John Donald Budge (1915-2000)

Don Budge (center) with the 1937 U.S. Davis Cup team

Don Budge’s name will be familiar to many readers as the winner of the first official “Grand Slam” in tennis history, having swept the major Australian, French, Wimbledon, and U.S. Championships in 1938.  This, however, only scratches the surface of Budge’s incredible career.  He won an all-time record six straight majors as an amateur between 1937 and 1938, achieving a 92-match winning streak along the way.  (According to Bud Collins the only longer unbeaten run was by Bill Tilden in the mid-1920s, though Tilden was competing only in America and against less robust opposition.)  Budge also won what many observers still consider the greatest match of all time against Baron Gottfried Von Cramm in the 1937 Davis Cup semifinal.

It can be argued, of course, that two of the best players in the world, Ellsworth Vines and Fred Perry, were not in amateur competition during Budge’s great two-year amateur run, as they were engaged in the early professional tours.  Budge, however, turned pro himself in 1939 and defeated both Vines and Perry in series of matches, leaving no doubts as to who was the greatest player of their time.  Budge’s peak years were sadly cut short by World War II.  Budge sustained a shoulder injury while in service that would hamper him for the rest of his career.  Nevertheless, after the war Budge continued to compete at the highest level, losing narrowly to Bobby Riggs in their 1946 tour.  An aging Budge also reached the finals of the U.S. Pro Championships in 1949 and 1953, losing first to Riggs, then to Pancho Gonzales, who would dominate pro tennis for nearly a decade.

Budge’s predecessors and successors alike have stood in awe of his unbreakable all-court game.  Tilden called him “the finest player 365 days a year that ever lived.”  Jack Kramer, the foremost player of the late 1940s and early 1950s, often stated that Budge was the best player of all time (followed in his opinion by Vines and Tilden) until he revised his judgment two years ago in favor of Roger Federer.  Budge’s backhand has been universally admired; it is often regarded as the single greatest shot in the history of tennis.  Julius Heldman, in his piece “Styles of the Greats” (1971), argued that Budge’s forehand was nearly as good.  The great sportswriter Will Grimsley wrote in 1971 that Budge was “considered by many to be foremost among the all-time greats.”  E. Digby Baltzell echoed this sentiment in his book Sporting Gentlemen (1994), where he wrote that Budge and Rod Laver, the only two male players to have won the official Grand Slam, “have usually been rated at the top of any all-time World Champions list, Budge having a slight edge.”  Polls and experts have routinely listed Budge among the top five or six players in the history of tennis, even though knowledge about him has recently declined.

For me, Budge remains among the top four players who ever lived.  Along with Tilden, Ken Rosewall, and Laver, he is one of tennis’s greatest all-court, all-surface champions, and like them he was nearly as good a doubles player as he was in singles.  In fact, to this day Budge holds one of the most impressive records in tennis history, having won the so-called “Wimbledon Slam” (consisting of the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles) in back-to-back years.  He had every shot, and no part of his game could be considered a weakness.  Budge could pound the ball hard like Vines, and he could take the ball on the rise like Henri Cochet or Perry.  Even though he did not have the fast cannonball service of Tilden, Vines, or Gonzales, Budge’s serve was considered one of the heaviest in his day.  Though Budge was most comfortable playing from the baseline, he was also adept at net, and he even had an excellent stroke volley–a shot which many of today’s fans wrongly believe was a recent invention!

Don Budge is the only tennis player in history to be named Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press twice (1937 and 1938).  He was dominant both as an amateur and as a pro.  That he conquered such first-class rivals during his years at the top–Tilden, Vines, Perry, Von Cramm, and Riggs (prior to World War II), among others–solidifies his claim to tennis greatness, and his heroic comeback victory in the epic 1937 Davis Cup match against Von Cramm lifts his name into the realm of sporting legend.  (I recommend reading Budge’s A Tennis Memoir, especially the first chapter where Budge retells the story of this classic match in some detail.  See also this link for an audio recording of Budge’s post-match comments from 1937, and follow this link for a short video clip of the famous Budge backhand.)

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14 Responses to “John Donald Budge (1915-2000)”

  1. Great article again Brett, thanks

  2. Mein lieber tennis player – Don Budge

  3. Charles Duane Williams Says:

    Hi, I like your articles on the history of tennis. I have been doing some research in the same area of late. I was wondering if you knew anything about the early life of Charles Duane Williams, father of the tennis player Richard Norris Williams II.

    I know Charles Duane Williams was born in Philadelphia in 1860 but I don’t know much about his early life or about why he went to Geneva, where R.N. Williams II was born. I also don’t know much about what Charles Duane Williams did in Geneva or why he decided to leave there (temporarily or permanently) in 1912.

    Would you have any information on this man? I think there might be something on him in the book “Goodbye To All That…” by E Digby Baltzell, but I don’t have access to this book.

    Thanks in advance for any help.

    Mark Ryan

  4. Mark

    I can answer a bit of your question as C.D. Williams was my great grandfather. Unfortunately, no one alive in the family knows when or why he moved his family to Geneva. He was a lawyer by profession and it is believed he continued that pracitce in Geneva. He was passionate about tennis and is credit with having created the idea of what is known today as the International Tennis Federation. He left Geneva in 1912 to accompany my grandfather RN Williams to the US to enroll in Harvard. Periodically, prior to 1912 C D Williams and family did visit the US. Nothing is known about his early life. His Mother Alice Norris died in 1863 from complications due to the birth of his sister who did not survive either. His father Duane Williams died several months later. He had a brother Richard Norris Williams (who died in 1918) but it is not known who took care of the two boys. We assume family.

    • Ben Samuel Says:

      Hello Quincy – I am working on a documentary about the Titanic and would love to talk to you about Richard Norris. I can be contacted at bensamuel@twentytwenty.tv Thanks very much. Ben

    • Harry Cowdrey Says:

      Hi Quincy
      I am not sure if this will prove successful but am interested in your grandfather R N Williams. An ancestor of mine was the club professional at the Tennis Club de Geneve from 1909 and I would be interested if you have any information.

  5. Have you ever written any tennis articles about Clarence Hobart? Or do you know of any articles written about Hobart? Thank You.

  6. Donald Budge Says:

    Very good article. I was wondering if anyone can help in my research.
    I have been researching my ancestry and have tracked down my Great Great Great Great Great Grandfather John Budge living in South Ronaldsay, Orkney Islands in Scotland around 1780 (assuming of course he was not off fighting a war in America). He had 3 Sons, Gilbert, Donald and Thomas. Donald was born in 1788 and was my GGGG `Grandfather. I wanted to find out if John Donald Budge, the tennis player, shares the same ancestry as I. His Father, John I believe, emigrated from Scotland having played soccer for Glasgow Rangers Reserve team around 1880. However I cannot get a fix on his date of birth or place of birth. If anyone can give me a steer on this I could find out from the census and satisfy a long standing curiosity.

    • Steven Budge Says:

      Hey Don Budge, Steve Budge 52 here and I read your reply and I would like to share what very little I had on the Budge ancestry, all though you go back much further then me, shoot me an email with the matter in which you were able to go back to 1780. after speaking with Bill Budges wife, She indicated her husbands grandfather was a polygamist in Utagh with thirty eight kids, also related to Don Budge the tennis pro. I went to go see Don Budge but his tennis partner had a stroke and could not attend the second day of the tour in spring lake NJ. When I was in high school, I was soccer captain but I played the tennis players at tennis and won. Must be in the genes.

      • Hi Steven, thanks for he reply. It’s pretty easy to get records of birth and marriages at http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/ Record of deaths did not become legal till 1832. So, if you have time and a few dollars, you can view records and get downloads. There are a lot of Budge’s listed. However, I wandered into a bar in Wick in Scotland in July and bumped into a guy called Neil Budge who claimed he was related to John Budge, Don Budge’s father. His daughter Alison works in the records office in Wick so I guess he would know. I also chatted to a few other locals who confirmed that Don’s father, John Budge was born in a parish called Latheron just south of Wick. Neil Budge, the guy in the pub is the local Postman and is a FANATICAL Celtic Ranger’s Football supporter who’s colours are green. Celtic’s arch enemies are Glasgow Rangers Football Club, who play in Blue. Neil is so fanatical, he will not were anything Blue! He did not know that John Budge, who he said he was related to, played for Glasgow Rangers Reserves and when I told him, he went went white and the two guys who were drinking with him are probably still laughing!!! What a hoot that was. Anyway, I am sure that I am not related in the same line as Don Budge, tennis player. Thanks again for your interest. Don Budge

      • DrvDouglas Bell Says:

        I am related to Don Budge through my maternal side. My grandmother was Mary Budge and was born in Latheron, Caithness about 1850. More details available on request. Iam Douglas Bell now 88 and anxious to know of survivors relatives in USA.

  7. mark budge Says:

    my granddad spoke of before he died I’m your grate grate nephew.

  8. skibumeddie Says:

    I knew Don….one of my regrets in life is not taking him up on an offer to play some tennis with him because I had to work. How foolish a teenager can be sometimes, eh? He was a very nice man.

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