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Ampunin si Ampon! The case for a Filipino legend in the Tennis Hall of Fame

The story goes like this. 1950s, early rounds of the Wimbledon Championships. The No. 1 player in the world, a tall, muscular Australian champion, was playing a relative unknown. A Filipino player. Tiny. Everyone thought the match would be over in a snap, with the Filipino bageled handily, so the stands were practically empty. Practice round for the world No. 1, everyone thought.

But the unthinkable happened. The pug-sized Filipino, all 4 feet and 11 inches of him, was keeping the 5-foot-11 Aussie at bay. The Filipino didn’t have much power in his groundstrokes, but he scrambled for every ball and sent it back, confused his opponent with dinks and lobs, and stretched the tall Australian to a fourth, then a fifth deciding set. By this time the grounds at the All England Racquet Club were abuzz and the stands filled to the rafters. In the end the Filipino lost the match, but after that, the tennis world took notice of the diminutive player from Manila.

This is not the plot for a fictional tennis movie (though it would make a good one). It is a true story. The Filipino’s name: Felicisimo Ampon. The Australian he nearly beat was Tennis Hall of Famer Frank Sedgman, five-time Grand Slam Champion (Australian, Wimbledon and U.S. Open) and at that time, the top player in the world. In the era of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, it does seem like fiction that once upon a time there was a Filipino who competed in the main draws of the French, Wimbledon and U.S. championships and slew tennis giants.

Felicisimo Ampon grew up in Manila during the American colonial years. The American governor-general at that time was Dwight Davis, a former US Secretary of War and the fellow for whom the Davis Cup, tennis’s equivalent of football’s World Cup, was named. The Americans introduced basketball and baseball to the Philippines, and though the British invented tennis, I’m guessing the sport also became popular in Manila because of Dwight Davis. (He initiated the Davis Cup, then known as the International Lawn Tennis Challenge, while he was a student at Harvard, initially a competition between the U.S. and England.) As is usually the case in Philippine sports history, Filipinos excelled at this “new” sport in the years after it was introduced. Francisco Deyro, Johnny Jose, and Cesar Carmona would make their marks in the international sporting scene, but none scaled the heights that Ampon did did.

Felicisimo Ampon is the only Filipino player to have reached the quarterfinals of the French Open and he did it twice, in 1952 and 1953. On his way to the 1952 quarterfinal, Ampon upset American top player and world No. 2 Tony Trabert, another future Hall of Famer, in straight sets, 7-5, 6-1, 6-1.

That created shockwaves in the tennis world. As reported by the St. Petersburg Times: “Little Felicisimo Ampon, pride of the Philippines, whipped Sailor Tony Trabert yesterday in the biggest upset of the current French International Tournament. The plucky, ever-moving Filipino shot around and over Trabert to win… and gain the quarterfinal round of this important international preliminary to the Wimbledon championships.”

In the 1953 edition, Ampon again marched into the quarterfinals, sweeping Wimbledon and French Open champion John “Budge” Patty 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 along the way, only to be stopped by legendary Australian Ken Rosewall, who went on to win the tournament.

Ampon also reached the last 16 at the U.S. Open in 1952, making the main draw five times, in 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950 and 1952.

And Wimbledon? He made four main draw appearances. His best showing was in 1953 when he reached the third round. More importantly, he won the Wimbledon Gentleman’s Plate: a consolation tournament for players who lost in the first to third rounds. He is the only Filipino to have won that tournament, putting him in the official Wimbledon record books (they discontinued the Wimbledon Plate in the late ’70s).

In all, Felicisimo Ampon made five appearances in the U.S. Open and four in the French and Wimbledon championships. Not bad for a player who was a shade under 5 feet and who played some of his best tennis in his 30s — ancient in tennis playing years unless you are Roger Federer. Since then, no Filipino has gotten any closer than the qualifying rounds in a Grand Slam.

But it was outside the Slams that Ampon performed his greatest feats. In 1950, he won the Pan-American Championships in Mexico, beating powerful American Tom Brown in the finals 6-3, 6-8, 6-4, 6-3. Previous winners of the Pan American Championships were tennis greats Frank Parker, Pancho Segura and Art Larsen, all members of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

The following year Ampon won a European title, the Cologne International, shocking then world No. 1 Jaroslav Drobny in the finals, 2-6, 6-1, 6-0, 6-1. The Czech Drobny had just won the French Open that year and Ampon bageled him.

In Davis Cup play, he led the Philippines to four Eastern Zone Championships in 1957-58, 1960 and 1964, twice reaching the tough interzonal semifinals, losing out only to powerhouse United States.

Nicknamed “Mighty Mite” by Filipino sportswriter Willie Hernandez Sr. after the popular animated superhero Mighty Mouse, he competed and won against more powerful players who towered over him. The Mighty Mite claimed the scalps of future Hall of Famers Vic Seixas, Bobby Riggs, Bill Talbert, Jaroslav Drobny, “Budge” Patty, Tom Brown and a French gentleman named Philippe Chatrier, a future International Tennis Federation president and the player for whom the center court at Roland Garros is named. The Filipino was unknown no more.

In his tennis blog itennisschool.com, 1980s Philippine Davis Cup player Beeyong Sison recounted his 1982 encounter with Bill Talbert, then the U.S. Open tournament director, Hall of Famer. and one of the players Ampon beat in Roland Garros. Talbert was effusive with praise for the Philippine champion: “We will never see another player like him for generations to come. He was one of the toughest competitors I ever played against… Ampon’s presence on the court was big. In a sense that he may have lacked the length and overall power of his bigger opponents such as Pancho Gonzales, Budge Patty, Art Larsen, Herbert Flam, but Ampon made up for it with ball control, balance, great recovery and mental toughness.”

Ampon played until his late 40s, a remarkable feat in itself, concentrating on Davis Cup competition. He officially retired from competitive tennis at the incredible age of 50.

Even if Ampon failed to win a Grand Slam final, his wins were no flukes—his performance was consistent in the major championships, and he amassed a total of 30 international titles. No mean feat for the shortest player ever to play on the men’s tour. This tennis prince may have been the size of a mouse in the land of tennis giants but he roared like a lion. Felicisimo “Might Mite” Ampon deserves to be part of tennis lore.

Felicisimo Ampon deserves a spot in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Recognition of this Filipino player’s achievements in the tennis world is overdue. We can correct this oversight. Ampunin natin si Ampon.

Mike Alcazaren is an award-winning film and commercial director.

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