Former pro Tony Graham, who was a longtime friend of Vitas Gerulaitis, John McEnroe and all American tennis circles, died Tuesday at the age of 66.
The two-time UCLA All-American, who reached the NCAA singles final in 1977 (left of Matt Mitchell) before a five-season professional career, has been front and center every day for more than 30 years at the Open BNP Paribas in India. Wells and at the US Open.
Graham reached a career-high No. 100 on the Pepperstone ATP Rankings and defeated John Alexander, Jimmy Arias and Johan Kriek en route to losing to Brian Gottfried in Stowe’s 1981 singles final. He won two titles in doubles in touring at 1980 Lagos (with Bruce Nichols) and 1981 Maui (with Mitchell).
Trey Waltke, who first met Graham when he was 15 at the US National Indoors and later became roommates, told ATPTour.com: “He was a big guy, had a lot of touch. He didn’t hit the ball very hard, but he had good hands and a good lob. He had good service; he really had no weaknesses. 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 at the age of 12 and went on to rank among the top 10 players under 16 in the United States. With little family support, Graham trained with 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 in three seasons.
Former world No. 4 Brad Gilbert, a friend of over 40 years, told ATPTour.com: “We played in the 1982 or 1983 Alan King Tennis Classic, towards the end of his career, and we had to qualify in doubles as it was a busy main draw. We won our first game in Las Vegas, and in the last round we were up against Matt Mitchell and, I think, Larry Stefanki, and on our match point I had a high volley over the net and I I missed. He reminded me of him forever, every time I met him.
Waltke adds: “Deep down, Tony didn’t believe he belonged on the Tour. When he faced tough matches, I felt him backing down a bit. Once, when we were playing Vilas and Tiriac [at 1982 Zurich WCT], we ended up winning the match, but the whole time he was like, “Look at that top spin from Vilas.” I said, ‘Do you want to stop watching his game and get down to business?’
“I felt like he didn’t believe he could be a top player. He had the game. The Top 100 people had less game than Tony, but he spent a lot of time making himself 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 befriended Keith Hefner, the younger brother of Playboy magazine founder Hugh, and for two decades was the professional trainer at the Playboy Mansion, where Graham taught bunnies and celebrities.
Another former roommate, 1980 Australian Open champion Brian Teacher, who first knew Graham’s joy of living on a blackjack table in Las Vegas, told ATPTour.com: “When Tony left tennis, he didn’t want the responsibility of a family. But he loved teaching and being around tennis. He watched Indian Wells in the Goldstein box every day and wanted to be around players. He liked giant steaks, and he was very cheerful, had a big heart.
Graham taught tennis around Los Angeles for nearly 35 years, centered around the Sheats-Goldstein Residence, world famous for its architecture and views of the city and coastline. “At some point everyone ran into him,” Gilbert said.
Graham, who had beaten prostate cancer in recent years, died in his sleep. He is survived by an older brother. Longtime friend Waltke said, “I’m going to try to organize an event at my club, the Malibu Racquet Club, for the tennis community.”
Tony Graham, famous former player and coach, born October 29, 1956, died May 2, 2023.