Gordon Forbes, who died on December 9 at the age of 86, had a rare aptitude for action and reflection.
Forbes was a superb tennis player, among the best in the world in the 1950s and ’60s. In singles, he competed at all of the majors, going as far as the quarters at the U.S. Championships in 1962, earning wins over the likes of Rod Laver, and representing his native South Africa in Davis Cup play. As a doubles player, Forbes won the mixed title at Roland Garros in 1955 alongside Hall of Famer Darlene Hard. He also got to the finals of the men’s doubles there in 1963 partnered with his compatriot, Abe Segal.
But Forbes’ bigger legacy to tennis might well be as a writer. In large part, when it came to evoking the texture and spirit of the tennis world he occupied for so long, Forbes was a natural, never more so than in his 1978 book, A Handful of Summers. This book primarily covered the decades of Forbes’ playing career in tennis’ bygone amateur era—a time of lively personalities, eclectic facilities, housing at the homes of club members and various forms of hijinx. With compassion and insight, Forbes brought to life such tennis folk as the hearty Roy Emerson, the ethereal Torben Ulrich, the daffy Art Larsen, and a host of others that comprised a fairly insular and largely uncompensated traveling circus.
“Torben was, and is, a remarkable human being,” wrote Forbes. “With him in view one would automatically consider such phenomena as intellectualism, the power of the mind, mysticism, things deep, Gurudom even.”
Or consider Forbes’ description of playing style Rex Hartwig, a mercurial Australian: “His game ran around him like a covey of quail escaped from a basket—darting and beautiful, but almost impossible to get together.”
Ask anyone who played during those years and they are likely to tell you that A Handful of Summers is the best book ever written about tennis.
Forbes followed that up with two more fine books, Too Soon to Panic and I’ll Take the Sunny Side.
His connection to tennis ran deep. Forbes’ sister, Jean, was also a world-class player who for a time was married to top tenner and future broadcaster, Cliff Drysdale. Forbes’ son, Gavin, has also been a longstanding senior executive at the prominent sports marketing firm, International Management Group, representing dozens of top players, sponsors and events.