By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
The tennis world lost one of its best players and Pacific Palisades lost one of its finest persons on the morning of December 23 when Gilbert Shea passed away from natural causes at the age of 92.
Although history will define him by what he achieved on the court, those who knew him best will remember him for the softspoken man he was outside the lines, away from the crowds.
“There have only been a handful of world class tennis players to live in the Palisades and Gil was among the best,” said teaching pro Ron Hightower, an NCAA All-American and former Riviera Tennis Club Director. “Not only was he our American tennis treasure, he was a classy champion, husband, father and friend.”
Known as “Gibby” off the court, Shea was ranked fourth in the country in singles in 1957 and played Grand Slam and Davis Cup events from 1948 to 1959. In 2013 he was inducted into the Southern California Tennis Association Hall of Fame—a ceremony all the more special to him because it was held at Riviera, where he enjoyed watching his wife Claire and some of his friends play. Fellow honorees that year included Vic Braden, Michael Chang, Lindsay Davenport, Rick Leach and Kathy Willette.
“At one point in my life, tennis was very important to me,” Shea said at the time. “I loved the competition. I traveled all over the world. I probably started playing the game when I was around 8 years old.”
Born in Oregon, Shea moved with his family to California when he was only 3. He attended Los Angeles High school, played No. 1 singles at USC and later joined the Army for two years, serving in the Korean War and becoming Army tennis champion in 1952 before returning to USC for his senior year and graduating with a degree in Business.
“At USC we had some great matches against UCLA,” he recalled at his induction. “We played with the old ‘woody,’ the Kramer wooden racquet. The game has changed since the 1950s when there were more serve-and-volleyers. Seldom do guys go to net upon serve anymore.”
Perhaps the highlight of Shea’s career was twice defeating Vic Seixas, once in 1955 when Seixas was the third-seeded player at Wimbledon. That year, Shea advanced to the fourth round at the All England Club. He also won the National Hardcourt Championships in 1957 and twice beat Roy Emerson—the Australian who retired in 1983 with 12 Grand Slam singles titles, a record that stood until Pete Sampras won his 13th major at Wimbledon in 2000.
Gil’s brother John, who was two years older, played No. 6 on USC’s team and even before they were teenagers the two rode their bikes every day from their home in Hancock Park to the Los Angeles Tennis Club. They were surrounded by some of the best tennis players in the world at that time, including Tony Trabert.
John was always a better tennis player and recounted a story that one day when Gil was around 17 and John was 19 (and likely on the USC team already), Gil challenged him to a match and they bet $100. What happened next was that just about every tennis player in the club sat in the stands at center court to watch the match. Gil won and from that point on, he always beat his brother. As it turned out, that was just the beginning for “Gibby.”
Making his Grand Slam debut at the U. S. Championships in 1948, Shea lost in the third round to Jaroslav Drobny. In 1949 he lost in the second round and in 1950 he was ousted in the first round, but in 1952 and again in 1953 he advanced to the third round. In 1954 he reached the third round at the French Open (Roland Garros), made the round of 16 at Wimbledon and made the third round at the U.S. Open. The next year in London he upset Seixas in the second round, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, and Australian Adrian Quist in the third round, 6-2, 5-7, 7-5, 6-3, before losing in the round of 16 to Italy’s Nicola Pietrangeli in four sets.
At the 1956 Australian Open, Shea beat Emerson before losing in the quarterfinals to Neale Fraser. He lost in the second round at Wimbledon and reached the round of 16 at the U.S. Open, again falling to Fraser. In 1957, Shea advanced to the third round at the U.S. Open on the grass at Forest Hills, N.Y. and the second round at the French.
Shea further elaborated on his career at his Hall of Fame induction: “I spent a lot of time at the Los Angeles Tennis Club during the 1940s and 1950s. All the good players were there, like Bobby Riggs, Don Budge, Bill Tilden and many others.”
At USC, Shea’s aggressive serve-and-volley style flourished, and he became one of the top American players. In 1954, he was ranked No. 10. The next year, he moved to No. 6. and in 1957 he rose to his career-high No. 4 and made the Pacific Southwest finals. A stellar athlete who covered the court superbly, Shea was always in the trophy hunt. His 1954 results clearly indicate his talent: he defeated Edward Moylan in the National Hard Court Championships final. At the Cannes Tennis Championships, he outlasted Tony Vincent for the title. In 1955, he won the first of his three consecutive singles championships at the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament, beating Clyde Hippensteil in the final. The next year, he beat Earl Baumgardner in the Ojai final and also won the Southern California Sectional Championships. Shea capped his Ojai trifecta in 1957 with a victory over Noel Brown in the final.
“I was a member of the US Davis Cup team in 1955 with [Tony] Trabert, [Vic]Seixas and [Hamilton] Richardson,” Shea said in an autobiographical account for his induction ceremony. “I was ranked in the Top 10 for four years and then retired. I was drafted and had to serve two years in the US Army, which were two of my prime playing years (23 and 24 years old). Overall, tennis was great for me.”
After graduating from USC Shea traveled across the globe competing internationally for the USA in the Grand Slam events. “Big Serving Shea” played in other celebrated tournaments in Dublin, Cairo, Rome, Barcelona and all over America.
In December 1954, Shea swept Moylan, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4, to win the men’s national hardcourt championships at La Jolla Beach.
In 1957 he advanced to the semifinals in doubles at Wimbledon. Shortly after retiring from the tennis circuit in 1959, he moved to Manhattan Beach and met schoolteacher Claire Wellenkamp, whom he married in her hometown of Santa Maria in 1961.
Shea went into the securities business and eventually moved to the Palisades in 1967, where he and Claire raised their five children. He opened up a sales office in LA for Lehman Brothers, then worked for Seidler Amdec and other brokerage firms for the rest of his life. He liked the securities business because it allowed him to spend his afternoons with his wife and kids at nearby Palisades Recreation Center and Riviera Country Club, teaching them to play tennis. As a result, four of his children ended up playing collegiately in the University of California system.
As he grew older, Shea’s passion slowly switched from tennis to golf, another sport at which he excelled. He loved playing golf with friends and family, mostly on courses close to home. In particular, he enjoyed teeing off with his two sons and the sport became his passion. He rarely talked about himself or his tennis credentials.
A devout Catholic who often attended daily mass at Corpus Christi and could often be seen riding his bike to and from church well into his 80s. His faith seemed to lead him in all that he did. His humility and effusive positivity, his dedication to work and his fun-loving nature combined for a greatness of heart and passion for living. His signature chuckle and laughter will be remembered by those whose lives he touched.
The Palisades was a big part of Shea’s life and he credited a friend of his, Jack Douglas, who was a quarterback and tennis player at Stanford University before becoming a real estate agent, with discovering he and Calire’s future home.
“Jack called me and said, ‘Gil, I’ve got your house for you,’” Shea reminisced a few years ago. “We initially had a nice little place with only three bedrooms in Brentwood. Prices were so cheap, I think I only paid $10,000 for my house, so I was very fortunate. We love the Palisades, and we’re very lucky to be here.”
Shea’s children—daughters Mollie Dietsch, Jenny Swan and Besty Tripaldi and sons Michael Shea and Gilbert Shea Jr.—all attended Corpus Christi. His daughters went to Marymount High and his sons went to Loyola High. Mollie, who still resides in the Palisades, earned a tennis scholarship to UC Santa Barbara, where Michael played for five years as a walk-on.
Shea was pre-deceased by his sister Susie Hanrahan and he is survived by his wife, children, 16 grandchildren and three siblings: John, Maureen (Robinson) and Mollie (O’Melveny).
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