Man whose extraordinary skills helped achieve some of greatest British tennis triumphs of pre-Murray era

Angela Mortimer, who won her first Grand Slam at Roland Garros in 1955, then the Australian Champio

Angela Mortimer, who won her first Grand Slam at Roland Garros in 1955, then the Australian Championships three years later and Wimbledon three years after that - Credit: Archant

Keith Perry looks back at the success of Arthur Roberts who worked with some of the greatest names in British tennis at the now-demolished Palace Hotel

Arthur Roberts was an unlikely sporting celebrity.

Slim, slightly built, a little round-shouldered and rarely seen without a pipe jutting from his jaw, Roberts was based in a small office within the recently-demolished indoor tennis complex at Torquay’s Palace Hotel - but his most important work was done on the hotel’s tennis courts where his extraordinary skills helped achieve some of the greatest British tennis triumphs of the pre-Murray era.

Those skills first revealed themselves in the early 1950s when a partially-deaf Plymouth girl travelled up to Torquay in response to a newspaper article which disclosed that tennis lessons were on offer to Devon youngsters at a Torquay hotel.

Angela Mortimer recalled later: “One day I turned up at the Palace Hotel and he told me to hit a ball against the wall while he went for his lunch. When he came back I was still hitting it and he said ‘if you’re that bloody-minded, I guess you’ve got some chance’. He helped me from then on.”

Mortimer won her first Grand Slam at Roland Garros in 1955, then the Australian Championships three years later and Wimbledon three years after that. She bowed out with victory over Ann Haydon Jones in the final of the Torquay Open in 1962 and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1993.

In 1958, another star rolled off the Roberts production line. Kingskerswell-born Mike Sangster made his Wimbledon debut at the age of 17 and quickly rose to become British No 1. A Torquay Boys’ Grammar School student - I remember him there as a popular senior prefect - Sangster also played football for Torquay United and turned down a contract with West Ham United.

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In 1961 he became the first Briton, since Bunny Austin in 1938, to reach the Wimbledon Mens’ Singles semi-final where he lost in straight sets to American Chuck McKinley.

He never reached a Grand Slam Final, going down to Rod Laver in the semi-final of U.S. Championship in 1961 and, the age of 22, two years later, he was beaten by Roy Emerson in the semi-final of the French Championships.

But he remains one of only four Britons - Fred Perry, Tim Henman and Andy Murray are the others - who have ever managed to reach the semi finals of three different Grand Slam events.

Sangster was famed for his speed of serve - once timed unofficially at 154mph - and in their US Championship semi-final Rod Laver, retreating to the back of the court to receive, famously became entangled in the backstop netting.

Sangster ran a sports shop in Torwood Street after retiring but in April 1985, aged just 44, he collapsed while playing golf at Torquay Golf Club and was dead from a heart attack before help arrived.

I met Arthur Roberts for the first time when I competed in the Torquay junior tournament in the early 1960s. I use the term ‘competed’ loosely as we junior members of the Torquay club were encouraged to enter the tournament for ‘experience’ which comprised being battered around the court by some of the nation’s brightest and best young tennis players.

I can’t remember much about my woeful 6-0, 6-1 hammering but one memory of the event has stayed with me forever - that of receiving a 30-minute tennis lesson from the man who had coached a triple Grand Slam winner and a Wimbledon semi-finalist.

I never kidded myself that Roberts had spotted a potential champion, more that had taken pity on someone clearly destined to become nothing more than cannon fodder for someone with a rocket in his racket.

That brief lesson, however, remains the highlight of my brief flirtation with competitive tennis.

It’s worth noting that the Torquay tournament was won that year by a tall, floppy-haired Welsh teenager who was to gain international stardom in a different sport and who would become recognised throughout the rugby world simply by his initials.

The next time I saw JPR Williams in the flesh was at Lansdowne Road, Dublin, in March 1978 as a member of Phil Bennett’s legendary all-conquering Welsh team which defeated the Irish 20-16 to secure their third successive Triple Crown.

As a young reporter, however, I was to have more regular contact with coach Roberts and I visited his office on a weekly basis to track the progress of another very special starlet, one destined to become a national treasure.

More of which next week.