In his 1979 autobiography, Jack Kramer, the long-time tennis promoter and great player himself, ranked Hoad as one of the 21 best players of all time. For five straight years, beginning in 1952, he was ranked in the world top 10 for amateurs, reaching the World No. 1 spot in 1956. Hoad turned professional in July 1957.
Hoad won four majors as an amateur, and won the 1959 Tournament of Champions as a professional. Rod Laver, writing for the Herald Sun newspaper in 2012, ranked Lew as the greatest player of the 'Past Champions' era of tennis. Laver described his strengths of "power, volleying and explosiveness" as justification of his accolade.
Hoad (second from left) profiled in a magazine spread in the early 1950s discussing young and rising Australian sportspeople
With his movie-star good looks, powerful physique, and outgoing personality, Hoad became a tennis icon in the 1950s. As Kramer says,
"Everybody loved Hoad, even Pancho Gonzales. They should put that on Lew's tombstone as the ultimate praise for the man.... Even when Hoad was clobbering Gonzales, Gorgo wanted his respect and friendship."
Lew Hoad was born in 1934, in the working-class Sydney inner suburb of Glebe, the son of a tramwayman. In his youth he often played with Ken Rosewall and they became known as the Sydney 'twins', although they had very different physique, personality and playing style. Hoad built up enormous physical strength, especially in his hands and arms, by training at a police boys' club, where he made a name as a boxer. Hoad was about 12 when he was introduced to Adrian Quist, a former Australian tennis champion and then general manager of the Dunlop sports goods company. Quist played a couple of sets with Hoad and was impressed by his natural ability. When Hoad was 14 he left school and joined the Dunlop payroll, following the pattern of that 'shamateur' era when most of Australia's brightest tennis prospects were employed by sporting goods companies.
Strength played an important part of Hoad's game, as he often drove for winners rather than rallying and waiting for the right opportunity. Although he assaulted his opponents, he also had the skill to win the French Championships on the slower clay court. According to Kramer, "Hoad had the loosest game of any good kid I ever saw. There was absolutely no pattern to his game.... He was the only player I ever saw who could stand six or seven feet behind the baseline and snap the ball back hard, crosscourt. He'd try for winners off everything, off great serves, off tricky short balls, off low volleys. He hit hard overspin drives, and there was no way you could ever get him to temporise on important points."
Hoad was a member of the Australian team that between 1952 and 1956 won the Davis Cup four times. He is often remembered for his match as a 19-year-old amateur in the 1953 Davis Cup against the great United States champion Tony Trabert. In a titanic struggle, Hoad defeated Trabert by a score of 13–11, 6–3, 3–6, 2–6, 7–5 to help his country retain the Cup.
In 1956 he won the first three stages of the Grand Slam tennis tournaments and was favoured to win the fourth and then turn professional for a lucrative contract offered by Jack Kramer. In a significant upset, however, he lost to fellow Australian Ken Rosewall in the United States Championship at Forest Hills. Fresh from his victory over Hoad, it was Ken Rosewall who signed the professional contract and went on to spend the new year as the regular victim of Pancho Gonzales on the pro tour. At a time when only amateur players were allowed to compete in the four national championships, Hoad finally turned professional after winning his second successive Wimbledon singles title in July 1957.
His first year as a pro was a series of head-to-head matches with the reigning king of professional tennis, Pancho Gonzales. Hoad won 18 of the first 27 matches, but Gonzales surged back to finally defeat Hoad by 51 matches to 36. Gonzales, whom some consider to be the greatest tennis player of all time, always maintained that Hoad was the toughest, most skilful adversary that he had ever faced. "He was the only guy who, if I was playing my best tennis, could still beat me," said Gonzales in a 1995 New York Times interview. "I think his game was the best game ever. Better than mine. He was capable of making more shots than anybody. His two volleys were great. His overhead was enormous. He had the most natural tennis mind with the most natural tennis physique."
Kramer, however, clearly has mixed feelings about Hoad's ability. In spite of calling him one of the 21 best players of all time, he also writes that "when you sum Hoad up, you have to say that he was overrated. He might have been the best, but day-to-day, week-to-week, he was the most inconsistent of all the top players." When Kramer was thirty-seven, and a part-time player, he played a number of matches against Hoad just after the Australian had turned professional. "I actually beat him thirteen matches to twelve. That was because he just didn't give a damn when he played me.... It was the same thing with Segura, and Lew lost a majority of his matches to Segoo.... He wanted to beat Kenny, and he did. Remember now, Hoad lost 13–12 to me while Rosewall beat me 22–4, but Hoad turned it around and won two-thirds of his matches against Rosewall."
Back problems plagued Hoad throughout his career and forced his retirement from the tennis tour in the mid 1960s. Kramer compares Hoad to another great player, Ellsworth Vines. "Both were very strong guys. Both succeeded at a very young age.... Also, both were very lazy guys. Vines lost interest in tennis (for golf) before he was thirty, and Hoad never appeared to be very interested. Despite their great natural ability, neither put up the outstanding records that they were capable of. Unfortunately, the latter was largely true because both had physical problems."
In retirement, Hoad moved to Fuengirola, Spain, near Málaga, where he and his tennis-playing wife, Jenny Staley, operated a tennis resort for more than thirty years entertaining personal friends such as actors Sean Connery, Kirk Douglas, and Charlton Heston.
Lew Hoad was battling leukaemia and waiting for a bone marrow donor when, in his weakened condition, he died of a heart attack in 1994 at the age of 59. A book co-written with Jack Pollard and titled My Game (and "The Lew Hoad story" in the USA) was published in 1958. In 2003, Pollard teamed up with his widow, Jenny, to write My Life With Lew.