John Donald Budge (1915-2000)

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2008 by BDC

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.)


The Seabright Invitational

Posted in Tournaments with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2008 by BDC

Bobby Riggs, four-time winner of the Seabright Invitational

I was recently in Rumson, New Jersey, where I was able to see the Seabright Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club.  A National Historic Landmark, Seabright was founded in 1877, the same year as the first Wimbledon, making it the oldest tennis club in the United States.  Though it is now a highly exclusive (and expensive) private venue for members only, for years its grass courts also hosted the very prestigious Seabright Invitational.  Since there is precious little information out there about this historic event, I thought I would share what I know.

I have found conflicting data re: when the inaugural tournament was held.  A TIME Magazine article from 1950 reports that the first winner at Seabright was Beals Wright in 1903, but my records indicate that Bill Larned won a tournament at Seabright as early as 1895.  (My records also show that Holcombe Ward won the title in 1903, beating Larned in the final.)  Dick Williams, a Titanic survivor and mercurial talent, was the earliest repeat champion at Seabright with victories in 1914, 1915, and 1916.  Williams would later reach the final three additional times, losing in 1921, 1922, and 1923 to Little Bill Johnston.

The Invitational was put on hold in 1917 and 1918 due to the war, after which Big Bill Tilden, who would dominate American and global competition in the 1920s, defeated Leonard Beekman 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 in the 1919 Seabright final.  Johnston and then Vinnie Richards (1925 and 1926) took their turns as kings of Seabright before Tilden made his triumphant return in 1927 with a straight-set win over Frank Hunter.  Ellsworth Vines, one of the most powerful and erratic players of all time and a top star of the 1930s, suffered a blowout loss to Sidney Wood in 1930 but was victorious the following year in an epic 10-12, 6-8, 6-3, 8-6, 6-1 final opposite John Doeg.

Immediately prior to World War II, Seabright was dominated by Bobby Riggs, who won a record four titles in 1937, 1938, 1940, and 1941.  He enjoyed an especially dramatic triumph over Frank Kovacs in the 1940 final, coming back from two sets to love down.  After a world war again interrupted play at the Seabright Invitational, in 1946 Jack Kramer overcame Gardner Mulloy with a dominant 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 performance.  Kramer would go on to dominate amateur tennis in 1947, and he then embarked on a hugely successful professional career in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  The tournament at Seabright, however, closed its doors in 1950.  In a way, its demise marked the end of an era, as the pro circuit increasingly claimed the best players, and the tennis world began its inexorable march toward the Open Era.

Hugh Lawrence Doherty (1875-1919)

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2008 by BDC

Laurie Doherty sitting behind his older brother, Reggie

One of my reasons for starting this blog was to have a place where I could post brief essays on some of the greatest players in history.  Tennis is peculiar among sports in that its history has been very poorly documented.  Most tennis fans know very little about the sport prior to the rise of the ATP in the early 1970s and the “tennis boom” that followed in the wake of Connors, Borg, and McEnroe.  While baseball fans have the utmost respect for Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, etc., tennis’s older champions are too-often wrongfully consigned to the “ash heap of history.”  In truth, many of the finest players of all time made their names before the beginning of the Open Era.  Though it is ultimately impossible to know how players of radically different times would have fared against one another in direct competition, I find it utterly ridiculous to assume that the best players of the past were hopelessly inferior to the current crop of stars.

I will start off, then, with the man I consider the first true international tennis champion: H.L. (“Laurie”) Doherty, or “Little Do.”  Laurie Doherty was one of the two famous Doherty brothers who dominated both the singles and doubles at Wimbledon in the 1890s and 1900s.  Willie Renshaw may have been the first British star to raise his country’s public awareness of the game in the 1880s, but Laurie and his older brother R.F. (“Reggie” or “Big Do”) were the ones who elevated tennis to world championship level.  Their careers corresponded with the founding of the international Davis Cup competition in 1900, which pitted the top national teams against each other.  The Dohertys anchored the first Davis Cup dynasty, and the British team of that time remains one of the most accomplished ever.  While Reggie mostly resigned himself to doubles, Laurie compiled an astounding unbeaten record in singles and doubles.  The British first won the Cup in 1903 and held onto it for four years; the Australasian team led by Norman Brookes was only finally able to wrestle the Cup away from Great Britain after the Dohertys had essentially retired.

Still, Laurie’s most significant feat was becoming the first foreign male player to win the singles at the US Championships.  Reggie had attempted the same feat in 1902 but lost to defending champion Bill Larned, a great player in his own right, in the challenge round.  (In those days the previous year’s winner only had to play a single match in order to defend his crown, meeting the winner of the all-comers’ final in the challenge round.)  In 1903, Laurie followed in Reggie’s footsteps and succeeded where his brother had failed.  By capturing both the Wimbledon and US Championships, along with the Davis Cup, Laurie was the first man to sweep all the major tournaments in his time.  His feat would not be surpassed until 1921, when Big Bill Tilden won Wimbledon, the US Championships, and the World Clay Court Championships in France, which some observers argue should be properly recognized as the first true “Grand Slam.”

There was no equivalent of the Grand Slam in the Doherty era, but if there had been, Laurie certainly could have won it.  In addition to his incredible achievements on grass, Laurie and his brother were the best clay-court players of their time.  Laurie won the Paris Olympics in 1900 on clay, though neither he nor Reggie reportedly considered it a very important title.  More impressive, Laurie won the South of France Championships at Nice–perhaps the biggest clay court event prior to the first World Clay Court Championships at St. Cloud in 1912–eight consecutive times!  He also won many other tournaments throughout Europe on various surfaces, probably amassing more titles than any other pre-World War I player aside from the phenomenally prolific Anthony Wilding.  The Dohertys wrote the first influential book of lawn tennis instruction, R.F. & H.L. Doherty on Lawn Tennis (1903), which is now a quite hard-to-find and expensive collector’s item.

Laurie won the Wimbledon singles five straight times (1902-1906) and the doubles a record eight straight times (1897-1905), and he retired while still at the top of his game.  Along with the better-remembered Frederick J. Perry, “Little Do” remains one of the two greatest players that Great Britain, the birthplace of lawn tennis, has yet produced.  It is fitting that the gates at Wimbledon bear their names.

How to count “Slams”

Posted in Records with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2008 by BDC

Roger Federer hitting a forehand during the 2008 US Open

Just one year ago it seemed a foregone conclusion that Roger Federer would break–no, smash–Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam titles.  Now, with the Swiss stalled at 12 and rival Rafael Nadal taking over as the top-ranked tennis player in the world, that future appears somewhat less than certain.  Many commentators have claimed that surpassing Sampras’s mark is one of the two main obstacles standing in Federer’s way toward becoming the mythical “GOAT” or “Greatest Of All Time” (the other, of course, being victory on the clay courts of Roland Garros).  I have always argued that Sampras’s 14 Slams do not represent a useful historical benchmark for assessing greatness, so I would like to take a few moments to make that case here, and to suggest what a more appropriate measure would be.

Anyone attempting to compare players’ achievements over time must contend with the fact that for about 40 years, from the late 1920s to the late 1960s, many of the best players in the world were banned from competition in the Grand Slam tournaments.  Prior to the dawn of the Open Era in 1968, the so-called “Slams” were exclusively amateur affairs, and they stubbornly remained so even as the rest of the tennis world moved increasingly toward professionalism.  In 1927 Vinnie Richards became the first prominent male star to turn pro, and after that nearly every great champion of the game would follow suit: Bill Tilden, Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, and Don Budge in the 1930s; Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer, Pancho Segura, and Pancho Gonzales in the 1940s; Frank Sedgman, Tony Trabert, Lew Hoad, and Ken Rosewall in the 1950s; Rod Laver and many others in the 1960s.  Clearly, in evaluating these four decades of tennis history, the amateur Slam titles cannot be used as the sole standard of achievement, when so many all-time greats were on the separate pro circuit.

Fortunately, three major professional tournaments gradually acquired the status of pro “Slams”: the United States Pro Championships, the French Pro Championships, and Wembley in London.  In terms of both location and prestige these three events more or less mirrored the better-known US, French, and Wimbledon tournaments on the amateur side.  It is crucial, then, that any Slam count include the results of these pro events alongside the amateur titles; from 1939 onward they usually had significantly better draws.  Note that while there were a number of pro tournaments held in Australia prior to 1968, none acquired a high level of consistency, tradition, or recognition, and they are not regularly numbered among the pro Slams.

Rod Laver Arena at Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open

This brings me to my second point.  Although there can be little doubt that the Australian Open has increased in stature in recent decades, to the point that it now rivals the major French, Wimbledon, and US events in prestige, it simply was not considered a top-tier tournament before the mid-1980s.  It had smaller draws, and the best players in the world routinely skipped it in order to focus on Davis Cup and the Masters (both of which were far more prestigious at the time) or just to take some time off: Connors, Borg, and McEnroe all passed on it in their primes.  Therefore, while Australian titles may be useful for comparing the accomplishments of the most recent first-class players (Lendl, Wilander, Becker, Edberg, Agassi, Sampras, and Federer), they cannot be used to realistically rate or rank the champions of earlier eras, nor to compare today’s stars with past greats.

The only meaningful shorthand Slam title count, then, would need to incorporate the major amateur, professional, and open championships of Great Britain, France, and the United States.  In Great Britain’s case, that means Wimbledon (1877-1938), Wembley (1939-1966), the singular Wimbledon Pro (1967), and again Wimbledon in the Open Era (1968-present).  For the United States, one needs to look at the US Amateur (1881-1938), the US Pro (1939-1967), and the US Open (1968-present).  France’s story is more complicated.  One must begin with the World Clay Court Championships, the first major tournament held in continental Europe and ancestor of Roland Garros (1912-1923); followed by the French Amateur, after it was opened to international competition in the mid-1920s (1925-1938); then the French Pro (1939-1967); and at last the French Open (1968-present).  I have chosen 1939 as the “cutoff” between the amateur and professional eras, because Don Budge turned pro in that year.  Since Ellsworth Vines and Fred Perry were already on the pro circuit, 1939 marks the first time when all the top players in the world were professionals, which remained true until tennis opened up in 1968.

Ken (“Muscles”) Rosewall: the true all-time leader in Slam titles

Finally, here is what the true list of Slam winners should look like: Ken Rosewall (17); Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver, and Pete Sampras (12); Bjorn Borg and Bill Tilden (11); Don Budge and Roger Federer (9); Fred Perry and Henri Cochet (8).  To be clear, this list does not represent my definitive GOAT ranking; one needs to take into account other factors in addition to the total number of Slams these players have won.  Still, it should be an important part of any such conversation.

For further reading, I highly recommend Joe McCauley’s important book The History of Professional Tennis (2001), which is only available online.