The Remarkable Story of Art “Tappy” Larsen

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Art “Tappy” Larsen definitely earns a spot as one of the most unusual characters who ever played big-time tennis. He is worth remembering this month when the US Open gets underway at Flushing Meadows. Tappy won the U.S. National Championships back in 1950 when amateurs and professionals swung racquets in their own circuits. One of the world’s top amateur tennis players from 1949 through the mid-1950’s, he was also a finalist at the French Open, semifinalist at the Australian Open, and quarterfinalist at Wimbledon.

What made Tappy an interesting figure was that he was “quirky” and very different from the assembly-line athletes who typically appeared on the tennis scene in the early post-war period. In fact, he had taken part in the Normandy landings at Omaha Beach in 1944 and was traumatized by the horrors he experienced, which also included the Battle for Brest that took place a couple of months after D-day. When Larsen returned to the U.S., he was encouraged to turn to tennis as part of his therapy to deal with the shock and stress he faced in Europe.

An eccentric man, he picked up the nickname “Tappy” because he continually tapped on things out of superstition, from the net post, to the umpire’s stand, to doorways, and even to his opponents if they ever got close enough. Tappy also occasionally chatted to an imaginary eagle that was perched on his shoulder during matches. The eagle apparently provided him with strategic advice at different points while he played and when he was about to serve, he would cock his head and listen to what the eagle had to say. Such idiosyncratic behavior might charm tennis fans today, but it didn’t have a place in the buttoned-up tennis world of the 1950s.

Art Larsen was a great friend of Gladys Heldman, the editor of World Tennis, and he wrote unusual stories that were occasionally published in that journal about himself and fellow Davis Cup players travelling in space. Though his emotional problems held back his game, Larsen was nevertheless regarded as an excellent player. In 1950, he was ranked #3 in the world and #1 in the U.S. Left-handed, he played an all-court game with deft groundstrokes and quick touches at the net. He always did well against the tennis luminaries of the day such as Frank Sedgman, Ken McGregor, Vic Seixas, and Gardnar Mulloy.

The USLTA (United States Lawn Tennis Association) could possibly have managed Tappy Larsen if he had just been a champion tennis player with shellshock, who “tapped” things, or even listened to imaginary birds. But Art was also “a character” who questioned authority and often found himself in trouble. He enjoyed late night parties and thought that taking part in practice was something of a nuisance. He also squabbled with umpires and bounced his racquet occasionally long before such display became de rigeur.

The Eastern tennis establishment in the early 1950s wasn’t quite ready for a wild-living, free-thinking Art. He was different. He appeared to have arrived just to have some fun and can probably now be described as one of the original “tennis bums”. Larsen never seemed to have any money, but managed to float about the world’s most glamorous destinations playing tennis. His presence around the sport always led the conservative USLTA to think that the world was about to end. A profile piece in the New York Times noted that after Tappy won the US Nationals in 1950, one USLTA member expressed concern that Larsen was likely to become “difficult” and that “he’s not exactly what you’d call an Old Blue.”

Stories were told of Tappy showing up at a famous tournament at the Newport Yacht Club with a dog on a leash, and telling everyone it was his “lucky mascot”. On another occasion he dyed his hair a bright new color and said amiably: “Some gal dared me to do it”. While the spirited and cheeky Larsen did not fit into parts of America or Australia in the early 1950s, they loved him in Europe and South America. Crowds followed him in Latin America where he was called “Il Pajero Loco”.

On one occasion in Italy, in a fit of anger, he whacked a ball towards one of the ball boys. Larsen insisted that the kids bounce the ball precisely into his hand. It was another of his “quirks”. The Italians weren’t concerned about this behavior and thought Tappy was probably right to get annoyed. On the other hand, the USLTA immediately suspended him without hearing a word in his defense.

Despite his undeniable tennis skills and victory at the 1950 US championship, Tappy was never chosen to play singles in a Davis Cup Challenge Round. It seems he never met the selection requirements as mandated by the USLTA. Still, his achievement in the sport eventually landed him an induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1969. Art Larsen’s tennis career ended sadly. At the end of 1956 he was badly hurt when a motor scooter he was riding was side swiped, knocking him to a ditch and into a coma. He never played competitive tennis again and lived the remainder of his life where he grew up, on the east side of San Francisco Bay in San Leandro, California. Occasionally teaching tennis to locals, his personal papers also show he wanted to study journalism so he could write about the game, but he never had the discipline to finish a writing course.

Tappy’s military record was recognized at his funeral in 2012 when he was honored with a military burial service. Diane Buckhurst, the daughter of his long-term partner, organized a parade conducted by the Patriot Riders, a group of veterans on motorcycles.

Richard Naughton is author of “The Outcasts, The Story of Art “Tappy” Larsen and Dick Savitt”. His book is available for sale on our site.

Other Articles Enjoyed: The Greatest Athlete of All Time?, Len Bia, A Legend That Might Have Been, Dan Gable, From Personal Tragedy to Olympic Gold

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