Archive for bill larned

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.