Tribute to tennis great

Leon Norgarb, and fellow Springbok Eric Sturgess, in action during a doubles match at Wimbledon. Norgard passed away recently and Sturgess died in 2004.

One of South Africa’s finest sportsmen, renowned tennis coach, and former Davis Cup player, Leon Norgarb, has passed away at the ripe old age of 96 years at his Cape Town home.

Norgarb stands alone in the annals of world sports because he is the only man to play in the majors of tennis and golf. The Pretoria-born Norgarb played Wimbledon and the French Open in the early fifties. In golf, he played in The Open after advancing to the main draw from the qualifying tournament.

Not many local sports fans were familiar with his golf exploits, but he did alert national golf to his talents after leading the opening round at the SA Open at Mowbray. It was some achievement since the field included the great Gary Player and he was in second place after 18 holes.

He had a strong friendship bond with the legendary South African Bobby Locke, a four-time Major winner. He was living with Locke in London at the time and it was Locke who urged him to play the qualifying with the view to qualifying for one of golf’s great events.

Given his tennis and golf prowess, he has suitably equipped to coach the two codes at a professional level. In tennis, he gained worldwide recognition as the master of coaching the serve. Over the years, many world-class players dropped by in Cape Town, where he was based for lessons on the serve.

While playing on the world circuit Norgarb was armed with one of the most lethal serves in men’s tennis. He was given the nickname “muscles” or “The Arm” by his peers.

He coached many national and Western Province squads and over time produced many SA and WP champions. He was always a keen student of the game and had a close association with some of world tennis’ great thinkers such as Australia’s Lew Hoad and American Jack Kramer, both multiple Grand Slam winners.

Norgarb was also recognised worldwide as an expert talent spotter and tennis organisations and agents would send players to him for assessment.

In the South African context, Norgarb was a staunch advocate of transformation. He spent seven years on the world tennis circuit and being exposed to various cultures opened his mind to the evils of Apartheid.

In the early 1970s, he joined forces with SA tennis promoter Owen Williams and they brought out Australian Evonne Goolagong to play in an exhibition event.

The SA government at the time ruled that only white people could attend the event but Norgarb persuaded the then-Minister of Sports Frank Waring to allow people of colour to attend. As a result, people of colour attended the Goolagong matches in Rondebosch and Bellville.

At the time, the government refused entry to American Arthur Ashe but Norgarb continued to garner support and eventually the three-time Major was allowed entry. They became good friends and on occasions, the three-time Major winner played on the court at Norgarb’s Rondebosch home.

Norgarb was also called on to coach Peter Lamb, a player from a previously disadvantaged background. Lamb had immense talent and Norgarb assisted him to play at junior Wimbledon.

With Arthur Ashe’s help, Lamb enrolled at an American University but later he featured so strongly in academics that he decided to stop playing tennis professionally.

Norgarb coached several Cape Flats players free of charge and went to great lengths to assist them with sponsorship. It was not unusual for Norgarb to ask his sponsors to supply his learners with kit for his account.

He was immensely popular with his tennis and golf students, and he was a storyteller of note.