Ken Flach and Robert Seguso are the sunset boys of tennis. They come out at dusk, after the stars have finished and most of the crowd has crept home. The umpire implores the remaining few spectators to "stick around, because we've got some great doubles coming up." Then Flach and Seguso flit about in the gloaming, always in sync. At some point in the match, the umpire will inevitably call, "advantage Seguso" when he means "advantage Flach." Individual identity comes hard when you're perceived as an indivisible entity.
For the record, and for the edification of everyone except Flach's and Seguso's moms and dads, Flach is the one in the left court, the one whose hair hangs to his shoulders. Seguso is the bearish one in the forehand court. Although they have a combined singles ranking of 229, when they're on the same side of the court they are world-beaters. Two weeks ago they extended their Davis Cup record to 6-0, and last month they won Wimbledon for the first time. Yet for all their success, they remain more infamous than famous. How many Americans have been roundly booed by a U.S. Open crowd after beating a foreign pair for the title? How many tennis players are responsible for the athletic director's losing his job at their university?
Flach and Seguso have worked long and hard to achieve notoriety ever since their paths first crossed on the junior circuit. "I'm sure I first saw him over a poker hand," says Flach, 24, a native of St. Louis.
"I used to organize a game every night," recalls Seguso, 24, who grew up in Sunshine, Fla. "We'd stay up real late. I once had to default an 8 a.m. consolation match after playing cards till 6 in the morning."
When they were teenagers, little mattered to Flach and Seguso but tennis and cards. Because neither earned a high school diploma, under NCAA regulations both faced the prospect of sitting out a year of tennis at a Division I school. So, first Flach and then a year later Seguso decided to attend Division II Southern Illinois at Edwardsville, where they could play right away after having passed a high school equivalency exam.
That's where they became doubles partners and honed their intricate game. It features brilliant lateral movement that makes seams in their defense vanish before their opponents' eyes. It features hard hitting. "We do like to smack 'em," says Seguso. It features Seguso's huge serve and Flach's pinpoint returns of serve. It features superstitions: Flach never steps on a line when he takes the court, and on changeovers he always takes the chair farthest from the umpire. And it features hand signals before every first serve.
"Other teams use signals to tell the server if the netman's going to poach," says Flach. "Our system is different. We call where we want the serve to go. It helps the netman know where the return will come, and it keeps his head in the match. It's just like a catcher calling the pitch. The server can shake the netman off if he wants to, but he rarely does. We're of one mind out there. We know what the other guy wants to do in most situations."
Flach and Seguso led Southern Illinois to three straight Division II national championships, in 1981, '82 and '83. Flach won three singles titles and two doubles championships, while Seguso, who played on two of the title teams, won one doubles crown. A cynic might suggest that such outstanding athletic success was achieved at the expense of less-than-outstanding academic achievement. The cynic would be right. When asked what they majored in at Edwardsville, Flach and Seguso answer in unison, "Tennis." "We never went to class," says Flach. "All we did was play tennis and eat pizza. We loved it. But, unfortunately, this all came out during my junior year." The university held athletic director Ed Bingham responsible for allowing the two to play tennis when they had all but dropped out of school. Because Bingham had tenure, he was reassigned to the physical-education department rather than fired, and the school dropped tennis for three years.
Flach and Seguso hightailed it onto the pro circuit, where they quickly established themselves as a better-than-good doubles team. By 1985 they were ranked first in the world, and that year they shared $593,878 in doubles winnings. They finished out the year with their victory at the U.S. Open.
In the championship match, they played the flamboyant Frenchmen Yannick Noah and Henri Leconte. When the teams split the first two sets, Flach and Seguso faced set point in the third-set tiebreaker. After a rat-a-tat exchange at net, Leconte launched the infamous "hair shot," a swinging volley that whizzed by Flach's right ear on its way to landing beyond the baseline. The Frenchmen were certain that the ball had nicked the American's long locks. The umpire wasn't sure, so he appealed to Flach, who pleaded ignorance. Noah went berserk, and the crowd booed long and loud as the point was awarded to Flach and Seguso.