“As he reaches the century mark, Elias Victor Seixas Jr. deserves our respect and gratitude for leading a long and extraordinary life.”
eated in the stands at the Barcelona Open clay court tournament in April of this year, I watched with interest as more than a dozen former Spanish champions were introduced at a special ceremony to thousands of adoring tennis fans. As each player was brought forward, the stadium scoreboard illuminated a short documentary of the tournament’s proud history, which began in 1953. To my surprise, the first few frames showcased images of an American, Vic Seixas, Barcelona’s first champion.
The few seconds of ancient tennis history got me thinking about my friend’s incredible life and what he is about to celebrate. Many in the United States—as well as around the world—will be marking significant events and important anniversaries this summer. It is unlikely that any will match the extraordinary milestones that Elias Victor Seixas, Jr. (pronounced Say-shus) is soon to observe. Known by both friends and admirers as a patriot, wartime pilot, and athletic icon—not to mention paragon of class and decorum—the summer of 2023 will prove particularly noteworthy, for it was 70 years ago this July that Seixas won the prestigious Wimbledon tennis championship. A month later on August 30th—during the US Open tournament—Seixas will celebrate another remarkable milestone: turning 100 years old. The combined achievements may be unprecedented.
Although less well known in his hometown than other Philadelphia athletic heroes such as Julius Erving, Chuck Bednarik, Mike Schmidt, and Bobby Clarke (not one of them born in Philadelphia, by the way), the mention of Seixas’ name draws nods of recognition from sports fans stretching from New York City, London, and Barcelona to more far-flung outposts such as Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, and Melbourne. Born in the Overbrook Park section of Philadelphia near St. Joseph’s University, Seixas was the only child of a plumbing supply store owner and an Irish homemaker. At an early age, Seixas was already displaying the physical gifts of a top flight athlete. He excelled at sports, particularly racket sports. An avid tennis player, his father regularly took the young Seixas to his own neighborhood matches where his son often acted as ballboy. Precocious and increasingly drawn to the sport, by the age of six he was learning the basic strokes, the game’s tactical nuances, and the reason for his father’s love of hitting a felt covered ball with a wooden racket.
It was not long before the onetime ballboy was outplaying his elders. “At ten I was as good as anybody in the area,” Seixas proudly told me, “and winning matches against much older players.” As a 13-year-old, Beeber Junior High player, Seixas won the interscholastic tennis title despite a bad case of “ivy poison.” His mother standing by with a medicinal potion of “lead water,” he was able to overcome both his physical discomfort and much older competitors. Newspaper reporters took note. Articles described the boy’s “good strokes,” his savvy “court generalship,” and unusual athleticism. Several went on to forecast a bright future for the “tall, handsome lad with the all-around game.” Some local scribes even compared him to the great Bill Tilden, the home-grown Babe Ruth of tennis who dominated the game during the first half of the 20th century.
But Seixas was no one-trick pony. He excelled in all sports and starred on his Penn Charter High School basketball, baseball, track, and squash teams. Coaches at the school competed for his services, causing his tennis coach much angst. A sparkling outfielder, for example, he was told by his tennis coach to sever himself from the baseball diamond for fear of injuring himself. Seixas objected to the directive. According to legend, the versatile athlete finally had to make a decision when the William Penn Charter baseball and tennis teams had games in different parts of the city on the same afternoon. Seixas chose the tennis match. His parents supported the decision but not without some regret. “If he hadn’t been so interested in tennis,” his mother admitted, “I’d have encouraged Vic to play baseball.”
Narrowing his athletic passions was difficult, but it was tennis that captured his heart, as well as the newspaper headlines. Winning tournaments—first locally and then nationally—solidified his reputation as the most “outstanding tennis product to come out of the East in a decade.” Critics called his “shot repertoire complete, his ground strokes had pace and depth, and his lobs virtually perfect.” Winning local tournaments at The Cynwyd Club, and then middle states and national championships at the renowned Germantown and Merion Cricket Clubs became routine. Seixas was becoming a recurring name in local sports pages.
Seixas seemed destined for the University of Miami, an up-and-coming tennis powerhouse, but he ultimately matriculated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1941. His high-level play and tennis IQ cemented his position on the tennis squad, and his all-around athletic ability and competitiveness also earned him a spot on the school’s formidable basketball team. And as an 18-year old sophomore, he accomplished something very few racket men can claim, he made the list of America’s Top Ten players. It was quite an achievement for someone so young, but the joy and acclaim would be short-lived. World War II would put an end to both his education and athletic endeavors.
“I was 18 and knew I was about to be drafted, so I joined the military. I didn’t want to walk or swim,” Seixas recalls with a chuckle, “so I enlisted with the Army Air Corps.” Local newspapers lamented the sudden derailment of an emerging star’s career and wistfully noted Seixas playing a few games of squash with Norman Bramall, the legendary coach at the Cynwyd Club, just prior to his induction and departure for the unknown. The Army was quick to size up the young Tar Heel enlistee. His physical gifts practically guaranteed his success as a pilot, but his exceptional hand-eye coordination impressed the brass. They made him a flight instructor, though he was not much more than a rookie pilot himself. After six months of basic and advanced training, he was posted to the South Pacific.
For a lot of young men during the war, being sent overseas was traumatic. “I remember shipping out with 200 other flight instructors on New Year’s Eve for a 23-day voyage to Papua New Guinea,” Seixas recalls. “Sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge, I think we were all wondering what we were about to face.” The 29th Air Depot at Finschhafen (Fitch Haven according to some old Navy logs), a small coastal town recently taken back from Japanese control, held strategic importance. It had a runway and was bustling with activity (none of it was sports related; there were no tennis courts on the island). Bombers and fighter planes were arriving and taking off at a frantic pace. The air armada was critical to the brutal island hopping campaign against Imperial Japan. It was Seixas’ job to ensure that the American aircraft was sound and ready for combat.
The job required Seixas to learn the controls and fly 14 different types of aircraft—everything from P-38 Lightnings, P-40 War Hawks, P-51 Mustangs, and P-61 Black Widow fighters to A-20 attack bombers, two-engine B-25 Mitchell bombers, and B-24 four engine Liberator bombers. “Many of the planes,” Seixas explains, “especially the small pursuit and fighters couldn’t fly from American bases stateside or Hawaii to the South Pacific, so they had to be taken apart, boxed in large crates, and placed on carriers. They were then shipped across the Pacific and reassembled at island bases like Finschhafen.” Once assembled, test pilots, such as Seixas, had to ensure they were flightworthy and capable of carrying out their deadly missions. Steep dives, rapid climbs, and sudden avoidance maneuvers were all part of making sure an American pilot was not being placed in an aerial coffin.
Checking instrument panels, for example, was an important part of the drill. “There were times,” Seixas recalled, “when I took a fighter or bomber up for a test flight and quickly realized the fuel, speed, or pressure gauges weren’t functioning. It could be pretty scary to get off the ground and discover the air speed indicator was not working. The last thing you wanted was to put our combat pilots in defective aircraft.” So hour after hour, day after day, Seixas inspected and tested out the United States’ air arsenal in the South Pacific.
At the war’s conclusion, Seixas was posted to Haneda Air Base in Tokyo. Finally, after nine months in Japan and three-and-a-half years in the military, Lieutenant Seixas returned stateside in 1946. Although many soldiers after the war had difficulty assimilating back into civilian life as was captured in the popular 1946 William Wyler film, The Best Years of Our Lives, starring Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, and Fredric March, Seixas found the transition rather seamless. “I had no real difficulty,” Seixas admits. “Sure, you had to make an adjustment, but compared to some, it was easy for me. I was happy to get back to civilian life and the things I was doing before the war.”
Soon after arriving home he was off to Chapel Hill to complete his undergraduate degree in commerce. The many business administration courses he was taking were designed to help his father’s plumbing supply business, which it was thought he would one day take over. He also returned to the racket game he loved. To the surprise of some, it took him little time to recapture his form and success. Regaining his position as the top player on the team, he ran off a string of victories—63 out of 66, in fact—that solidified his reputation as one of the top players in the Southern Conference. By his junior and senior years in 1948 and 1949, he was competing for the national collegiate title. Although he would lose those contests, many were predicting great things for the likable, upbeat Philadelphian.
Seixas not only left Chapel Hill with a degree but also with an attractive Southern belle on his arm. Dolly Ann Dunaway was from Spartanburg, South Carolina, and when she and Seixas caught each other’s eye on campus, the attraction was mutual. Like many other young women, she found the tall, handsome, jock/war hero with good manners and an easy smile quite the catch. They were married at a Presbyterian church in Philadelphia, and Seixas made a good faith effort to immerse himself in the family business. Trio Supply Company was a growing wholesale plumbing, heating, and roofing company, but Seixas’ interest in pipes, valves, and steam pressure was fleeting. His passion for tennis and athletic competition presented a constant distraction.
“I was going to join the firm,” Seixas recalls, “but I loved tennis, and wanted to see how good I could be. It had become a big part of my life and I didn’t want to give it up.” Fortunately, Seixas’ wife and parents were supportive. They knew he had a rare gift and did not want to rob him of a chance to live out his dream. The war had stolen a few years, but his impressive college career demonstrated that he was still capable of playing at the highest level. Granted, hitting a white tennis ball on grass and clay courts while traveling the amateur circuit was not going to put money in the bank, but Seixas and his wife looked at the bright side. “I lived pretty well without making money,” he recalls, with a giggle. “I got our travel expenses paid, housing accommodations at tournaments were usually pretty good, and Dolly was—like me—excited to see the world.”
Playing against the best the United States and the world had to offer, Seixas did rather well. The amateur grass court circuit at classic Northeast cricket and tennis clubs in Newport, West Chester, Seabright, Forest Hills, and Orange, New Jersey drew the sport’s top players. On the grass at Merion, for example, Seixas would lose the 1949 Pennsylvania championship to Pancho Gonzales. But he had already won the title in 1946 and 1947, and he would win it five more times during the 1950s. Defeating the likes of Sidney Wood, Art Larsen, and Tony Trabert, all major champions, placed Seixas among the game’s elite.
Seixas’ basic strokes, his forehand and backhand, were average at best—some described them as “unorthodox” and in less kindly terms—but his speed, agility, and net game were exceptional. His hand-eye coordination, combined with lightning quick reflexes, was off the charts. A quick moving six-foot-two, 175-pound serve and volleyer, it seemed he could serve, rush the net, and swat a ball away in the blink of an eye. “I tried to never let the ball bounce if I could prevent it,” says Seixas with a laugh. As opposed to today’s metronome-like baseliners, Seixas’ style of play left opponents feeling under constant attack. There was rarely a moment when they could relax and catch their breath.
Newt Meade was one of those left breathless in his many athletic exchanges with Seixas. A fellow Philadelphian who competed against Seixas on the tennis, squash, and basketball courts, he grew increasingly frustrated. “I just couldn’t beat him,” Meade tells me. “I could play well and still lose. I tried everything, but the results were always the same.” Like many other competitors, Meade (who like Seixas, in a rare coincidence, will also be hitting the century mark during the last week of August) was very impressed with Seixas’ “all-around game.” He says that Seixas was “a great serve and volleyer, and covered the court really well. He was one of the few at the time that had an American twist serve. The combination made him able to serve and be right up on you in an instant. You were always under pressure.” Meade was also impressed with Seixas’ determination and court savvy. “He was so smart and tenacious on the court,” says Meade with admiration. “I couldn’t figure out how to beat the guy. He had you guessing and off-balance all the time.”
The top international players would soon experience the same vexing concerns about Seixas (hence the nickname “Vexsatious” that was used by some opponents). In 1950, Seixas was a quarter-finalist at the French championships and a semi-finalist at Wimbledon. The next year, he played in the final of the U.S. championship against the great Australian player Frank Sedgman. He had lost in straight sets, but it was clear progress was being made. In 1952, Seixas won the U.S. doubles title and appeared in the doubles final at Wimbledon. He was knocking at the door, and he dedicated himself to winning one of the major tournaments the following year. “I just wanted to win one of the majors,” Seixas recalls. “It didn’t make much difference. Sure, Wimbledon would have been great, but any of the majors would have been wonderful. Winning one of those separated you from the pack.”
In 1953, Seixas would climb that mountain and achieve his dream: He would win Wimbledon. He would also reach the semi-finals of the Australian, and the finals of the French and American tournaments. But winning the British championship—and defeating the likes of Kurt Nielsen, Lew Hoad, and Mervyn Rose along the way—was intoxicating. “It felt great,” Seixas told me. “I finally accomplished my goal. To me, Wimbledon was the crown jewel of tennis. It was the tournament every player wanted to win. It was my first major, so it will always be cherished. Lew Hoad was a great player, and if he was on, you had little chance. And Nielsen was a great young player and maybe the best of the Europeans. He had a great tournament beating Rosewall and Jaroslav Drobny, but I attacked the net every chance I got, and he was unable to pass me with any consistency.”
British journalists were much taken by the “Yank’s” aggressive play, athleticism, and dogged resolve. Articles described Seixas as constantly “storming the net for killing volleys” and “hounding the net like a birddog after a grouse.” Shockingly, in comparison to today’s huge monetary rewards, Seixas says he received a £25 voucher, which he recalls as being about $75 and had to be spent at a London sporting goods shop. “I think I bought a sweater,” Seixas recalls with a laugh.
1954 would bring more high level triumphs and accolades. At Forest Hills, he would win the U.S. title over the Australian Rex Hartwig. And his superlative doubles play was instrumental in his winning the Australian, French, and U.S doubles championships, as well as the French, Wimbledon, and U.S. mixed doubles titles. In all, seven major titles in one year—not bad at all. And possibly of greater note was his pairing with compatriot Tony Trabert in winning the Davis Cup against an Australian squad that dominated amateur tennis in the 1950s.
Their unexpected triumph was even more impressive given that Trabert actually lobbied the American team captain to replace Seixas with another player prior to the match. “I have no quarrel with Seixas,” said Trabert, who was seven years younger than Seixas and already owned two major championships. “We are the best of friends. But I simply don’t think he is the man to play doubles for us in the Davis Cup matches.” Although the criticism stung, Seixas remained positive and optimistic. “I think we can win back the cup,” Seixas told the press, “I think Trabert and I make the best doubles team. Yes, I’ve lost to Ken Rosewall three times, but I’ve also beaten him. I feel confident the way I’m playing. I can do it again.”
And after Trabert won a close match against Hoad, Seixas did just that: He went out and defeated young Rosewall, who always seemed to have the edge against Seixas. The critical doubles match went five hard sets, but Trabert and Seixas proved victorious. The Davis Cup, arguably the most cherished trophy in tennis at the time, was coming back home. The United States, once again, loudly proclaimed itself the tennis capital of the world. And many believed Seixas was the reason why. As one journalist covering the competition wrote, “Seixas was a whirling dervish who scooted all over the court making spectacular gets and scoring kills with that deft volley of his. He definitely was the outstanding of the four figures on the court. He never lost a serve and his volleying was the cleanest and most deadly of the day.”
In subsequent years, Seixas would play on after most competitors his age had long retired. His ability to enter tournaments and compete at the highest levels over many years can be attributed to tremendous athleticism, potent DNA, and a rigorous workout regimen that kept him fit while others slowed and put on weight. He would leave the game having reached the quarter-finals of 20 majors, 10 semi-finals, and five finals. In all, Seixas won 15 titles at the majors: two singles, five doubles, and eight mixed doubles. He would enter the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971 with Althea Gibson.
After his playing career and hectic travel schedule ended, Seixas settled down with an assortment of jobs, including time as a Goldman-Sachs stockbroker and the head of tennis operations at the palatial Greenbrier Hotel (Sam Snead was his colleague at the time running the resort’s golf program).
Always the exemplar of class and propriety, even famed sociologist and tennis connoisseur, E. Digby Baltzell, described Seixas as “always a perfect gentleman on and off the tennis court.” It probably was the reason why Seixas was named the William Johnston Trophy winner, an honor given to the player “who by character, sportsmanship, manners, spirit of cooperation, and contribution to the growth of the game,” long before he won his Wimbledon trophy.
An equally interesting but little known fact is that Seixas can probably claim familial ties to Moses Seixas, the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, whose poignant correspondence with President George Washington in 1790 led to one of the country’s central pillars: every citizen would have full liberty of conscience no matter what one’s religious beliefs happen to be. Responding to Moses Seixas’s concerns regarding religious freedom in the newly formed American nation, Washington assured him that “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figure, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Although raised as a Presbyterian by his Dominican Republic born father, Vic has never denied his family may originate with other Jewish families of Portugal carrying the Seixas name.
“I know I was raised Presbyterian and married in a Presbyterian church,” Seixas told me, but he also added, “my parents weren’t particularly religious, and it could very well be that 500 years ago my ancestors were Portuguese Jews living in various parts of Portugal and Spain.” Although he has never personally explored the matter, he is proud of the possibility that he might be connected to a historic exchange that paved the way for the First Amendment to the Constitution and the creation of a nation considered to be a beacon of hope to oppressed peoples around the world.
The once stellar athlete now gets around in a wheelchair and is nearly blind. The years, the extensive travel, and the highly competitive physical demands of being a world class athlete have certainly taken their toll. But his upbeat attitude remains intact, and he is still revered by his friends and neighbors at The Club at Harbor Point in Mill Valley, California. A certified member of the Greatest Generation who gave his all for his country—on land and in the air—he exemplifies the best of both American spirit and action. As he reaches the century mark, Elias Victor Seixas Jr. deserves our respect and gratitude for leading a long and extraordinary life.
Allen M. Hornblum is a former criminal justice official and college professor whose books run the gamut from organized crime and Soviet espionage to medical ethics and sports. He is the author of American Colossus: Bill Tilden and the Creation of Modern Tennis.