilage is now inexistant. The pain can sometimes be bothering. « I would need new ones, but I’d need money for that. » Even more when we learn that much of his savings goes every months in three alimonies. For his first wife, his second, and his 19-year old daughter, who’s studying at university. So when the end of the month comes, Seixas takes out the calculator. And does the math. « A few years ago, I calculated the sum I would have earned if the prize money were the same as today…I stopped at 5 millions dollars, it made my head spin. » In total, and with a little anachronism, he could have earned almost 15 million dollars in prize money if he had been born a few years later. « I’m not rich, but I always have something to eat, even if I still have to work », he resumes, philosophically, in the columns of the Los Angeles Times. To finish his old days, Seixas can count on the money provided by the sale of his trophies. And when he gets bored, he can always look at the ones which remain and are proudly exposed in his Shanxi cupboard, while wondering about the mysteries of life. « It’s crazy to think that the more important are the wins, the smaller the trophies are. » And that’s not a Chinese proverb…