CLASS OF 2006
Dr. Robert E. Leach
By Anne Gardner
Like father, like son. Or should it be the other way around for this famous father-son tennis tandem? Five years after his son Michael was inducted into the USTA New England Hall of Fame the elder Leach will be justly honored as well. Indeed, when asked about this latest athletic accolade Dr. Robert Leach waxed poetic: “My son Michael is responsible. He made me a pretty good tennis player.”
If it was Michael that pressed his father to fully realize his tennis prowess it clearly didn’t take much encouragement. Bob Leach has always been a natural athlete, gifted with enough quickness and agility to make him a successful football player and wrestler at both the high school and collegiate levels. With team competition seemingly behind him, Bob nonetheless continued to be recognized as a superior athlete. While stationed at the U.S. Naval Hospital in San Diego his friend David Zohn entered them both, as doubles partners, in a local tennis tournament. When told, Bob wryly pointed out that he didn’t play tennis. Nonplussed, David noted Bob’s winning ways during every push-up and pull-up contest on base. Surely he would shine on court as well.
And shine he did, but not before skidding across some rough patches during his early career. Determined to improve, Bob started taking lessons in his mid-30s. He enjoyed the challenge, the discipline and the mental toughness that this new endeavor required of him. In his first full year of tournament competition he lost every match, some by a small margin, some by much more. Undeterred he slogged on, knowing that skill would emerge if his discipline remained intact.
In the early 1970s Michael asked him to act as his practice partner. Just 11-years-old at the time it was evident to Bob that his young son was very talented, a gift he shared with his father. The combination was magical. Soon the pair was ranked, holding the No. 1 position for six of the seven years between 1976-1982. Their success was no longer restricted to just the Northeast quadrant. Bob and Michael earned a national ranking of 3, 1 and 4 (consecutively) from 1979-1981 as a father/son doubles duo.
Just as their profile began to rise they stopped playing, at least together. Michael finished his collegiate career and went on to the professional ranks. Now, without his long-time wingman, Bob put down his racquet, trading his racquet strings for sailing lines. Soon Bob was racing yachts with the likes of Bill Koch and the America’s Cup team. An avid sportsman he had found a different outlet for his competitive spirit.
All the while his reputation within athletic circles was becoming even more prominent, but not for his athletic skill but for his medical skill. A trusted and renowned physician, Bob became the orthopedic surgeon of record for the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Celtics, the Boston Lobsters and many famous individual athletes, including Joan Benoit Samuelson, a fellow Maine native and previous winner of the Boston Marathon. His contributions to the field also included a stint as the editor of the "American Journal of Sports Medicine" (1989-2006) and as the editor of "Tennis New England" (1977-79).
Michael and Bob would later return to the tournament circuit, interestingly enough at Michael’s request. In 1990, 10 years after their first No. 1-national ranking, the Leach team returned to the top of tennis’ heap, winning the National Father/Son Grass Court Tournament in both 1990 and 1991. Held on their “home court” at Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill, Mass., their success was witnessed by scads of friends and family, a sweet and poignant moment for both men.
A few years ago Dick Savitt, winner of both the Wimbledon and the Australian Open championships in 1951, looked Bob in the eye and told him he was a good player. Even now the remark seems to give this highly successful man pause. Indeed, to be recognized by one’s peers is one of life’s greatest honors. One that Bob Leach richly deserves.
Anne Gardner is an avid tennis fan, a 2005 Harvard graduate and a member of USTA New England's Communications Committee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Robert Leach's Induction Speech, by Michael Leach
Dr. Robert Leach's Acceptance Speech