Long before coaching John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier to a Davis Cup title, and long before becoming the greatest male singles tennis player in state history, Seattle native Tom Gorman was a little kid sharing a tennis racket with his sisters.
“I was 6, but my memory is clear,” said Gorman, who was ranked as high as No. 8 in the world in singles and reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the French Open. “My mom’s dad gave a racket to me and my sisters, who are twins and four years older.”
The racket situation wasn’t ideal, but living two houses from tennis courts at the playground on Northeast 50th Street was.
That’s where it started for Gorman, whose natural athletic skill came through on the court. He couldn’t have dreamed where tennis would take him: from a star at Seattle Prep and Seattle University to the game’s biggest stages.
Gorman won seven professional tournaments and beat many of the game’s greatest players — Jimmy Connors in the French Open, Bjorn Borg in the final of the Stockholm Open, Rod Laver in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, to name a few — while also being well respected and liked, qualities that helped propel him to U.S. Davis Cup captain for eight years.
Gorman, 74, is retired and living in Atlanta. He left Seattle after college to play professionally but was a role model for other local players, such as Patrick Galbraith, the Tacoma native who became ranked No. 1 in the world in doubles and is now chairman of the board and president of the United States Tennis Association.
“He was a legend in the Northwest for sure,” said Galbraith, who lives on Bainbridge Island and is 17 years younger than Gorman. “I got a chance to hit with him a couple of times, which was a real thrill for me. He was the player that all (Seattle-area) juniors looked up to.”
Trading baseball for tennis
Gorman didn’t grow up dreaming of playing at Wimbledon.
He wanted to play baseball for the New York Yankees.
“When I was 9 and 10, that’s what I wanted,” he said. “I was playing Little League, but at the same time I started playing tennis and had a little bit of local success.”
Gorman’s big break came at age 10 when he played in his first city of Seattle tournament. In the first round he played Steve Hopps, who later became his teammate and doubles partner at Seattle University.
Hopps won that match, but the two decided to play together in doubles.
“We ended up getting to the finals of the tournament, and we made an impression on the Washington State Tennis Patrons, and they offered Steve and myself a junior membership to play at the Seattle Tennis Club,” Gorman said. “So I started playing tennis. I was very athletic and pretty fast on the tennis court. That helped me in my early years have a little bit of success, and that was fun.”
The baseball dream ended a couple of years before he went to high school, when a couple tennis players at Seattle Prep had a talk with Gorman.
“They knew my love of baseball and said something like, ‘Why do you want to spend all summer on dusty baseball fields in Seattle when you can travel and play junior tennis tournaments and go to places like Yakima and Wenatchee and Spokane and Portland?’ ” Gorman said. “To me that sounded pretty good. That was the end of my baseball career. I started playing tennis full time.”
Gorman won three consecutive state titles at Seattle Prep (1962-64), losing one match in three years, and rose to No. 31 in the national junior rankings. He longed to play for USC or UCLA but wasn’t offered a scholarship. Notre Dame didn’t offer one either, so he went to Seattle University.
He reached the NCAA quarterfinals twice and won his final 43 dual matches. Gorman said playing for Seattle U ended up being the best thing he could have done.
“I played the No. 1 players on every team we played against,” he said. “I look back now, and if I had gone to USC I probably would have been No. 5 or 6 on the team, and I wouldn’t have had as much competition. The other players who were top juniors had big improvements when they were 15, 16, 17 and 18, and mine came at 19, 20, 21 and 22.”
Playing — and beating — the best
Gorman left college at a fortuitous time in spring 1968. For the first time professionals were allowed to play in Grand Slam events such as Wimbledon and the U.S. Open — and prize money began being offered.
“One week I’m playing for $25 in expense money, and the next week if I lose in the first round the prize money is $500,” Gorman said. “I thought, ‘That’s unbelievable.’ When I was in high school there wasn’t pro tennis, so it wasn’t something you were dreaming to be.”
Gorman played aggressively, using his speed to get to the net. It served him well.
In 1971 he shocked world No. 1 Laver in the London Grass Court Championships, then proved it was no fluke two weeks later when he faced Laver in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.
Gorman beat the four-time Wimbledon champion 9-7, 8-6, 6-3.
“That’s the best match I ever played,” Gorman said.
Gorman said the best tournament he played was in 1973, when he beat Swedish legend Borg in front of his home crowd in the final of the Stockholm Open.
Gorman said playing on the 1972 title-winning U.S. Davis Cup team stands out, too.
“We played all of our matches away from home — five that year,” Gorman said. “I didn’t play singles in all of them — I played a few — but being a part of that team and winning a real world championship was definitely a highlight of my playing career.”
Gorman also gained fame at a tournament he didn’t win. He was playing Stan Smith in the semifinals of the season-ending Masters tournament in Barcelona, Spain, and had match point. But earlier in that set, Gorman had tweaked his back, and he knew there was no way he could play the next day against Ilie Nastase for the title.
“At the end it got to the point where I was trying to miss shots, but they kept going in, outright winners, which included the point that got me to match point,” Gorman said. “The thought came through my head, and it was an easy decision because I knew there was no way I could probably even get out of bed the next day. Literally, after that shot I was trying to hit as hard as I could, I kept on walking straight to the umpire on the chair and tried to explain why I was quitting.”
The potential money lost from quitting one point from victory didn’t enter Gorman’s mind. He knew it was the right thing to do, and his act of sportsmanship became national news.
Gorman, who retired as a player after 1980, got a chance to play in front of his hometown fans for two summers (1977-78) as player/coach for the Sea-Port Cascades in World Team Tennis. The team played half of its matches at the old Seattle Arena.
“I loved it,” Gorman said. “For years, I was traveling all over the world and only had a chance to play in Seattle once, in an exhibition. So this was great. I got to be home for two months, and we had a great team and a great following.”
Leading the Dream Team
Gorman was captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team from 1986-93, and he shares the record (with Patrick McEnroe) for most victories as a U.S. captain with 18. He led the team to titles in 1990 and 1992.
The 1992 squad was considered The Dream Team, with John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, all ranked No. 1 in the world at one point.
“That year, I’m choosing Agassi and Courier (to play singles) over Pete Sampras,” Gorman said. “That’s not easy.”
Gorman said coaching the team was a tremendous honor and that his biggest jobs were managing egos and making sure players were comfortable while sitting next to him during changeovers.
“I’m not telling John McEnroe how to hit a volley,” said Gorman, who was also the coach of the 1988 and 1992 U.S. Olympic tennis teams. “I knew, having played Davis Cup and sitting next to my captain, that I had to be comfortable with him. I wanted to make everything as comfortable as we could for them so on the changeovers they were OK with sitting there (with Gorman) because they’re going through incredible emotions. I knew as a player you feel more pressure because you’re representing your country.”
The most rewarding moment of Gorman’s Davis Cup coaching career came in 1992 as Courier was serving for match point in the title-clinching win over Switzerland.
“The crowd is on its feet, screaming and chanting ‘USA, USA’ and the camera goes to Pete, John and Andre, who have come out of their seats in the front row and are right behind me,” Gorman said. “They’re screaming and cheering … and they were so much a part of the team, and that moment. I can still see it.”
Life after tennis
Gorman and his wife Danni raised daughters Hailey and Kelly Anne in Atlanta. In 2008 Gorman moved to Southern California to become director of tennis at La Quinta Resort, which he and a large group of other players — including Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith and Roscoe Tanner — had started in 1977.
“That was a very nostalgic move, and I really enjoyed it,” Gorman said. “I spent a lot of time on the court teaching — which I had been doing sporadically — and I really enjoyed it.”
In 2015, Gorman retired to Sun Valley, Idaho. But when his daughters and their husbands moved to Atlanta, Gorman and his wife followed. They have three grandkids, all born in the past two years.
Gorman, whose sisters still live in Seattle, said he doesn’t get back often these days, “but I’m a proud Seattleite.”
Gorman hasn’t played tennis in five years but has taken up golf. His golf bag is Seahawks colors and he has a Seahawks towel.
“And I agonize with the Mariners,” said Gorman, who was also a big fan of the Sonics. “I never changed my allegiance.”
Gorman left Seattle more than 50 years ago, but no tennis player from here has ever been better.
“He propelled tennis in the Northwest,” Galbraith said. “He was definitely the one leading the way.”