He’s ‘One In A Million’
Hank Irvine is pretty well known in this neck of the woods…and elsewhere, too. You can look him up on Wikipedia for evidence if you like. As a tennis player he ranked No. 1 in his country for a couple of years, played at Wimbledon three times and represented his countrymen in two Davis Cups. He was also a world-ranked squash player and was elected to the professional Hall of Fame in platform tennis. He might have been a professional cricket player if he hadn’t opted for tennis instead. But he’ll be the first to tell you that getting to the top in sports isn’t easy, and it’s even harder to stay there, flirting with fame.
Hank was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) on September 1, 1943. “My birth name was Douglas,” he says, “but I was called ‘Hank’ while I was still in utero,” and the name stuck. His father, Cecil Victor Irvine, was among other things a tennis pro and all-around athlete who represented Rhodesia in international competitions in five sports. He taught young Hank enough tennis that at age 13, Hank was on the A-team of the Prince Edward School in Salisbury, matched up with 18-year-old seniors. “They were bigger and better than me, of course. I was sort of like the team mascot, but I learned a lot from the experience,” he says. And he became one of the school’s top tennis and squash players by the time he was a senior.
In those days the top pro tennis players like Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzalez came to Rhodesia once a year to play in pro exhibitions, and Hank got to serve as a ball boy on those occasions, helped perhaps by his dad’s influence. “It was an incredible experience for me,” he remembers. “The sound of their rackets hitting the ball was like standing in front of a firing squad, much louder than when you watched them on the telly.” It was one of the inspirations for Hank to make himself into a great player.
He graduated from Prince Edward in 1961 and went on to the London University Institute of Education in Bulawayo. His hope was to follow in the footsteps of Hoad and Rosewall and Kramer and Gonzalez. When in 1964 he earned his degree in teaching, he moved back to Salisbury and taught middle schoolers for the next five years. He’d teach classes and still find time to enter into squash and tennis tournaments. Back then you’d play in the international tournaments for amateurs and try to work your way up the ranks. “My dad would tell me, ‘Get out into the lion’s den and see how you do.’ He didn’t pressure me to play, but he believed that I would have to live by the law of the jungle.”
That’s what he did. “We’d get paid about $50 a week for expenses,” Hank recalls. Expenses included transportation, accommodations, meals, equipment and incidentals, and there was seldom enough money to cover all of them. Sometimes he could stay with a family during the tournament, and that covered meals and a place to sleep. But other times it meant sleeping in his car or hitching a ride to an event. “We really just got pocket money. Some players received sponsorships and were making $150 or maybe $500, but we were not playing for a monetary prize. If I won an event, I still only got $50, and the other guy got whatever his ranking entitled him to. Your ranking was based purely on results, and you had to work your way up.” Higher ranking meant higher pay.
Hank is a firm believer that to reach the pinnacle in any professional sport, you must train to get into prime physical condition and stay in prime physical condition for as long as possible. You must practice, practice, practice. You must work to improve upon your weaknesses. You must have tenacity, because it’s very easy to give in and give up. And you must deal with losing. The best way to improve is to play against players who are better than you and learn from them. Let your losses enlighten you, not defeat you. There is room at the top only for a very few.
By 1968, Hank was good enough to be selected to play on Rhodesia’s Davis Cup team. His team drew Sweden as its opponent that year and Spain the next, then was banned from playing for the Davis Cup in 1970 due to international sanctions against Rhodesia. At that point Hank was ranked No. 1 in Rhodesia.
His dream was always to play at Wimbledon, the Mecca of tennis. “You go out there the first time and it is a nerve-racking experience,” he declares. After all, these players are the best in the world. His dream came true in 1970, when he made the tournament in the men’s singles, men’s doubles and mixed doubles. Hank lost in the first round in both the men’s singles and the men’s doubles, but got to the semifinals when paired with Helen Gourlay of Australia in the mixed doubles. “We had to go on center court right after an exciting five-set doubles match in the finals between John Newcombe and Tony Roche and Ken Rosewall and Fred Stolle. It was very intimidating, but it was fun, and it’s an experience I will have with me until the day I drop dead,” Hank says.
Two years later Hank made it to a second-round singles match at Wimbledon against Stan Smith.
He lost, but so did everyone else that year, as Smith won the title. Try to imagine how he felt, getting to Wimbledon three times but departing early in the competition. You might compare that to having a cameo role in a Bogie and Bacall movie, or going halfway up Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary. You were there, but you were not the story: They were.
But to look at it another way, how many people have ever made it to Wimbledon at all? Maybe one in a million? It takes great talent, durability and good fortune to make it to such a level, and Hank had every reason to be proud of his achievement.
And Hank’s exposure at Wimbledon and on the American tour led to his recruitment in 1972 by the Short Hills Club in Essex County, N.J. to become their head teaching professional in racquet sports, which included tennis, squash and platform tennis. He was ready for a change and for a steady, high-paying job, though he had never played platform tennis before. And the Short Hills Club was ready for him. He jokes that “one of the requisites to be a tennis pro in the U.S. in that era was to have a foreign accent.” Hank had that, plus teaching experience and outstanding tennis skills. “When I got that job, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven,” he exclaims. He remained there for 23 years, and he taught himself platform tennis well enough to become the top-ranked U.S. pro, a four-time national men’s champion and an inductee into the sport’s Hall of Fame in 1997.
There were two major events in Hank’s life in 1978: His one and only, Karen, became his wife, bringing her three lovely children (Jim, Kara and Kortney) into the marriage with her, and he turned in his green card for citizenship papers in the United States of America. In 1995 Hank left his “heavenly” job at the Short Hills Club and took on not one but two new otherworldly assignments: Head Tennis Pro at the Nantucket Yacht Club in the summers and Head Tennis Pro here in Florida at Palm Island Resort in the winter months. Paradise and Eden, take your pick.
“I had never seen a snowflake until I came to New Jersey,” he proclaims, “and I never was a cold weather person.” Since that move, he has never had to worry. Hank and Karen have a home in Cape Haze. They keep a 22-foot powerboat docked on the Intracoastal Waterway behind their house, and Hank loves to pursue two of his favorite pastimes here: fishing, especially for tarpon, and gardening, especially raising orchids. He still plays tennis and is actively involved in the Super Seniors tennis tournament every year. He teaches others the fine points of the game from time to time. And oh, yes: He and Karen travel whenever they get a chance. Their favorite destination? “Wimbledon, just about every year, to watch the matches and catch up with old friends,” Hank says. It helps him keep fresh in mind those close, one-in-a-million brushes with fame he was fortunate enough–and good enough–to have.
Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person’s background.