Rafael Osuna: Mexico’s Greatest Tennis Player

Smells of two worlds mix in the kitchen: one of boiling beans and noodle soup and chile rellenos, the other of black olives and goat cheese and figs. Each day is a clock with its two hands tossing tortillas as a child appears and then another and another till Rafael is born on Sept. 15, 1938. Trumpets and rattles (matracas) everywhere in the streets so that no one can hear his cries. Celebrations start early for September 16, the day of Mexico’s independence when a priest rang a church bell and delivered the Grito (Cry) of Dolores.

Rafael’s father kept singing of how beautiful we are with our lips and eyes and our spirits of eagles and tigers and how life was elephants and diamonds and princesses and ping pong tables. His mother would join in to pass down their legacy of the three gifts: love of books, love of music, love of sports. Life was so hot one day that little Rafael hid from everyone, so he could shave his head to cool down. That’s why they called him “Pelon” (Bald).” And soon enough everyone for miles and miles was singing and chanting and whispering and talking “vengan a ver al Peloncito” (Come along to see “Peloncito”) because at 10 years old he became the youngest ever National Open Doubles ping pong Champion in Mexico.

Some say he moved like a god. Some say he moved like a panther. When George Toley, his tennis coach at USC, was asked if he had ever seen anyone faster than Osuna, he responded: “It’s not possible to be faster than Osuna.” Rafael spent hour after hour on the ball machine after arriving in Southern California until suddenly, surprisingly, he’s at Wimbledon in 1960 where he covers the net like a tiger—I repeat here only what the newspapers wrote—a tiger with incredible reflexes and anticipation and strategic acumen, a tiger who is always smiling and joking and in a good mood. That’s what makes a great doubles partner.

At Wimbledon in 1960, Osuna and Dennis Ralston became the first unseeded team to win the championship (defeating Laver on the way) and the first and only team to win the championships from locker room B (the one destined for the lower ranked players). Osuna came back to Mexico City to play Davis Cup where, as he himself stated: “No one has ever watched me play, not even my Mother.” As he crosses the street to enter the Stadium, he is approached by a mob of kids seeking their new hero’s autograph.  As the tennis authorities try to rush Osuna into the stadium to avoid a default in 5 minutes, Osuna, cool as a cucumber, replies: “You see all of these kids, they are all sons of mine.  If they don’t enter, I don’t.” From that moment on, every time Osuna played in Mexico, the kids that accompanied him at the gate, entered for free.  At that moment a hero was born.

Wimbledon Doubles titles in 1960 and 1963. The US Open Singles Title in 1963 when he becomes the #1 player in the world. Countless Davis Cup victories on the way to the Davis Cup Final and two Olympic gold medals in 1968 in Mexico City, the city of his birth . . .

His wife and son of five months asleep while he rises before dawn to fly for a quick same day return business trip to Monterrey, Mexico just a couple of days after single handedly defeating the Goliath of Davis Cup, Australia. Some planes never land. A racquet was placed on top of his coffin. All the headlines screamed “Pelon.”

Note: Much of the information above was taken from the book: Rafael Osuna: Sonata en Set Mayor, by Elena Osuna de Belmar.

About the Artist: The beautiful painting of Rafael Osuna is done by Leslie Palafox, the wife of Osuna’s long-time doubles partner, Antonio Palafox. They won many doubles titles together, including Wimbledon and the US Open.  Together they formed the only Mexican Davis Cup team to reach the Finals and the first nation in Latin America to do so.  He was also the former coach of John McEnroe.

Rafael Osuna’s Page at the International Tennis Hall of Fame.