All eyes in the Danish tennis world are on the Olympic Games in Rio, where Denmark’s current tennis darling Caroline Wozniacki is trying to overcome the odds and win a medal.
Despite taking a tumble in the rankings in recent years, there’s little doubt that Wozzy has been the top tennis player Denmark has fostered in the last half century. One could be tempted to say the best ever, but before that there was Kurt. Good old Kurt.
Kurt Nielsen arguably pips Wozzy as the biggest ever name in Danish tennis and for generations the man stood as an international beacon when Denmark and tennis were mentioned in the same breath.
With the rise of Wozniacki over the past decade, Nielsen’s name often falls into the long shadow the young lady’s reputation casts. But Nielsen was more than just another tennis player. In the mid-20th century, he was a household name, not only in Denmark, but across Europe and the Atlantic as well.
He won approximately 30 international titles between 1949 and 1960, including the first Wimbledon junior tournament in 1947.
And he was a two-time runner-up in the Wimbledon Men’s Final (1953 and 1955). He remains the only Danish tennis player to have ever played in a men’s singles final in a grand slam tournament.
Born on 19 November 1930, Nielsen grew up in Hellerup, where he showed signs of talent at an early age. His father was instrumental in young Nielsen’s grooming, purposefully pacing his youngest son towards a career on the tennis court. A few years after World War II, Kurt Nielsen, at the age of 17, became the nation’s best tennis player.
His climb to stardom began after winning the boys’ singles tournament at Wimbledon in 1947, where he defeated Swedish-born Sven Davidson. From there, he kicked on with a steady stream of wins, securing yet another boys’ singles title at the French Open the following year.
Nielsen then entered the senior tour with resounding force, reaching the senior quarter-finals of the French Open twice and the US Open once.
In 1953, the young Dane reached the singles final at Wimbledon where he lost to American Vic Seixas after defeating Australian superstar Ken Rosewell in the quarter-finals. He would get a chance to redeem himself two years later, but would fall short again in the final, this time losing to American player Tony Trabert.
As frustrated as he may have been, Nielsen would finally taste victory in 1957 with help from American player Althea Gibson.
The two teamed up to win the US Open mixed doubles tournament in 1957, thereby making Kurt Nielsen the first Dane to win a grand slam event as a senior.
The following year, Nielsen and Gibson once again made a grand slam final, this time at Wimbledon, where they lost to Australian duo Robert Howe and Lorraine Coghlan Robinson. The same year, Nielsen would reach the men’s singles semi-finals at Wimbledon.
From champ to commentator
After a long and fantastic career, which included playing in 96 Davis Cup matches for Denmark with a record of 53-43 as well as holding the record for the most Danish national tennis championships (50), Nielsen retired.
He then dabbled with coaching in Denmark, Spain and West Germany. He held numerous honourable positions at leading international tennis associations, as well as being supervisor and referee at many grand slam events. He was also a commentator on the Danish version of the TV channel Eurosport until late 2006.
Kurt Nielsen played into the hearts of tennis fans around the globe. A percussion hard server, with a lovely sweeping flight of games and a huge physical and mental willpower placed him among the best tennis players in the world.
In 2007, journalist Flemming Vitus wrote a book on Nielsen entitled ‘The Great Dane’, which chronicled the life and times of the Danish superstar.
Illustrated with pictures downloaded directly from the family scrapbook and packed with interviews of Kurt himself, his immediate family and friends, colleagues and tennis opponents, the book candidly reflects the storyline of one of Denmark’s greatest players ever to step foot on the tennis court.
Nielsen, who passed away aged 80 in 2011, was also the grandfather of Danish tennis player Frederik Løchte Nielsen, born on 27 August 1983, who turned professional in 2000 and went on to emulate Kurt at the grand slams by triumphing at the one that eluded him the most, winning the Wimbledon men’s doubles in 2012.