When we think of ‘unlucky’ tennis players we generally think of the perennially injured or those champions who came up against the all-time greats. Andy Murray and Lleyton Hewitt are good examples of both.
Enter, Geoff Brown. The unluckiest tennis player you’ve (probably) never heard of.
Geoffrey Edmund Brown was an Australian tennis player born in 1924 in Murrurundi, New South Wales. After completing high school, Brown, like many young men of his era, joined the war effort as an eighteen year old and became a member of the Royal Australian Air Force.
It was only after being demobilised at the end of World War II, that Brown was able to focus on his first love, tennis, in a full time capacity.
Brown, fast enough that family legend has it he’d considered trying to become an Olympic sprinter, was a unique sight on the tennis court. Listed as having an ‘ambidextrous’ playing style, Brown would serve the ball right handed, hit a double-handed forehand, and then – instead of a traditional backhand – play a left handed forehand.
Remarkably, Brown wasn’t the first man of this era to employ this unconventional style. John Bromwich, an International Tennis Hall of Fame member, prolific doubles player, and rival of Brown’s, had pioneered this style some years earlier.
Barely a year of training later, Brown made the six week journey by ship to England and entered the Gentleman’s Singles at the 1946 Wimbledon Championships as the number 3 seed. He was also one part of the number one seeded doubles pairing with fellow Australian, Dinny Pails. Brown also entered the mixed doubles with American Dodo Bundy.
The speedy Australian barely raised a sweat in the tournament’s first week. In the singles, Brown handed out six bagels and didn’t drop a set as he entered a quarter final clash with Swede Lennart Bergelin – who subsequently went on to become coach of another prolific Swede, Bjorn Borg. Bergelin, more of a doubles specialist than singles champion, provided stiff opposition for the Australian, although Brown again prevailed in straight sets; 13-11, 11-9, 6-4. This of course being in the era before tie-breakers. Brown would later tell family that Bergelin was the best half-volleyer he’d ever seen due to being raised on the lightening quick carpet courts in Sweden.
Another straight sets win in the semi-finals and Brown found himself against fifth seeded Frenchman Yvon Petra in the final.
Similarly, Brown and his doubles partners, Pails and Bundy, easily dispatched of all comers as he entered the final of both doubles events without dropping a set.
Sixteen matches into the tournament and Brown found himself in all three finals. A dream come true for any player.
Now only a few sets away from immortality, Brown endures every dreamers worst nightmare.
In the Gentleman’s Singles final, Brown, who barely stood to the shoulders of the 6 foot 5 Frenchman, quickly fell behind in their David and Goliath battle, as Petra took the opening two sets 6-2 6-4.
Despite a horror start, Brown eventually played himself into some form as he fought and clawed his way back into the match. The red hot Australian took the third set 9-7 and the fourth set 7-5 and was on the cusp of one of the all-time comebacks.
His opponent, Petra; a prisoner of war from 1940 – 1942 after being caught in the midst of a German raid in France during the blitzkrieg, remained calm and undeterred by Browns turn in fortunes. Petra then steeled himself to win the final set and the 69th edition of the Wimbledon Championships 6-2, 6-4, 7-9, 5-7, 6-4 in front of a packed Centre Court.
To this day, Petra doubles as the last Frenchman to win the Championships and the last man to do so wearing trousers.
You can see footage of the final below.
As if the pain of losing the Gentleman’s Singles title in such thrilling fashion lingered with him, the first seeded Brown and Pails then fell in the doubles to American champions Tom Brown and Jack Kramer 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.
Similarly, in the mixed doubles, Brown and Bundy fell to his American name-sake and Louise Brough 6-4, 6-4 in the mixed doubles final.
Having won 43 consecutive sets at the 1946 Championships, Brown ultimately left the All England Club without a champions trophy. Isn’t that cruel.
Nonetheless, Brown forged ahead in his career and again put himself in positions to achieve the ultimate prize. While he never made another Grand Slam singles final – mind you, he made the semi-finals of the 1948 and 1949 Australian Opens – he again found himself battling for silverware on three further occasions; two of which on Wimbledon’s Centre Court.
In 1949, partnering fellow Australian Bill Sidwell, the pair came up against his fellow ambidextrous rival John Bromwich and legendary doubles player Adrian Quist in the Australian Open final. Unfortunately, Brown and Sidwell came off second best and lost in four sets; 1-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-3.
The following year, back at Wimbledon, Bromwich and Quist would again deny Brown and Sidwell Grand Slam glory, this time defeating the pair in a five set thriller 7-5, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2.
That week Brown also made the final of the mixed doubles with American Patricia Canning Todd. Again, in his sixth and final appearance in a Grand Slam final, Brown and Todd would lose 11-9, 1-6, 6-4. Six Grand Slam finals; and no wins. Brutally unlucky.
However, despite later being dubbed the unluckiest man in tennis, Brown never suggested he was anything other than proud of his efforts. While many would stew on the missed opportunities, the man himself remained humble, respectful, and quietly proud of his accomplishments. Humility at its finest. And that probably says all you need to know about Geoff. Like many men who experienced the evils of war, Brown understood that sport was just that; sport. It wasn’t life or death.
When Americans Jack Kramer and Bobby Riggs turned ‘professional’ in 1947 – therefore ruling them out of playing in the Grand Slams as tennis remained an amateur sport – Brown resisted the financial lure of professionalism and continued to play as an amateur. He opined that tennis was an amateur sport and that’s the way it should be. A man of his era.
To add to his long list of accomplishments, Brown was an Australian Davis Cup representative under the legendary Harry Hopman. Brown played in the 1947 and 1948 Davis Cup teams, compiling a 3-1 record alongside players such as Bromwich, Pails, Sidwell, Quist and the best man at his wedding, Colin Long.
Following the 1950 tennis season, at the ripe age of 26, Brown’s tennis career took a back seat. In 1951, he had his first child, Virginia, to his wife Veronica Linehan – who was something of a tennis prodigy herself, having competed for Victoria in the LTAA Wilson Cup. With increased family responsibilities, Brown decided that he simply didn’t need to play Wimbledon again; despite holding a 48-11 career record at the All England Club.
Nonetheless, Brown wasn’t totally absent from the tennis scene. In 1952 he won the Sydney Metropolitan Grasscourt Championships after defeating legendary Australian and four-time Grand Slam champion Lew Hoad in the final.
In the years later, Brown and Hoad, as employees of Slazenger, would tour regional Australia playing exhibition matches against each other. Legend has it Hoad was, at times, the slightly more disinterested of the two, meaning Brown would have to gift him games in order to keep the exhibition alive.
After tennis, Brown entered the real estate business as he and Veronica raised their four children, Virginia, Geoffrey, Veronica, and Danielle in Melbourne’s inner south east. His family say that Brown never spoke of his tennis career – and if someone recognised him and brought it up, he’d be just as quick to change the subject. If you didn’t know he was a champion tennis player, you never would.
While he never did achieve the title of being a Grand Slam champion, Brown only ever reflected on his career fondly and with great appreciation. He might be the unluckiest player in history, but he is largely remembered as a kind, reserved and humble man.
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