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Throwback Thursday: Olmedo produces a first for South America

Alex Olmedo of Peru wins Wimbledon in 1959
by Leigh Walsh
Thursday 15 May 2014

Our Throwback Thursday series continues as Wimbledon.com recgonises the first and only South American men's singles champion...

When the covers roll back on the 23rd of June, players from all over the world will step onto the lawns at The All England Club. From China to Chile, New Zealand to the Netherlands, South Africa to Serbia, flags from around the world will be dotted throughout the draws.

Since the inaugural event in 1877 players from numerous countries have contested The Championships, but just 15 can lay claim to a singles champion: Australia, Brazil, Great Britain (British Isles), Croatia, Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia), Egypt, France, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States.

To one nation, however, 15 should really be 16.

Peru, where nearly 30 million call home, isn’t known for its tennis prowess. In today’s game, their highest ranked male Mauricio Echazu sits at No. 475 in the world rankings, while Bianca Botto, their top female, is positioned at 538.

But for two weeks during the summer of 1959, the South American nation witnessed one of their own light up the global game.

Alex Olmedo, or “the Chief” as he is known, was introduced to tennis by his father, a caretaker at a club near their home in Arequipa, Peru. His journey from the South American country to Wimbledon champion was one that had never been taken before, nor has it since.

Olmedo, who spent time at the University of Southern California where he twice won the NCAA singles and doubles titles, arrived in the south west of London 55 years ago with high hopes. A.J. Cooper, the winner from 1958, had opted to go professional and didn’t return to defend his title, and the Peruvian was installed as one of the favourites.

His biggest challenge was to come from those who honed their skills on the opposite side of the world. Australia was three years into its 16-year reign at SW19, and they provided Olmedo with the biggest hurdles to jump en route to the title.

One Australian legend, Roy Emerson, who would go on to win two Wimbledon crowns, took on Olmedo in the semi-final but was no match for the stylish Peruvian, who dispatched of the No. 8 seed 6-4, 6-0, 6-4.

Next up for the South American was a final showdown with a 20-year-old Rod Laver, who had yet to win the first of his 11 majors. While Laver would go on to become one of the best to swing a racket, Olmedo’s fluid movement, speed around the court and volleying abilities overwhelmed the Australian, who succumbed 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.

Olmedo’s victory saw him become the first South American to hold aloft the Gentlemen’s Singles title and to this day he remains the only one.

The only snag in the tale, however, is that the letters P, E and R were not the three beside Olmedo’s name when he tasted glory, but rather U, S and A.

As an 18-year-old, the Peru native made his way to Cuba where he boarded a plane to Miami. From there, he embarked on a bus journey from East to West, ending up in California where he settled. Once he had made a name for himself in North America it didn’t take long for one of the games’ most successful nations to come calling, albeit controversially. With no Peruvian team represented in Davis Cup, the U.S wanted Olmedo on board, and although he never became a US citizen, the Peruvian lined out for his adopted country in 1958 and '59 - the year he won at SW19.

While Olmedo’s win in 1959 may go down in history as one of the 33 times a U.S man has won at Wimbledon, it will be remembered as a victory born and nurtured in Peru. 

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