NEW YORK — Art Larsen, a national tennis champion whose career was marked by eccentricity and cut short by a motor scooter accident that nearly killed him, died Dec. 7 in San Leandro, Calif. He was 87.
With a solid if not overly powerful serve, reliable groundstrokes, excellent foot speed, and quick hands at the net, Mr. Larsen was the top-ranked player in the country in 1950, when he won the US National Championship, the precursor to the US Open, in Queens, N.Y., defeating Herbert Flam. In 1954, he lost to Tony Trabert in the French Open finals. He also won US Indoor, US Hard Court, and US Clay Court titles.
More than for his victories, however, Mr. Larsen was known for his personality quirks. He sometimes addressed an imaginary bird on his shoulder, and he was widely known as Tappy because of his superstitious habit, perhaps a compulsion, of tapping people and things a given number of times on given days.
“Every day was a onesie day, or a fivesie day — that’s what he called them — and if he happened to run into you on, say, a threesie day, he’d tap you three times,’’ Dick Savitt, the 1951 Wimbledon champion, said.
Savitt recalled that Mr. Larsen was not an ascetic athlete. A smoker, a drinker, and a partygoer, he earned his success in spite of his disdain for training.
‘‘I don’t think he knew what the word ‘training’ was, but he was in great shape. He was thin, and he could play all day.’’
On Nov. 10, 1956, Mr. Larsen lost control of his Italian motor scooter on a Northern California highway, an accident that sent him into a coma for three weeks, eventually cost him the sight in his left eye, and partially paralyzed him.
He never competed on the tennis court again.