The Seabright Invitational
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.