Bob Falkenburg, the tennis player who has died aged 95, was one of the gilded generation of American champions who dominated the amateur postwar game until the mid-1950s; he was the last surviving Wimbledon champion of the 1940s, having taken the title, his only major singles crown, in 1948, after one of the most thrilling finals of all time.
His upset victory, at the age of just 22, made him the youngest men's champion until the 17-year-old Boris Becker in 1985. Falkenburg went on to great entrepreneurial success, founding South America's first fast food and soft ice cream outlets near Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.
Robert Falkenburg was born on January 29 1926 into a prosperous middle-class family in Manhattan, the eldest of three bright, sporty children. Much of his childhood was spent in Brazil and Chile, where his father Eugene worked as an engineer.
Eugene and Bob's mother Marguerite were keen tennis players, and after moving to California in 1935 they joined the ritzy Los Angeles Tennis Club and competed in local tournaments, introducing Bob to the game aged 10.
Early success in a string of junior events boosted his confidence, and within a year, the rangy youngster was hooked, practising obsessively and developing a huge serve thanks to his height and fluent action.
In 1942, while studying at Fairfax High School in LA, he won the US Interscholastic singles then partnered his brother Tom to the doubles title. He took both the US national junior singles and doubles in 1943, and again the following year, when he was ranked among America's top 10 senior players for the first time.
While the Second World War had halted international tennis in the rest of the world, the US tournament circuit continued as normal, giving the leading Americans a huge advantage. Falkenburg displayed his precocious talent when he partnered Don McNeill to the 1944 US doubles crown.
After serving for the last year of the war as a US Army Air Force cadet, he enrolled at the University of Southern California, then a tennis production line of America's brightest young talent, and led the Trojans to the 1946 NCAA national college championship, taking both the singles and doubles crowns.
A year later, he and the ambitious Jack Kramer reached the Wimbledon doubles final, which was then played the day before the singles. As they prepared to go on court, Kramer, also a singles finalist, instructed Falkenburg: "We're playing mixed doubles and I'm the girl, so you take all the overheads so I can save myself for the singles tomorrow."
The strategy paid off. The Americans beat Bill Sidwell and Britain's Tony Mottram in straight sets, while Kramer beat Tom Brown in the singles. The following year, it was Falkenburg's turn and although seeded only seventh, he reached the final after putting out the third seed, his compatriot Gardnar Mulloy .
In a seesaw battle, Falkenburg tried valiantly to impose his big game on the popular Australian John Bromwich, a clever touch-player who hit double-handed forehands and could put the ball on a sixpence.
"Falkenburg was a forceful attacking player and he used a lot of energy doing it", recalled the tennis historian and broadcaster John Barrett, who witnessed the match. "He'd hit a big serve on the fast, low-bouncing grass courts and come in to camp on the net. He had a habit of throwing sets deliberately, not going for shots or bothering to run, so as to pace himself, which was quite an eye-opener for British crowds.
The final was incredible, nip and tuck throughout, but in the fifth set, Bromwich served for the match at 5-3 and everyone thought the title was his. On his third match point, Bromwich charged into the net and as Falkenburg tried to play the passing shot, he slipped and fell. Bromwich at the net only had to tap the ball into court to win the Championship but pulled his racket away, convinced the ball was flying out – then was shattered as he watched it land on the edge of line."
The unexpected reprieve revitalised Falkenburg, who took full advantage of his opponent's crushing disappointment, closing out the match 7-5 with two service aces. "I was lucky to win," he admitted afterwards.
Following this feat, no other male player won Wimbledon after saving match points in the final until Novak Djokovic's cliff-hanger against Roger Federer in 2019.
In 1947, Falkenburg married the Brazilian Lourdes "Lou" Mayrink Veiga Machado, and the pair later settled in Rio de Janeiro with their daughter and son.
Falkenburg, who twice represented Brazil in the Davis Cup in the mid-1950s, loved the country but missed his favourite snacks, confessing that he felt "distressed that I couldn't get a decent hamburger or milkshake".
In 1952 he launched 10 "Bob's" fast food joints in Brazil, selling authentic American delicacies including soft ice cream, burgers and French fries. Within days, customers were queuing round the block. He went on to open scores of outlets throughout Brazil, and in Chile, Portugal and Angola, eventually selling the business for a fortune and retiring to Santa Barbara in .
After leaving the tour, Falkenburg played very little tennis but became an outstanding golfer, taking the Brazilian amateur championship three times. In later life, his competitive instincts remained undimmed and he excelled at poker, bridge and chess. His sister Jinx, a famous cover-girl, film star and pioneer of the television chat show, predeceased him. He is survived by his wife, daughter and son.
Bob Falkenburg, born January 29 1926, died January 6 2022
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