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March 1, 2001 Article

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History of the Pro Tennis Wars,
Chapter 2, part 1: 1927-1928

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Ray Bowers

The first pro tour, organized in North America by C.C. Pyle, produced many bright moments, but it ended on a low note in February 1927. Looking to the future of the pro game, the sports editor of New York Times, John Kieran, wrote that the pros needed to develop their own stars and their own events. "Until professional tennis builds up some title or trophy which means something, there will be a dearth of spectators," he concluded.

Enterprises were already stirring on both sides of the Atlantic. The next few years would test whether competitive pro tennis would primarily take the form of (1) tours pitting a few top superstars in one-night stands or (2) major international tournaments involving many players. Meanwhile the on-court history of the sport would revolve about two fine champions--the European master Karel Kozeluh and the American Vincent Richards, who had left a sterling career in world amateur tennis for Pyle's venture. The principal Kozeluh-Richards duels would offer superb, sometimes legendary tennis. How the pros might fare against the stars of the current amateur game became an irresistible topic for discussion.

IN EUROPE

The sky of the French Riviera was clear and blue. As sometimes happened on unusually bright days, the mountains of Corsica could be seen from Cannes. At the courts of the Carleton Tennis Club, more than 400 spectators gathered for the first day of the region's annual pro tennis tournament. The correspondent for the Paris edition of New York Herald (probably the sports writer John R. Tunis) listed members of local high society, many of whom joined the lunchtime crowd at the Carleton bar, where "of course, tennis was the main subject of conversation."

It was Monday, December 13, 1926. The world's only significant pro tennis tournament, the Bristol Cup, provided entertainment for the Riviera's well-to-do seasonal population. Most members of the 17-player field were European teaching pros serving during the winter at the region's clubs. Some of them would become main actors in the evolution of the pro sport for the next several years.

The two-time defending champion was Albert Burke, one of three tennis-pro sons of a well-known Irish pro. Also expected to contend strongly was the baseliner Karel Kozeluh of Prague, who was wintering at the Beaulieu Tennis Club nearby. Other stars were the Italian J. Negro, of Nice Tennis Club, and Roman Najuch, a heavily built lefty, originally from Poland and now summertime pro at the Rotweiss Club in Berlin. From America came the veteran George Agutter, who was born in London, worked as a pro in Paris, and was now pro at the West Side Tennis Club, Forest Hills, New York, site of the U.S. amateur national tournament, and at Palm Beach. Also on hand was Agutter's assistant Paul Heston. Nearly all were past the age of 30.

Both American pros lost their first match, though Heston went five sets before losing to the "cunning, cutting" game of Negro in a five-setter. Negro next defeated former champion (1921-1923) Britisher Major John Rendall, then lost to Albert Burke in the semis. Najuch eliminated Albert's younger brother Edmund, then fell to Kozeluh in four sets.

Karel Kozeluh thus faced Albert Burke in the late-week final. Our Herald correspondent, watching Burke earlier in the week, deemed him a finished, all-court player, possessed of "fine stroke control and a fighting game." The Irish star managed to win the first set from Kozeluh, though the Czechoslovakian pro was "running him ragged." After that, according to our observer, Kozeluh by "whipping the ball from side to side had Burke swinging at the pendulum and usually losing on an error." Burke returned from the 10-minute break after the third set still weary, and Kozeluh closed out his victory 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-0.

Meanwhile in America Pyle's tour was winding down. Soon after the last engagement, in February 1927, the headliner Suzanne Lenglen returned to Europe, unwilling to join Pyle's proposed international tour unless her moneys were improved. Afterwards Lenglen's affiliations with a new American manager and British promoter raised talk of another major circuit. Arriving in Britain for a short engagement in late June, "the inimitable Suzanne" as usual dazzled the collected reporters. She wished to watch the forthcoming men's final at Wimbledon, she said, but not the women's, as "women's matches never thrilled me." The organizer of her British venture was Charles B. Cochran, a theatrical and boxing promoter. Lenglen's opponent would be the recent German champion Dora Doering, while American Howard Kinsey, veteran of the Pyle tour, would play Karel Kozuleh, the recent winner at Cannes.

Cochran was openly trying to organize a world tour around Lenglen. During Wimbledon, agents approached Tilden and the French Musketeers, who publicly avowed their intention to remain amateurs, and almost surely also approached the American superstar Helen Wills. Lenglen's British tour opened on July 5 at Holland Park Hall, London, where Suzanne had no trouble in defeating Doering before a crowd said to be 5,000. But three days later, Suzanne refused to play doubles with a male partner against Kozeluh and Kinsey, deeming it "a stupid idea," though she had joined in similar match-ups in America recently. Earlier in the evening Kozeluh defeated Kinsey, winning two of three sets. Cochran's inability to add to his cast and Lenglen's lack of enthusiasm doomed his world tour idea.

During the summer, the male pros occasionally appeared in exhibitions. In early May in Berlin, Kozeluh easily defeated Roman Najuch in straight sets, with Bill Tilden serving as chair umpire. Tilden praised the quality of play but noted that the extended baseline rallies scarcely made for the best tennis. In July, Albert Burke comfortably defeated Howard Kinsey in an event in Paris, the American seemingly unable to produce his usual game.

The pro game was coming to life in Britain. Charles R. Read, a pro at Queen's Club, London, nearly 40, claimed the British professional championship under a challenge arrangement seldom invoked. (Read had been the scorned partner in Lenglen's episode, mentioned above.) In June 1927, a pro tournament was held at Gipsy Club, London, under handicap rules, where Read "owed 15" and lost in the final to J. Negro. The reporter from London's Times wrote that Negro's severe forehand and heavily sliced backhand probably would have carried the day even without the handicap. Then in October, more than a dozen entrants played a pro tournament at Queen's. With no handicapping, Read lost in the final to a younger Queen's pro, Don Maskell, deemed by the Times writer "the best young pro the Queen's have had for a number of years."

IN AMERICA

What was called the first pro tournament in the U.S. took place in March 1927 at Palm Beach Tennis Club, Florida. Most of the competitors were teaching pros working in Florida during the winter months. Paul Heston defeated Agutter in a straight-set final.

Then in July, the erstwhile Pyle made known that he was negotiating to stage a world's pro championship tournament in September at Forest Hills. He also talked of an open event in Brooklyn, where pro star Vincent Richards was to handle the invitations. He hoped to bring the main European pros to both events, and also James C. Anderson, a past Australian champion recently turned pro.

Pyle's renewed interest in pro tennis proved fleeting, and soon Richards found himself dealing with one Doc Kelton to produce the first of what would become the annual U.S. Pro Championships. The event took place at the Notlek courts, at 119th Street and Riverside Drive, New York, September 23-25, 1927. Heston, Agutter, and about a dozen other teaching pros competed, nearly all from clubs in the eastern U.S. The two highest seeds were Howard Kinsey, now back from Europe, and Vincent Richards, who had defeated Kinsey consistently in the Pyle tour. As expected, both favorites reached the final without loss of a set, Kinsey defeating Heston in one semi 6-0, 6-4, 6-3. The results confirmed that teaching pros, lacking recent competitive play, were at heavy disadvantage against recent amateur stars. Watching the matches were writers from the city's newspapers and from the magazine American Lawn Tennis. One writer deemed that some of the first-round losers were incompetent and should not be teaching.

Richards defeated Kinsey in the final 11-9, 6-4, 6-3, though Kinsey held early leads in two of the sets. John R. Tunis judged that both Richards and Kinsey played better than before as amateurs. Kinsey, known as a chop-stroke artist, had added more pace and was forcing play well, according to Tunis, and was getting his first serve in regularly thereby frustrating Richards's wish to attack the second. Richards, in turn, was now "a keen, well-trained athlete, ... still the greatest volleyer in the world," who regularly stabbed volleys from his shoetops to the opposite corners. Kinsey meanwhile showed some "near-perfect lobbing." Other writers were less eloquent, noting that Richards's play had been initially spotty and included many errors at net. S. Willis Merrihew, renowned editor and publisher of American Lawn Tennis, complained that the hitting was not hard and that Richards for much of the match seemed reluctant to take net. Though hardly a financial success, the event showed that crowds could appreciate pro competition.

The energies of Agutter and Richards led to the founding of the U.S. Professional Lawn Tennis Association, at a formal meeting in New York on September 23. Agutter became chairman, and Kinsey became one of five members of the executive committee. A British association had been founded in London a month earlier. A similar federation in France would arrive three years later.

Immediately after winning the U.S. Pro at Notlek, Richards departed for a teaching and exhibition-play engagement in Japan. Shorter appearances were planned afterwards in the Pacific, Asia, and Australia, where Richards would play James Anderson. At year's end, Richards was to compete on the Riviera. Richards fulfilled the commitment in Japan, but the plans were interrupted in Manila when Richards learned of the illness of his father-in-law. Richards and his wife directly returned to the U.S.

There was barely enough evidence going back to late 1926 to support a world ranking of the pros. Kozuleh was champion in Europe, Richards in the U.S. The two had not yet met on the court, so we here accord both men co-equal ranking. Behind them we place Albert Burke, Najuch, and Kinsey, in that order.

KAREL KOZELUH

Karel Kozuleh was born in Prague in 1896, took up tennis at age 16, and began teaching two years later. One of six tennis-playing brothers, he was also good at rugby, soccer, and hockey. He never competed as a tennis amateur. Now at 32, he was trim and athletic in physique, five feet eight inches tall, and weighed 145, his face darkly tanned and creased. Kozeluh was master of the defensive game, staged from well behind the baseline using a single grip both forehand and backhand. If his opponent also stayed deep, Kozuleh was usually content to deliver softish, safe shots endlessly, waiting for his opponent's eventual mistake. His superb court speed made an opponent's winner from the baseline achievable only at high risk. An opponent at net could expect no easy volley opportunities, and if the attacker's approach shot was weak Kozuleh's accuracy in delivering lobs and passing shots would probably prevail. Kozeluh compared his own game to H. L. Doherty's, the defensive artist of earlier times.

Tilden in watching Kozeluh in Berlin in 1927 marveled at the Czechoslovakian star's speed of foot, his steadiness, and tennis "brain." The American, however, disapproved that Kozeluh rarely came to net and noted that, when there, his abilities declined. Other tennis writers, who saw tennis currently evolving to a harder-hitting, more-attacking style, deemed Kozuleh's style old-fashioned, unpleasing to fans. But there was no-one among the European pros seemingly able to defeat it.

The Riviera tournament reconvened on January 9, 1928 at Beaulieu, home site of the defending champion. Kozeluh received a first-round bye, then won his first two matches, both in three straight sets including a "gallup" over Negro, thereby reaching the final. In the opposite half of the draw, Najuch won three matches, including victories over Don Maskell and Albert Burke. Writer Tunis watched closely the Najuch-Burke semi-final. Burke was "quick, agile, graceful, hitting the ball in perfect style." Najuch, on the other hand, was heavy-set, with a devastating left-handed forehand capable of "burning holes across the court." Najuch won the first two sets but wearied badly in the third, hanging on by 8-6 to complete "a superb effort by a very tired man." Najuch was jubilant, as Burke had beaten him in five previous meetings on the continent. Tunis thought it sad that the gallery was so small for so fine a match. Oddly, another writer (for London's Daily Telegraph) said just the opposite--that every seat was occupied but the match was technically disappointing.

In the next day's final, Najuch was too tired to threaten Kozeluh. The Meister was plainly unable to deliver the pace and precision shown the previous day, and, according to our Daily Telegraph reporter, often used the drop shot unwisely--fatal against an opponent as athletic as Kozeluh. Although Najuch managed to reach 4-all in the third set, his feat only postponed the inevitable. Tunis afterwards judged Kozeluh to be the world's best player. "Speed he adores, the faster it comes the faster it goes back off his racket." If Tilden and Kozeluh should ever meet, he wrote, "let me know so I can cross an ocean if necessary."

KOZELUH VS. RICHARDS

Vincent Richards came to Europe in July 1928. At Garros, he took the court with members of the American traveling team, including amateur star George Lott and erstwhile publisher Merrihew. Lott reported that Richards was playing well, especially in taking the ball on the rise and in concealing the direction of his shots. On July 24 at Garros, Richards played against Henri Cochet, losing to the amateur champion 5-7, 6-2, 6-0. Richards afterwards came under criticism from fellow pros for playing without remuneration.

Then on August 20 came the announcement from London that Richards and Karel Kozeluh would play a series of matches intended to determine the world's pro champion. In a practice match between the two that afternoon Kozeluh won three of the five sets. British watchers deemed that Richards looked good, better than in his last appearance at Wimbledon two years before. But he had trouble breaking down the defensive game of Kozeluh, who "kept a wonderfully accurate length."

Kozeluh won the official opener of the series in Prague on August 25, three sets to one. He won again on September 1 on a clay surface at Queen's, this time in five sets. Watcher D. R. Stuart admired the accuracy and footwork of Kozeluh, who "never left the baseline unless necessary." Against Kozeluh's mechanical play, Richards "took sporting risks." The writer deemed the American's volleying weaker than in the past, but that his sliced backhand was quite effective. Richards led 2-0 in the fifth set but his game then deteriorated following a ten-minute break necessitated by cramping in Kozeluh's hand. A. Wallis Myers, writing in the Daily Telegraph, disliked Kozeluh's style of play but conceded that it would be "churlish" not to praise him for his defensive skills. "Overhead Richards beat Kozeluh time after time," wrote Stuart, and he predicted that Richards would win next time on American soil. Both writers reported that the crowd of about 400 was subdued.

Richards and Kozeluh sailed for America, arriving on September 10, 1928. They played the third match of their series on Sunday, September 23, on clay courts at Rip's, 96th Street and West End Avenue, New York. The meeting was amply publicized, and a standing-room-only gallery of over 2,000 attended. Hundreds others watched from nearby buildings. Both Allison Danzig, writing for New York Times, and Merrihew of American Lawn Tennis, who served as foot-fault judge, described the event in glowing terms. Danzig called it "as fine a grade of tennis seen in this country all season," featuring many thrilling rallies and plenty of enthusiastic applause. Much of the applause was for Kozeluh's amazing court-covering, which to Danzig fully supported the reputation that had preceded the European pro's debut in North America.

Not surprisingly in this clay-court battle, the verdict went to Kozeluh, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. Richards afterwards said that it took him two winners to win every point. Writer Danzig disagreed, noting that many times Richards delivered a half-dozen superb low-bouncing volleys and well-angled overheads but would still fail to end matters. At times it was Richards at his best but, both writers agreed, the American missed too many volleys. (Kozeluh seldom allowed him an easy one.) Richards won the third set by all-out net attack but faltered after the rest period before his opponent's "backhand sharpshooting." Kozuleh played his usual baseline game, coming to net only two or three times. His win was convincing, reflecting his superiority in footwork, control of the ball, and patience. Both writers made note of Kozeluh's pleasant and confident on-court manner.

What Allison Danzig called "a new period in American tennis history" began two days later, on September 25. The second U.S. Professional Championships, played the previous year at Notlek, opened on the famous grass at Forest Hills. A total of 27 pros took to the courts, including returnees from last year Richards, Kinsey, Heston, and Agutter. Kozeluh was the only well-known European. Present also was Californian Harvey Snodgrass, another member of the old Pyle cast.

The first day, Tuesday, was cold and rainy, but the heavily wrapped fans, according to Danzig, were well rewarded by the performance of Kozeluh, who lost only one game in three sets. His opponent, John Collum of Baltimore, had a strong, forcing forehand but was helpless against Kozeluh's steadiness and accuracy. It was difficult to guess that grass was new to Kozeluh, wrote Danzig. Wednesday was very windy, again holding down attendance. Richards made his first appearance, comfortably downing his former mentor, Allen Behr of New York Tennis Club. Richards, Kozeluh, Kinsey, and Snodgrass all won in three straight sets, and each did the same Thursday against quarter-finalist opponents. Only Kinsey, who was still working into form according to Merrihew, had been endangered, falling behind in two of the sets before defeating Charles Wood, a last year's semi-finalist, 6-4, 8-6, 8-6. Merrihew judged that Kinsey survived because of his ability to mix up his game.

Snodgrass knew that he had to force matters against Kozeluh in their semi-final. The Californian went to net consistently and there did some excellent volleying, Merrihew wrote, managing to handle many difficult chances offered up by the European. But at six games all in the first set, Kozeluh stepped up the play, occasionally moving forward to close out matters at 8-6. After that, as Merrihew saw it, the match was nearly over, as Kozeluh began entertaining the crowd with his soccer prowess, kicking the ball and sometimes catching it on his head. Snodgrass seemed to enjoy the proceedings, reported Merrihew.

Kinsey nearly unseated Richards in the other semi, hitting the ball with unaccustomed pace and finding the sidelines well. In the fifth set, Kinsey rallied from down 2-5 to take the lead at 6-5. But Richards raised his tactics. "There was no keeping him away from the net or resisting his crisp, sharply angled volleys," wrote Danzig. Richards prevailed, 2-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-2, 10-8.

The Saturday meeting of net artist Richards and defensive wizard Kozeluh became a pro tennis milestone--the first of three straight finals at Forest Hills between the two men. Richards had never beaten Kozeluh. The potential equalizer was the Forest Hills grass, a surface guaranteed to favor the volleyer. The match took place in a drizzle, which worsened the footing and made the bounce even more uncertain than usual. Kozeluh made plain his dislike of the surface. When early in the match Richards was allowed to don grass-court spikes, Kozeluh, who had no spikes, answered by removing his shoes. Midway in the match, seeking fresh socks within a carton courtside, Kozeluh tossed most of them away until "for a time the air was full of socks." Finally, wrote Merrihew, a pair or two were pulled on the Kozeluh feet. The same business happened a half-hour or so later.

Amid such distractions, Richards worked to get his net game going, relentlessly moving forward. Kozeluh used his familiar counter-tactics, but the bad footing and the Czechoslovakian's despair determined the outcome. Kozeluh played one game barefoot. At the end, Richards held the lead in earned points 55-22, while having committing 88 errors to Kozeluh's 67. Richards afterwards said that his net play in the first two sets equalled his best ever. It was Richards, 8-6, 6-3, 0-6, 6-2.

Amid the unpleasant weather, daily attendance during the week never exceeded 1,000.

LATE 1928

Richards and Kozeluh now embarked on an extended tour of North America. The American won his second straight victory on October 4, 1928 in Brooklyn, on a canvas court said to be new to Kozeluh. But Kozeluh won again in Hartford, then again at Notlek, then at Boston, Montreal, and again in New York. The pair spent five days in Berkeley in mid-November, joined by Kinsey and Snodgrass. Playing Snodgrass was a welcome break for Richards, who now trailed Kozeluh 11 matches to 2. Richards wrote to Merrihew: "It's no joke playing this chap as much as I have." The American reported having lost about 15 pounds, to 136.

Richards finally defeated the European in a five-setter in Chicago, then lost again in Minneapolis, and won another five-setter in Baltimore. The tour ended on December 7 at the 7th Regiment Armory in New York. Merrihew wrote that Richards "played beautifully and with splendid judgment," staying in back court often and awaiting his opening. Though some of Kozeluh's recoveries seemed "miraculous," Richards's net play was "magnificent," wrote our observer. Richards prevailed, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, ending the series with Kozeluh ahead 15 matches to 5.

Meanwhile in London, four dozen European pros again gathered at Queen's Club, October 9-15, for an event now called the Professional Championship of the World. On hand were last year's champion and runner-up Maskell and Negro, along with Albert and Edmund Burke, Roman Najuch, and the 19-year-old R. H. Ramillon from the Cannes Club. None of the entrants had played at Forest Hills the month before.

There were no close matches early in the week. Still, Myers of Daily Telegraph praised the zest for the game and the sportsmanship of the competitors, writing that this was the best pro tournament ever held in England. The wet weather made the "hard" (i.e., clay) courts slower than usual, favoring especially young Ramillon, who according to the reporter of the Times, was "beautifully fast and neat on his feet." The dampness took the sting from the power of Najuch, who lost in the semis to the steadiness and patience of Edmund Burke. In the final, Ramillon denied Edmund his favored slow pace and, with varied and often brilliant tactics, prevailed in four sets. Burke took one of the four sets by "sheer doggedness and grit," wrote the Times reporter.

A few weeks later, Maskell ended the reign of Read as pro champion of Britain by winning two of three challenge matches at Queen's.

Looking back on the full year 1928, there seemed real progress toward making pro tennis a major international sport. There had been three significant pro tournaments, at Beaulieu, Forest Hills, and Queen's. Time would tell whether these events would evolve into a permanent structure for the pro game, perhaps something like the great amateur championships later known as Slams.

In ranking the pros for 1928, the supremacy of Karel Kozeluh seems plain, the Czechoslovakian having won Beaulieu and defeating Richards on their extended tour. Richards won at Forest Hills, but his victory there had been tainted by the wet conditions and Kozeluh's lack of spikes. In a list offered in September, a month before the Queen's tournament, Vincent Richards awarded third place to Kinsey, who had nearly defeated Richards at Forest Hills. Ramillon's win at Queen's, however, moves him up to third on our list. Completing the year's top eight, then, would be Kinsey, Najuch, Albert and Edmund Burke, and Snodgrass, in that order.

Players, writers, and fans debated how the pros might fare against the best amateurs. Everyone agreed that Kozeluh and Richards belonged somewhere near the top, though several judged that despite his brilliance, Kozeluh lacked the offensive power to rank first. Richards's July loss to Cochet further indicated that the top pros belonged slightly behind the amateur champions.

In here offering combined pro-amateur rankings for 1928, we merge our pro list into the amateur rankings made contemporarily by A. Wallis Myers. Thus we place Kozeluh in fourth place, closely behind Cochet, Lacoste, and Tilden. Richards follows next, fifth, ahead of the American amateur Frank Hunter. (Hunter was older than Richards and had been consistently outranked by Richards as an amateur prior to 1927.) Seventh and eighth places go to Myers's amateurs--Borotra, whose attacking ability seems likely to have prevailed against the next echelon of pros, and American George Lott, three years younger than Richards.

(To be continued in next month's column.)

--Ray Bowers

Note to readers: The author would appreciate any help in making contact with any participant (or offspring) in these or succeeding events. The author can be reached using this form.

Chapter One of the History of the Pro Tennis Wars is available on this site. See: Suzanne Lenglen and the First Pro Tour

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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