By Randy Walker
The 2018 edition of The Championships at Wimbledon marks the 50th anniversary of the first time the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament opened its gates to professionals.
At that first “open” Wimbledon in 1968, New Yorker Herb Fitzgibbon, now of Vero Beach, Florida, created a slice of history becoming the first amateur player to beat a professional at the event when he upset No. 16 seed and defending semifinalist Niki Pilic of Yugoslavia 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-2.
The Associated Press reported that Pilic “found Fitzgibbon’s spin serve too much. The Yugoslav also was a baffled by the American’s verve around the court.”
Said Fitzgibbon after the victory, “I couldn’t touch Pilic’s service in the first set. Then his service started going off. Since I got out of the Army two months ago, I have been playing the European hard court circuit and that has helped my ground strokes.”
For his victory, Fitzgibbon earned a second-round clash against Britain’s Mark Cox on Wimbledon’s famed Centre Court, but was defeated in an epic five-set clash 4-6, 6-3, 7-9, 9-7, 12-10. Cox, ironically like Fitzgibbon, became a footnote in tennis history himself two months earlier as an amateur beating a professional two months earlier when he was the first amateur to register a win over a pro in any event when he defeated Pancho Gonzalez in the opening round of the British Hard Court Championships at Bournemouth, England, the famous first ever “Open” tournament that ushered in the “Open Era” of tennis.
Fitzgibbon, a graduate of and standout tennis team member for Princeton University, achieved his best result at a major championship just before his historic Wimbledon win when he reached the fourth round at the French Open, the first-ever major tournament open to both amateurs and pros, losing to eventual champion Ken Rosewall. Later in 1968, he won a bronze in singles and gold in mixed doubles with Julie Heldman at the Olympic tennis demonstration event in Mexico City. His best career tournament title came in the amateur era when he won the title in 1964 in Cincinnati, now the prestigious pre-US Open Western & Southern Financial Masters. He also was the singles runner-up there in 1963 and 1965.
“Tennis opened doors for me,” said Fitzgibbon in the cover story of the April edition of Vero Beach Magazine. “I learned very early on that people are attracted to someone good at something.”
Following his tennis career, Fitzgibbon also became a champion at platform tennis while earning great success in finance on Wall Street, working for F. Eberstadt and Co. and Oppenheimer Capital.
“I feel proud of my accomplishments in the financial field,” Fitzgibbon said to Vero Beach Magazine. “ I was supposed to be good at sports. It came naturally. But I had to really work hard at Oppenheimer, learn so much and reinforce my ego now that tennis was on the back burner.”
Fitzgibbon eventually retired to the Windsor community in Vero Beach, Florida, where Tom Fish, the father of former U.S. Davis Cup star Mardy Fish, serves as the Director of Tennis and where Hall of Famer Ivan Lendl also resides. He now works with and supports numerous charities including the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation and its annual U.S. Tennis Association Pro Circuit “Futures” tennis tournament.
By Randy Walker