Former pro Tony Graham, who was a long-time friend of Vitas Gerulaitis, John McEnroe and everyone in U.S. tennis circles, passed away on Tuesday aged 66.
The two-time All-American at UCLA, who reached the 1977 NCAA singles final (l. to Matt Mitchell) before a five-season pro career, was front and centre each day for more than 30 years at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and at the US Open.
Graham rose to a career-high No. 100 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings and beat John Alexander, Jimmy Arias and Johan Kriek, en route to losing to Brian Gottfried in the 1981 Stowe singles final. He captured two tour-level doubles titles at 1980 Lagos (w/Bruce Nichols) and 1981 Maui (w/Mitchell).
Trey Waltke, who first met Graham aged 15 at the US National Indoors and later became roommates, told ATPTour.com, “He was a big guy, who had a lot of touch. He didn’t hit the ball super hard, but he had good hands and a great lob. He had a good serve; he really had no weakness. The backhand lob was special, he could put it on a dime, and he covered the net well.”
Graham started playing tennis against a wall aged 12, and later ranked in the Top 10 under-16 players in the United States. With little family support, Graham trained with the likes of Chris Lewis and Bruce Manson at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. He turned pro after the 1978 US Open, having gone 59-6 at UCLA across three seasons.
Former World No. 4 Brad Gilbert, a friend for more than 40 years, told ATPTour.com, “We played in the 1982 or 1983 Alan King Tennis Classic, near the end of his career, and we had to qualify in the doubles as it was a loaded main draw. We won our first match in Las Vegas, and in the last round we were playing Matt Mitchell and, I think, Larry Stefanki, and on our match point I had a high volley on top of the net and I missed it. He forever reminded me of it, whenever I met him.”
Waltke adds, “Deep down Tony didn’t believe he belonged on Tour. When he was faced with tough matches, I felt him recoil a little bit. Once, when we played Vilas and Tiriac [at 1982 Zurich WCT], we ended up winning the match, but the whole time he was saying, ‘Look at that Vilas topspin.’ I said, ‘Will you stop looking at his game and get down to business.’
“I felt like he didn’t believe he could be a top player. He had the game. People in the Top 100 had less game than Tony, but he spent a lot of time making friends and going out at night.”
Waltke introduced Graham to Gerulaitis; he hung out with Bjorn Borg, played golf with McEnroe, and at UCLA befriended singer Kenny Rogers, who sponsored Graham in 1979 and 1980 to compete on the international circuit. He became friends with Keith Hefner, the younger brother of Playboy magazine founder Hugh, and for two decades was the pro coach at the Playboy Mansion, where Graham would teach the bunnies and celebrities.
Another former roommate, Brian Teacher, the 1980 Australian Open champion, who first experienced Graham’s joie de vivre on a blackjack table in Las Vegas, told ATPTour.com, “When Tony got out of tennis, he didn’t want the responsibility of a family. But he liked teaching and being around tennis. He watched every day at Indian Wells in the Goldstein box, and wanted to be around players. He enjoyed giant steak meals, and he was very joyful, had a big heart.”
Graham taught tennis around Los Angeles for almost 35 years, centred around the Sheats-Goldstein Residence, world renowned for its architecture and views overlooking the city and the coastline. “At some point, everyone ran into him,” said Gilbert.
Graham, who had overcome prostate cancer in recent years, passed away in his sleep. He is survived by an older brother. Long-time friend Waltke, says, “I’m going to try and do an event at my club, the Malibu Racquet Club, for the tennis community.”
Tony Graham, former player and celebrity coach, born 29 October 1956, died 2 May 2023.