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Ken Flach, going for a forehand volley at Wimbledon, joined forces with Robert Seguso to become one of the sport's best doubles teams in the 1980s.

Ken Flach: 1963-2018

Popular American star was dedicated to his family and golf

Former World No. 1 Ken Flach, one of the world’s leading doubles players of the 1980s, a winner of six Grand Slam titles and the 1988 Seoul Olympics gold medal (w/Seguso), passed away aged 54 on Monday after a brief illness.

One week ago, Flach was playing 36 holes of golf, the sport he was addicted to, in California. Later that day, Flach fell ill with bronchitis, which in the space of four days turned into pneumonia and then into sepsis. Put on life support, he slipped away on Monday night with his family by his bedside at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center.

Carling Bassett, a former WTA pro and the wife of Robert Seguso, said in her Facebook post, "It pains me to say our great friend, Ken Flach passed away last night surrounded by his family at his side. Unfortunately, they didn't catch the sepsis fast enough before it so horrifically attacked all his organs. I know Ken fought until the end and now is up in heaven resting in peace. My heart goes out to his whole family."

Chris Kermode, ATP Executive Chairman and President, said, “Ken was taken far too soon and his sudden passing comes as a real shock to everyone in tennis. A former World No.1 in doubles, Ken will be remembered as one of the great US doubles players in the history of our sport. On behalf of the ATP, we send our thoughts and deepest condolences to his family at this difficult time.”

Flach and Seguso were inextricably linked for almost 40 years, first as standout college performers and, within the space of two years on the pro circuit, the world’s best doubles team – a sometimes volatile partnership, unavoidable when you’re the best of friends. Flach was the possessor of pinpoint returns, lightening reflexes and great hands that complemented the power and serving accuracy of Seguso.

Flach played on the Ad court and first rose to No. 1 in the ATP Doubles Rankings on 14 October 1985 (for a total of five weeks). With Seguso, they compiled a career match record of 352-130 from 1983 to 1995 Wimbledon, winning 28 team crowns, including the 1987-88 Wimbledon titles, the 1985 US Open, plus two other runner-up finishes at the 1987 and 1989 US Opens. Flach also partnered Rick Leach to the 1993 US Open crown and finished his 14-season pro career in 1996 with a 34-24 record in doubles finals (443-215 match record).

St. Louis-born Flach and Sunrise, Florida-resident Seguso came from opposite ends of the spectrum and first met over a poker hand during their teenage years, “when only tennis and cards mattered”. Neither earned a high school diploma and under NCAA regulations both faced the prospect of sitting out a year of tennis at a Division I school. So, first Flach, who knew at aged 16 he was good enough to turn pro, and then in 1981, Seguso, opted to attend Division II Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

Paired together by SIU coach Kent DeMars, they conquered the college world – three straight Divisional II national championships in 1981-83 – after having passed a high school equivalency exam. All-American Flach, 6’1” and 165-pounds, won three singles titles and two doubles championships, while 6’3” and 182-pounds Seguso, who played on two of the title teams, won one doubles crown. Flach admitted to a 1987 Sports Illustrated edition, “We never went to class, all we did was play tennis and eat pizza.”

It was a good education. Upon turning pro in late 1983, Flach and Seguso built on their outstanding college record and quickly became one of the world’s leading pairs. In 1984, their first full year on the circuit, they won 10 titles and the following season, the 22-year olds went 7-4 in finals with a 58-15 match record to become the ATP Doubles Team of the Year.

Doubles was Flach’s ticket to a successful pro career, admitting, “It’s kind of like dating. You find somebody you think you work well with, and you develop a relationship.” At the 1988 Olympics opening ceremony in Seoul, Flach and Seguso ensured maximum television exposure by walking out beside athletics superstar Carl Lewis and later went on to beat Spaniards Sergio Casal and Emilio Sanchez 6-3, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(1), 9-7 in the gold medal match.

Flach, whose Italian mother doted on him, played football, baseball and tennis growing up, following in the footsteps of his older brother Rick Flach, a former pro. At one point, they played and trained together in Germany. Flach was regarded as not only one of the hardest workers on the circuit, but also one of the most superstitious, never stepping on a line when he took to the court and always sat in the chair furthest from the umpire’s chair.

Renowned for his shoulder-length hair, Brad Gilbert recalls rooming with Flach at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. “He took three hair dryers out of his suitcase. I said, ‘You should spend more time on your forehand!’” His hair had been involved in a controversial incident in the 1986 US Open doubles final, when Flach and Seguso beat Frenchmen Henri Leconte and Yannick Noah 6-7(5), 7-6(1), 7-6(6), 6-0. Facing a set point in the third set tie-break, Leconte launched the infamous ‘hair shot’ – a volley that whizzed past Flach’s right ear and landed beyond the baseline – during a quick net exchange. The French team were certain that the ball had clipped Flach’s long hair, so the umpire appealed to Flach, who pleaded ignorance. "I still don't know if that ball hit me," said Flach in 1987. "You ever have a serve just zip by your ear when you're at the net? You feel the breeze? It was like that."

Flach, who also partnered compatriot Kathy Jordan to the 1986 Roland Garros and Wimbledon mixed doubles crowns, called time on his career in 1996 and soon coaching became his passion. As a singles player, he rose to a career-high No. 56 in the ATP Rankings on 9 December 1985 and his best Grand Slam performance came at the 1987 US Open, when he reached the fourth round (l. to Wilander). Flach had an 11-2 record in Davis Cup, including an appearance versus France in the 1991 final.

Off the court, Flach was a dedicated family man with four children from his first marriage to model Sandra Freeman, who he married shortly after the 1986 US Open. He spent time coaching in Naples, Florida and eight years at Vanderbilt University (1997-2005), where he led the Commodores to their first NCAA berth in 1999 and was named Southeastern ‘Coach of the Year’ in 2003, when the team reached the NCAA finals. Moving to California in 2010, he became director of tennis at Rolling Hills in Novato and married Christina Friedman, a make-up entrepreneur, who also has four children, having met on a train from St. Louis to the North Bay. Two years later, Flach opened the Best Lil’ Porkhouse, in San Rafael, California, which he ran with his oldest child, Dylan.

A fan of Bruce Springstein and St. Louis Cardinals baseball, Flach was also a low-handicap and dedicated golfer. In November 2016, he attended the Nitto ATP Finals as part of a reunion of players from the 1980s who had competed at the season finale.

Ken Flach, tennis player, coach and restauranteur, born 24 May 1963, died 12 March 2018.

The Tennis World Pays Tribute

Carling Bassett, former WTA pro and wife of Robert Seguso:
"I had the great pleasure spending most of my 20s and 30s raising our family along side Ken and Sandra's. Our children were the same age, so not only did we spend time together at tournaments but also in our off time. Ken was always mischievous and had a very dry wit that kept us all entertained. He always adored his family and it was always his number one priority. He remarried his second wife Christina eight years ago. What special times we have had since retiring from the pro tennis life. Robert and Ken shared a passion for golf together and the past few years talked daily on investments and family etc.

"He was taken much too young. It doesn't seem fair, but I have to remember all the wonderful times we had throughout the 31 years of friendship. Ken will always hold a very special place in our hearts, with the fondest of memories. My prayers go out to Christina and her family because she loved 'Kendra' (his nickname) to pieces. She couldn't have said kinder things about him raising her children. He treated them as his own. Ken will be remembered with a loving heart and a passion for life. You will be missed physically, but your presence will always be there in spirit. RIP Ken, we will reunite soon! God bless."

Peter Fleming, former doubles World No. 1 and seven-time Grand Slam champion
Ken was really similar to me personality wise - really competitive, argumentative and feisty and as such we never really mixed as players, although we played against one another three or four times. What was one of the greatest surprises to me is that five years ago I was touring around California and I was told Ken was coaching at a nearby club. We met and he was really funny and generous. He invited me to come to his house for dinner and I ended up staying four or five days. It was incredible, he was an entirely different guy from his playing days. Ken and his wife, Christina, were both really welcoming and we became great friends. He became like a brother. We played golf together and he was really good, a four handicap. It’s so sad that he has passed away and I send my condolences to his family.

Rick Leach, former doubles World No. 1 and five-time Grand Slam champion
First of all, my heart goes out to Ken's loving wife Christina and his kids because they're the ones experiencing the greatest loss. I was very fortunate to have played doubles with Ken for an entire year. He put me on his shoulders and carried me to a US Open title in 1993. The last time we spoke we were talking about barbecue, not tennis! I will miss hanging out with him and watching his laser backhand return. Rest In Peace, partner.

Mark Knowles, former doubles World No. 1 and three-time Grand Slam champion
Having grown up with his brother, Doug, we were always around Ken. He was such a nice guy and helped me with advice on how to navigate the Tour. Our friendship grew over the years and I even had the honour of playing doubles with him at Wimbledon. He was a legend of the game and we will miss him greatly! Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this very difficult time.