My Friend Abe. by Gordon Forbes.
Abe died in Cape Town on the night of 4th April 2016, with his devoted friend, Deborah Curtis Setchell, at his bedside. Abe and I met 63 years ago in the locker-room of the Ellis Park tennis courts, when he came over to my corner and chided me for being too quiet. ’Don’t they make noise on that farm of yours, Kid?’ I was 19 and he 22, and we have been friends and doubles partners ever since. There’ll never be another Abe. They talk of breaking the mould, well, his mould was well and truly broken! Such a good man. Generous, forthright, strong, big-hearted, loyal, compassionate – a rough diamond, with the diamond part flawless, and the rough part filled with the unique kind of humour that made his friends laugh in amazement, while at the same time shaking their heads at the fun of it!
Only a few weeks ago, on a still evening in Plettenberg Bay, we sat together, looking at the sea, yakking away, and sipping the whiskies that Tony Bloom had poured for us. Lately, we’ve talked nearly every week, being able to say the same things more than once, because we both forgot what we said the week before. Suddenly, though, this time, towards the end of the evening, he touched his glass to mine and said, ‘Cheers, Forbsey. We’ve had a great time, but the game’s over. Thanks for everything.’ Maybe he had some kind of premonition, for I know he wasn’t feeling well.... But he never complained. In all the time I have known Abe, I have never, ever, heard him complain. Not once. And he was thanking me! I ask you! It was I who should have....
He was a great tennis-player, was Abe. Look at his results over the years, and one is fully amazed! For a start, he had one of the best left-hand serves of all time – fine volleys, safe backhand and a huge forehand that sometimes went off at a tangent and ran amuck. I still remember the time at Roland Garros when he hit a forehand into the President’s Box without a bounce. It hit one of the officials in the chest, while the base-linesman triumphantly called “Out”! Or the time, on the Wimbledon Centre Court, playing Rex Hartwig, when Rex tried to run around his serve to hit a forehand. The ball simply followed him, until he had to catch it with his left hand, in front of his chest. Abe’s serve used to swerve like mad, especially the second one. And what about the lineswoman at Wimbledon who had too much wine for lunch and was asleep when Abe, playing Clark Graebner, won the match-point? ‘Clark’s game is kinda boring, Forbsey,’ he told me. ‘So I guess she’s entitled to take a nap.’ Odd things happened to Abe almost continually – things that never failed to amuse the millions of people all over the world that loved him.
For instance, suddenly, aged sixty-nine, he became a painter, surprising everyone (including himself) when his paintings were exhibited at The Everard Read Gallery. Even here, Abe was unorthodox. Always impatient, he’d invented a way of turning his canvasses upside down, so as to do his skies without disturbing the still wet scenery below. Although, in my speech, I warned the Read Gallery patrons that the skies on the paintings were all upside down, they bought every last one. ‘A sky’s a sky, Forbsey,’ was Abe’s comment. ‘I’ve never seen one with a lable sayin’ “this side up.”
Thus Abie. I could go on and on, and I am sure that I speak also for his daughters, Nancy and Susie, his wonderful wife, Heather, who died some years ago, and his friend, companion and helpmate, Deborah. I can’t believe I’ll never hear his voice again. Never again have him walk across the court to my side, cup his hand and say, ‘for God’s sake, Forbsey, can you please stop bein’ nervous, grip your racket and watch the friggin’ ball!’ A part of my life, and, I am sure, a good many other lives, will go with Abe. We wish him a good rest, and salute him for a game well played, and a life well lived.