Mike Sangster – British Tennis Star of 50 Years Ago

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In recent times, British tennis has been experiencing something of resurgence with the successes of Andy Murray and the good prospects of Heather Watson and Laura Robson. Despite the ‘blips’ experienced by all three at the recent US Open and Murray’s back operation, looked at in a longer-term perspective, they all remain serious contenders. While having experienced many dips in fortune since the end of WW2, British men’s tennis has also had several players with proud records.

Since the era of Fred Perry in the 1930s, British men’s tennis, it is widely felt, had been beset by a sense of underachievement. Since Perry, no British male had ever won a Grand Slam singles. It took over seventy five years to break that duck with Andy Murray’s Flushing Meadows win in 2012, further embellished by his 2013 Wimbledon win. Many good players over the period progressed so far only to be confounded by the major hurdles of the game. One of these was Mike Sangster, a former British No. 1 and star of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Along with Tim Henman, Roger Taylor and Andy Murray, Sangster also managed to reach the singles semi-finals of Wimbledon (1961), unable, however, to progress further. Not only did he reach the semis of Wimbledon, but also of Roland Garros (1963) and Forest Hills (1961). Fifty years ago, he also helped steer Great Britain to a Davis Cup semi-final. Between Perry and Murray, Sangster along with Taylor and Henman were Britain’s best players in the post-WW2 era.

Already an accomplished player in his teens, he made his first appearance at Wimbledon at the age of 17. An all-round sports player as a youth, he played football well, even receiving an offer to sign for West Ham Utd. His all-round sports prowess was recognised by being offered a place at the prestigious sports academy, Millfield School in Somerset. Other famous sporting Old Millfieldians include: tennis players Andrew Castle and Mark Cox, rugby players Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams, golfer Brian Barnes and Olympic swimming champion, Duncan Goodhew – like Sangster, all great sporting ambassadors. Recognising relatively young his special talent at tennis, it was not long before Sangster made it his main focus. In his junior career by the age of 15 and with his big serve, he was winning national tournaments – a precocious talent.

Sangster still holds a British record for number of Davis Cup appearances with 65, 43 of which he won. His nearest rival was his contemporary, Bobby Wilson with 61. He was renowned for his big serve which was clocked at the time at 154 miles per hour. This compares favourably with the current era when Andy Roddick’s serve has been clocked at a record 155 mph, while Sangster played in an era before the benefits of the new racquet technology. Such a weapon was Sangster’s first serve that opponents had to retreat to far back in the court even to have a chance of returning it. Being well over six feet tall, he used this height advantage for all its worth on serve and overhead.

The year 1963 (fifty years ago) marked the high point of Sangster’s career with his Roland Garros semi-final and his progress through the Davis Cup as far as a semi-final encounter with the eventual winners, the United States. With two Grand Slam semis appearances in 1961, Sangster reached his highest world ranking of No.7.

Firstly, let’s look at his progress at the French in 1963. On his way to the semis, he beat the Swiss Sturdza, the Australian Stolle, the Spaniard Couder, the Czech Javorsky and the Australian fourth seed, Ken Fletcher. In the semis, he eventually lost to the eventual champion, Roy Emerson in three close sets. This was all as an unseeded player, no mean achievement.

In the Davis Cup that year, Sangster also led Great Britain to the semi- finals. On the way, Britain beat Belgium, the Soviet Union and Sweden only to lose to the US in the Inter-Zone final by 5-0. That year, Sangster was accompanied on the British team by Billy Knight and Bobby Wilson. Sangster and Knight both played in the singles rubbers and Sangster and Wilson played in the doubles together. That year, they came across a particularly strong US team (who eventually went on to beat the Australians 3-2 in the Challenge Round). The US was represented by Chuck McKinley (a Wimbledon singles champion), Dennis Ralston and Frank Froehling, making a clean sweep of all five rubbers against Britain.

In 1964, Sangster’s long time coach, the Australian, George Worthington died. Worthington’s death hit him particularly hard to the extent that Sangster’s game never again really regained its previous levels of form.

Sangster met an early death himself at the relatively young age of 44. He died of a heart attack while out on a golf course in 1985, a kind of fitting end to man who was interested in a wide range of sports. His demise took place before the rise of Henman and Murray, two players he, no doubt, would have enjoyed watching progress in their careers. The great hope of British tennis in the early 1960s Sangster, in fact, was the Tim Henman and Andy Murray of his era.

Sangster did turn professional but played in an era still very much imbued with the ‘amateur ethos’ before the advent of Open tennis. This ethos was very much ingrained not only in British tennis at the time, but also in British society – a factor often pointed to as a reason for British underachievement compared with the Americans and the Australians. While such Corinthian values are to be much lauded, they did not always sit comfortably with the growing pervasiveness of a ‘winner takes all’ philosophy in the international game.

Sangster’s name belongs to a long roll-call of British players in the post-WW2 era who nearly reached the very pinnacle of world tennis but who, for a variety of reasons, didn’t quite make it. These would include: Tony Mottram, Bobby Wilson, Billy Knight, Roger Taylor, Mark Cox, Buster Mottram, Colin Dowdeswell, Geoff Paish, Richard Lewis, John Lloyd and Jeremy Bates. With his three Grand Slam singles semis appearances and his Davis Cup exploits, Sangster has to be ranked towards the very top of that group.

Paul McElhinney
September 2013

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