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Counterpuncher: Bombs Away

March 7, 2014 05:56 PM



Bombs Away!

MikeSangsterWhen I was young teenager, my serve was as slow as the Second Coming.

I dreamed of having a thundering serve, like the one belonging to a solemn-faced Englishman named Mike Sangster. During the early 1960s, Sangster detonated tennis courts everywhere. I saw Sangster perform on grass at Forest Hills in 1961 and his service games, according to my wristwatch, frequently lasted less than a minute.  

Sangster (right) reached No. 7 in the world and was a semifinalist in three of the four Grand Slam tournaments. Sadly, he is mostly forgotten these days. He does not appear in the index of the 700-page Bud Collins Tennis Encyclopedia.

Five years ago, for an Albuquerque Journal feature, I interviewed half a dozen Brits who then made up most of the UNM men’s tennis team.

“You guys ever hear of Mike Sangster?” I asked.

Six blank looks followed.  

Once upon a time, everyone in tennis knew Sangster. If not by name, then by the whoomping sound of his serve. 

At his peak, in 1963, Sangster hit a serve clocked at 154 miles per hour. Though calculation methods then were not as advanced as today, the result likely was close. That speed was achieved, mind you, with a Slazenger wood racket.

Curious about who possessed a troublesome serve in the Southwest, I recently queried players who have been around the courts a time or two.

GaryDonnellyLoren Dils, former assistant coach of the UNM men’s team: I remember playing Gary Donnelly of Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. This was the adult Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix, not the junior version.  Gary is now a teaching pro in Arizona, I think.

Gary’s game was all-serve. He placed it well and hit it really, really hard. He came from the era of Kevin Curren: big, heavy serves. He had good results in Wimbledon because he served on grass.

I never could come close to him because of his serve. Bart Scott, who played for the Lobos, had a really big serve. I remember one match against Air Force. It went three sets and Bart hit, as I think, something like 37 aces. 

Former UNM Player (and current USTA Southwest vice president) Tim Garcia’s lefty serve wasn’t powerful, but he could slice it and swing you wide. The best slice serve I ever saw.

Dave Ochotorena, pro-emeritus, Tennis Club of Albuquerque: Jim Mitchell of El Paso comes to mind. This would have been in the early ’70s. Mitchell went to Irvin High School and he wore these black frame glasses and had a cannon that came right at you.

A huge and flat serve. I remember I played him in doubles and it was 4-4 in the third. Mitchell stepped up to serve and he said, “OK, who’ll take the bullet?” I didn’t see Jack Kennedy in his prime, but I did play doubles against him and Dave Bryant of Ruidoso. 

Both had big serves.  Mike Velasquez, he could hit it flat, or twist it or jerk you out of the court.

Jack Kennedy, member, Southwest Section Hall of Fame: I doubt that you will find anyone who played at the time of Teddy Russell (pictured, below) who will not say that he had the best serve in the Southwest in his era.  Van Hill had a very good serve, but his strength was his overall game, his quick hands at the net, and his intelligent play.  Rob Jones, had a big serve, big bombs, but not nearly the variety that Ted had.  I can think of no one in this region who, during the 20-plus years I played, had as good a serve as Ted had. 

Ted_Russell3Ted was a bit taller than I was, probably 6-foot-5 or so. He had the same ability that Sampras had in that he was very difficult to read.  He could throw the ball in the same position and hit all three shots, straight power, slice, and twist with essentially the same starting motion. (As you may remember, it was a different world with wood rackets than it is with the equipment of this era.  There was no way to generate the racket head speed with a wood racket that the players of this era can, therefore no player of my era had a twist anywhere close to as active a twist as many players hit in this era, Isner leading the list.) 

Ted had a very loose arm, which is true of all big servers, his technique was exceptional, and his confidence level in his ability to place his serve where he wanted to place it, including his second serve when a match was tight, was off the chart.  Relative to the confidence he had in his serve, all of us used to talk and laugh, as well as lick our wounds, about what Ted did to all of us from time to time. 

He could routinely get down love 30 and, truly, almost invariably, he would smile at you and throw in two or three untouchable serves, just to let you know he had it “on the shelf” and that he could use it whenever he wanted to do so.  You could not lean one way or another for once Ted saw you doing it he would hit a higher percentage of body serves that most of the time leaning one direction or the other put you at jeopardy to take it in your hip, or worse.

Sissy Kelly, member, Southwest Section Hall of Fame:  I played a lot of mixed doubles against Ron Brown. I always played ad court. It wasn’t his first serve that bothered me, it was second. I never wanted to see his second serve. Ron is a lefty and his serve swung out to my backhand and pulled me off the court. It bounced high and way wide and if I wanted to get to it at all I had to hit it just as it bounced. Unfortunately, I never played doubles with Ron, always against him.

I was playing in a national tournament in Phoenix some years ago.  My opponent was Pat Boles, or Bowles, I forget. This was the 35s or 40s. Pat had a terrific service. She hit it deep and I had never played her before. I was working so hard trying to see where it hit on the court, that I had trouble hitting it back. I was getting irritated and mad and Pat called for a linesman. I managed to win the match in two sets, but it really was a struggle. Years later I ran into Pat and she said, “How did you feel when I called for the linesman? Did you get mad?” I said, “No, I was relieved.  Because now I could just concentrate on getting the return and not watching the lines.”

Todd Kjelgaard, high school coach and longtime competitor:   The best server I faced as a junior in the Southwest was David Ramirez from El Paso. He was a lefty who could maneuver the ball all over the box with that reverse lefty spin that always left me lunging. Dennis Schmid from Phoenix was another tough server. At 6-foot-3, the guy had a bullet for a serve. He went on to do pretty well for a while in pro ranks. As an adult, I had problems with Andrew Irving of Albuquerque. He was tall, and had a loose, live arm and earned a lot of free points from laser-like serves.

Dave Pitts, tennis director, Tanoan Country Club: I don’t think anybody practices their serves enough. You have to go out and set up targets and then hammer away all by yourself. People find that boring. People with really great serves, they practice. I teach my kids to practice second serves.

Grabb_LifeI don’t think they really want to practice their second serves at all. They just want to play. If you want to have a big and really effective serve, you have to practice. If you have a really good serve, you can gain control. If you have a bad serve, you can really lose control of the point. And then all of a sudden you’ve lost the match.

Jim Grabb (right), member, Southwest Section Hall of Fame:  I practiced my serve. I used to go out and hit buckets. I saw guys on the pro tour who made jumps because they had improved their serves. Borg I know decided his serve needed work after he’d been playing a few years. He spent time developing a very good first serve. The thing is, very few people teach or coach serving. It’s very hard to teach the serve well. My coach in Tucson, Lou Belkin, understood the kinetic chain and what good overhead action is. I’m not talking about hitting the overhead shot, but what takes place above the net. 



I suspect Mike Sangster practiced his serve a great deal. It was, after all, his one weapon. From what I remember, Sangster’s ground strokes were no more than adequate.  When Sangster’s coach and mentor died in 1964, Sangster’s play fell off considerably. It’s possible he no longer practiced. The Internet indicates that he stopped playing altogether in 1969. After tennis, he took up golf. On April 30, 1985, during a golf outing, he suddenly fell over. Only 44, he was dead of a heart attack. 




TobySmith_FHCOUNTERPUNCHER is an exclusive online series written by Toby Smith, former Albuquerque Journal reporter, three-time USTA Southwest Media Excellence winner, and past Section Marketing Committee member. He also volunteers for USTA Northern New Mexico.

Smith knows the landscape of tennis well, especially here in the Southwest, writing on tennis for more than 40 years. To reach Toby or if you have a story idea, feel free to contact him at tobysmith68@gmail.com or 505-681-0667.

View past Counterpuncher stories HERE