A warm smile and an affable manner took 1987 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee Alex Olmedo far. It also didn’t hurt that he had a first-rate serve, superb volleys and a burning desire to succeed.
Olmedo died of cancer on December 9, 2020 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 84 years old and is survived by his daughters, Amy and Angela; and son, Alejandro.
One of the world’s best players throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, Olmedo shined most brilliantly in 1958 and ’59. During that time, he led the United States to a Davis Cup victory, captured Grand Slam singles titles at the Australian Championships and Wimbledon, and also earned a doubles win at the U.S. Championships. But as is the case with every tennis legend, success was a long way in the making.
Photos courtesy International Tennis Hall of Fame
Born in Arequipa, Peru on March 24, 1936, Olmedo caught the attention of Stanley Singer, an American tennis coach then working in Peru, when he was a teeanger. A group of local tennis aficionados raised $700 to finance Olmedo’s move to the U.S., a journey that included a boat ride to Havana, a plane trip to Miami and a cross-country trek by bus to Los Angeles.
By 1955, Olmedo was based in the red-hot center of American tennis—the Los Angeles Tennis Club (LATC), where such greats as Ellsworth Vines, Jack Kramer, Bobby Riggs and Pancho Gonzales had all competed extensively. The LATC was also the home of the prominent University of Southern California (USC) team.
Even more pointedly, Olmedo sharpened his game under the tutelage of the club’s head pro and USC coach, George Toley. Still, true to tennis’ capacity for individualism, Olmedo maintained his own vision.
“I have a philosophy,” Olmedo said in a 1959 Sports Illustrated cover story. “I have heard so much from so many. I never listen exactly. I mean, I listen. But I don’t. I learn most from the players I play against. That’s the big way you learn tennis.”
It was a workable approach. Olmedo soon became the best college player in the nation, winning the NCAA singles and doubles titles in 1956 and ’58.
Around the same time, Southern California tennis czar Perry Jones had been named Davis Cup captain. Jones figured that since Peru did not have a Davis Cup team, it would be viable for Olmedo to join the U.S. squad. So it was that in 1958, Olmedo went undefeated in six Davis Cup matches.
Most impressive was his effort in the Challenge Round versus the formidable Australian team. Over the course of three steaming days in Brisbane, Olmedo earned wins over a trio of future Hall of Famers. Day one: a four-set victory over Mal Anderson. Day two: versus Anderson and Neale Fraser, Olmedo and Hamilton Richardson rallied from the brink to win an epic, 10-12, 3-6, 16-14, 6-3, 7-5. The next day, Olmedo clinched it for the stars and stripes with another four-set triumph, this time over world number one Ashley Cooper.
“Alex won not because he was the best tennis player but because he was the best athlete,” Toley wrote years later. “It had rained and they had to play on wet courts, so they used spikes. And if you’re playing on a grass court and have to adjust to the wetness and wearing spikes, athleticism is an issue. Movement is entirely different. Alex could adapt better, cover the net better with spikes on a wet court.”
Soon after that win, Olmedo won the 1959 Australian Championships, taking down Fraser in four sets. Olmedo’s serve-volley game was a perfect fit for grass. This became even more vivid that summer at Wimbledon, when Olmedo dropped just two sets on his way to the title, in the last two rounds winning six straight sets versus another pair of eventual Hall of Famers, mighty Aussies Roy Emerson and Rod Laver.
“Alex was in top shape and very fast,” said Laver in the 2018 book, Trojan Tennis. “I recall that he moved like a cat on the court.”
In 1960, Olmedo joined Jack Kramer’s troupe of barnstorming pros. For half a dozen years, he crisscrossed the globe, along the way winning such titles as the 1960 U.S. Pro Championship.
Once retired from active competition, with the same smooth qualities that he’d shown on the court, Olmedo seamlessly transitioned into life as a teaching pro. For 40 years, his primary base of operations was the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel. In a city where celebrity connections are extensive, no one topped Olmedo when it came to teaching the stars, including Katharine Hepburn, Robert Duvall and Chevy Chase. His most notable and extensive teacher-student relationship was arguably with tennis zealot Charlton Heston. More recently, Olmedo taught actor-comedian Jon Lovitz.
Three years ago this week, Olmedo was given an official Hall of Fame ring at a ceremony held—naturally—at the Los Angeles Tennis Club.
“For me to receive this wonderful ring is an honor,” said Olmedo. “To be included with all these great players that have played all over the world, who play for schools, who play for great clubs, it’s amazing. Tennis is the greatest game in the world. Thank you.”
Olmedo (middle), with Charlie Pasarell and Rod Laver, at the Los Angeles Tennis Club on December 8, 2017. On that day, Olmedo was honored with his International Tennis Hall of Fame ring. (Getty Images)