It's Doubles Or Nothing

Ken Flach and Robert Seguso have overcome scandal and estrangement to reign as tennis's leading doubles team
August 09, 1987

Ken Flach and Robert Seguso are the sunset boys of tennis. They come out at dusk, after the stars have finished and most of the crowd has crept home. The umpire implores the remaining few spectators to "stick around, because we've got some great doubles coming up." Then Flach and Seguso flit about in the gloaming, always in sync. At some point in the match, the umpire will inevitably call, "advantage Seguso" when he means "advantage Flach." Individual identity comes hard when you're perceived as an indivisible entity.

For the record, and for the edification of everyone except Flach's and Seguso's moms and dads, Flach is the one in the left court, the one whose hair hangs to his shoulders. Seguso is the bearish one in the forehand court. Although they have a combined singles ranking of 229, when they're on the same side of the court they are world-beaters. Two weeks ago they extended their Davis Cup record to 6-0, and last month they won Wimbledon for the first time. Yet for all their success, they remain more infamous than famous. How many Americans have been roundly booed by a U.S. Open crowd after beating a foreign pair for the title? How many tennis players are responsible for the athletic director's losing his job at their university?

Flach and Seguso have worked long and hard to achieve notoriety ever since their paths first crossed on the junior circuit. "I'm sure I first saw him over a poker hand," says Flach, 24, a native of St. Louis.

"I used to organize a game every night," recalls Seguso, 24, who grew up in Sunshine, Fla. "We'd stay up real late. I once had to default an 8 a.m. consolation match after playing cards till 6 in the morning."

When they were teenagers, little mattered to Flach and Seguso but tennis and cards. Because neither earned a high school diploma, under NCAA regulations both faced the prospect of sitting out a year of tennis at a Division I school. So, first Flach and then a year later Seguso decided to attend Division II Southern Illinois at Edwardsville, where they could play right away after having passed a high school equivalency exam.

That's where they became doubles partners and honed their intricate game. It features brilliant lateral movement that makes seams in their defense vanish before their opponents' eyes. It features hard hitting. "We do like to smack 'em," says Seguso. It features Seguso's huge serve and Flach's pinpoint returns of serve. It features superstitions: Flach never steps on a line when he takes the court, and on changeovers he always takes the chair farthest from the umpire. And it features hand signals before every first serve.

"Other teams use signals to tell the server if the netman's going to poach," says Flach. "Our system is different. We call where we want the serve to go. It helps the netman know where the return will come, and it keeps his head in the match. It's just like a catcher calling the pitch. The server can shake the netman off if he wants to, but he rarely does. We're of one mind out there. We know what the other guy wants to do in most situations."

Flach and Seguso led Southern Illinois to three straight Division II national championships, in 1981, '82 and '83. Flach won three singles titles and two doubles championships, while Seguso, who played on two of the title teams, won one doubles crown. A cynic might suggest that such outstanding athletic success was achieved at the expense of less-than-outstanding academic achievement. The cynic would be right. When asked what they majored in at Edwardsville, Flach and Seguso answer in unison, "Tennis." "We never went to class," says Flach. "All we did was play tennis and eat pizza. We loved it. But, unfortunately, this all came out during my junior year." The university held athletic director Ed Bingham responsible for allowing the two to play tennis when they had all but dropped out of school. Because Bingham had tenure, he was reassigned to the physical-education department rather than fired, and the school dropped tennis for three years.

Flach and Seguso hightailed it onto the pro circuit, where they quickly established themselves as a better-than-good doubles team. By 1985 they were ranked first in the world, and that year they shared $593,878 in doubles winnings. They finished out the year with their victory at the U.S. Open.

In the championship match, they played the flamboyant Frenchmen Yannick Noah and Henri Leconte. When the teams split the first two sets, Flach and Seguso faced set point in the third-set tiebreaker. After a rat-a-tat exchange at net, Leconte launched the infamous "hair shot," a swinging volley that whizzed by Flach's right ear on its way to landing beyond the baseline. The Frenchmen were certain that the ball had nicked the American's long locks. The umpire wasn't sure, so he appealed to Flach, who pleaded ignorance. Noah went berserk, and the crowd booed long and loud as the point was awarded to Flach and Seguso.

Displaying a spectacular lack of fortitude, Noah and Leconte went into the tank and didn't win another game. "I still don't know if that ball hit me," says Flach. "You ever have a serve just zip by your ear when you're at the net? You feel the breeze? It was like that."

Flach and Seguso faced a different type of trouble this year—an affair of the heart. They had gone into a protracted slump in 1986, when Seguso was hampered by an ailing knee, and a few months ago Seguso showed signs of disaffection. He began winking at other players. John McEnroe, of all people, was the corespondent in a recent Flach-and-Seguso separation. McEnroe and Seguso had agreed to pair up for the World Team Cup in Düsseldorf in May and for the French Open. Flach felt betrayed. Seguso and McEnroe entered the Team Cup (they played one match, which they lost to the Spanish duo of Sergio Casal and Emilio Sanchez), but when Mac lost in the first round at Roland Garros, he told Seguso he was heading home to watch the Lakers.

Now jilted himself, Seguso turned to Sweden's Anders Jarryd, who also was without a partner. Hours before the entry deadline, Seguso and Jarryd entered the doubles in Paris. Then McEnroe called Seguso and said, "O.K., I'll play." Seguso said something unprintable, and McEnroe said something even worse. Now for the socko ending: Jarryd and Seguso won the French Open after being down two sets to none in the finals to Noah and Guy Forget.

Figuring that McEnroe might be forever inconstant, Seguso phoned Flach and said, "Hey, got a date for Wimbledon?" Flach tells of his reaction in Dear Abby-ese: "He had dumped me. That had been brutal. I had to swallow my pride to play Wimbledon with him, but I said, 'O.K., I'll do this for the future.' I'm looking long term. I told him, 'McEnroe just couldn't be long term for you.' " Flach's decision paid short-term benefits, too. He and Seguso won Wimbledon, their first tournament victory in 15 months, overcoming a two-set deficit in the finals to defeat Casal and Sanchez 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-1, 6-4.

Seguso now has three Grand Slam doubles titles, while Flach has four. (He also won the mixed doubles, with Kathy Jordan, at last year's French Open and Wimbledon.) That's a lot of major wins, but none of them has been more important to them than their six Davis Cup victories together. "Playing for your country makes every point seem far more significant," says Flach.

Their Cup streak, which began in 1985, has been a tenuous and harrowing one. In Hamburg that year, Flach and Seguso rallied to defeat Boris Becker and Andreas Maurer after Becker served for the match at 5-4 in the fifth set. The U.S. still lost the tie 3-2. Last year Flach and Seguso won early-round matches by overcoming the clay and the boisterous fans of Ecuador and Mexico. Then, while Seguso's bum knee was on the mend, Flach teamed with Paul Annacone to win a stirring five-setter—the only U.S. point—against Australia.

Earlier this year, Flach and Seguso again showed remarkable tenacity in coming back from two sets down to beat Victor Pecci and Francisco Gonzalez on the clay in Paraguay. The scene in Asuncion made West Germany, Ecuador and Mexico seem serene. The spectators beat drums, chanted obscenities, threw coins—one of which hit Flach in the head—screamed during points and prodded the linesmen into making a number of terrible calls against the U.S. "I just wanted to take a machine gun out and shoot every one of them," says Seguso. "It wouldn't have bothered me at all. I would have slept fine."

Paraguay upset the U.S. 3-2, and Spain beat West Germany by the same score on the same weekend. Those results set up the relegation-round tie against West Germany two weeks ago in Hartford. The loser would go into zonal play—and thus be ineligible to compete for the Cup—for at least next year. When McEnroe and Tim Mayotte lost the first two singles matches, Flach and Seguso found themselves in a must-win situation. They beat Eric Jelen and Ricki Osterthun in straight sets, but West Germany won the tie 3-2.

Whither Flach and Seguso after Hartford? "We're back together, I think," says Flach. "The Wimbledon matches were something new. We were professional yet intense. Maybe the separation was good for us. Maybe we just needed to get a little more mature."

That would be something, for maturity has never been their long suit. They have traded punches off the court, and on it Flach has dropped to his knees to scream in a linesman's face. Ah, but life changes, even for Flach and Seguso. Flach says that marrying cover-girl model Sandra Freeman last September has calmed him. Seguso's whirlwind courtship of tennis princess Carling Bassett has turned into an engagement (a Sept. 26 wedding is planned), and he, too, seems to be settling down.

Will domesticity breed on-court tranquillity? And if it does, a larger question looms. Can Flach and Seguso possibly win without turmoil?

PHOTORUSS ADAMSFlach (foreground) says, "I had to swallow my pride to play at Wimbledon with him." PHOTOMANNY MILANAll was forgiven when Seguso and Flach left Wimbledon with their first win in 15 months. PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNMarriage to the glamorous Freeman in 1986 has been calming to Flach. PHOTOCOURTESY GLAMOUR[See caption above.] PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNBassett and Seguso plan to make their off-court partnership permanent in September. PHOTOMANNY MILANOne thing Flach and Seguso never squabble over is who'll sit where during changeovers.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)