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March 1, 2003 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Forgotten Victories:
The Early Pro Tennis Wars

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

(Note to readers: Earlier segments of the author’s history of the pro tennis wars told of the first pro tour in 1926; the subsequent eminence of European Karel Kozeluh and American Vincent Richards; of Tilden’s Year of Triumph in 1931; and of Tilden and Nusslein, 1932-1933.)


Chapter V: The Early Ascendancy of Vines, 1934

The entry of a new superstar in 1934 once again lifted pro tennis. Despite deepening economic troubles worldwide, the sport's promoters bid to exploit Ellsworth Vines’s arrival by organizing new events on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile the marvel of Tilden’s athletic longevity and the stardom of the hard-hitting newcomer would give the sport its closest thing yet to a true Golden Year.

MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, JANUARY 10

Tilden, now nearly 41, showed himself ready for Vines by capturing the first event of the winter season, the U.S. Pro Indoors, held at Penn Athletic Club, Philadelphia. With the leading Europeans absent and Vines still in Pasadena, Big Bill defeated Emmett Pare in a well-contested straight-setter, then Bruce Barnes, Frank Hunter, and finally Vincent Richards, who was said to be training hard to remove extra weight prior to his role in the coming Tilden-Vines tour. Before a standing-room-only crowd on New Years’ Eve, Vinnie rushed net continuously and for a time produced his very best volleying. The score reached four games all, but the younger man then faltered before Bill’s heavy fire, and Tilden closed out matters quickly, extending his almost-perfect winning record in singles over Richards as a pro. In the doubles, Barnes-Richards defeated Hunter-Tilden, where Richards was "easily the shining light," wrote Hawthorne of New York Herald Tribune.

Within hours of arriving in New York on January 4, 1934, Ellsworth Vines began daily practice sessions with Bruce Barnes. Members of the press, who reported regularly on the sessions, were impressed by the Californian’s power in the serve, forehand, and overhead. Watchers also noted his many errors and judged that his backhand appeared vulnerable to attack. In their practice sets Vines and Barnes seemed about even. "It’s hit and miss with us," Barnes quipped. When he hits I miss." Meanwhile Big Bill practiced by defeating Barnes and amateur Sidney Wood by comfortable scores. In talking with writers, Vines, age 22, made boastful predictions. Both Tilden and Vines said that Elly’s unfamiliarity with indoor play would be a handicap.

January 10 brought the grandest yet of the Garden openers. The crowd of about 16,000, said to be the largest gathering ever for tennis, included hundreds standing in the aisles. The great tennis writers were there–Danzig of the Times, Hawthorne of Herald Tribune, J. P. Allan of the Sun. Courtside price was $5. In the preliminary match, Bruce Barnes and Vincent Richards stopped at 11-games-all, young Barnes having shown his improved stroke-making, veteran Richards his renowned volleying.

Vines seemed nervous in the warm-up but managed to break Bill’s serve in a well-fought first game that ended with an impressive overhead smash. Tilden moved ahead soon afterwards, but neither player took clear superiority. Vines’s backhand was obviously his less-dangerous side, but the Californian was able to keep things close with his extremely hard, low forehands and his good net and overhead play. Some in the crowd were surprised by Tilden’s speed of foot, which enabled him to reach Vines’s rockets and reply often on the run. Serving at game score 6-7, Elly hit two aces, but two Vines errors, a double-fault, and a volley error off a Tilden bullet gave Bill the first set, 8-6.

Things then unraveled for Vines. Bill stepped up the pressure on Elly’s backhand, and as this weakness more and more showed, the slim Californian began losing confidence in his other shots. Often stretched out of his comfortable zone under Bill’s attack from back court, Vines’s errors increased as his power decreased. Bill, playing his best, attained early leads in the two remaining sets and an entirely convincing win 8-6, 6-3, 6-2. It took little over an hour.

It had not seemed an especially good match. There were just too many errors by Vines. To J. P. Allan, Vines was still the confused competitor of 1933, not the champion of 1932. Looking to the forthcoming tour, Allan predicted, "Tilden has nothing to fear from Vines." Afterwards, a sobered Vines said he had been unprepared to face Tilden’s sustained hard hitting, and promised to do better. Bill predicted that Vines would improve rapidly with further experience indoors. He added that if he, Tilden, hadn’t beaten Vines that night, he never would.

THE FIRST TILDEN-VINES TOUR

Tour matches were promoted as if all were equal. But clearly the opening nights in the Garden stood out in public attention. Next in unofficial prestige were the matches in the then-leading centers of American tennis–Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. These were usually played on spacious playing areas and before good-sized galleries.

The day after the Garden opening, reporter Dora Lurie of Philadelphia Inquirer talked to some of the players about the outcome. Bruce Barnes hooted, "Boy, was Tilden happy!" Vines’s wife of 14 months, Verie, said that the match had been "just like a nightmare." Barnes then told about Verie: "She not only handles Ellsworth’s money, but she is taking charge of mine too." Asked whether he sometimes gave away autographed pictures, Barnes replied that he indeed had some but nobody had ever asked for one.

A capacity crowd of 5,800 gathered at the Arena in Philadelphia the evening of January 12. Tilden won again, but this time the margin was narrow. The two men split the first two sets, and the score reached 7-games-all in the third set. Both men played mainly from the baseline, and both "put everything they had" into their shots. It was high-powered tennis, where Vines led in aces 11-5 and in placement winners, 40-15, but also in errors, by an even larger margin. Tilden closed out the victory, 6-3 in the fourth set. But Vines won the next evening in Washington in a match tainted by Bill’s fury at the noisy gallery, the playing conditions, and the line officials. Bill in anger made no attempt to return several shots during the evening and committed at least a dozen obviously intentional errors. Vines used a net-attack strategy, but the writers attributed the outcome mainly to Bill’s breakdown in temperament.

The most interesting meeting to date came on January 15 in Boston Garden before a near-capacity crowd of 11,500. As in Philadelphia, the affair was mainly a slugging contest from the baseline. Tilden won the first two sets, 14-12 and 6-4, exploiting Vines’s backhand. After that, according to Paul Crague of Boston Globe, Elly’s backhand weakness remained but the zip in Tilden’s drives did not. Vines steadily improved in his serving consistency, and a long service game early in the fourth set cost Tilden much of his remaining stamina. Vines’s five-set victory equalized the series to date, both men having won twice.

The preliminary match was also interesting. Barnes lobbed effectively and often, driving Richards from net to backcourt where Barnes was superior. The two had divided two sets in both Philadelphia and Washington, so Barnes’s clear win in Boston was the first for either player. In the doubles Richards-Vines defeated Barnes-Tilden, gaining their second win in three tour matches between these pairs.

Tilden won in Providence on January 16, taking the lead early, forcing the pace throughout, and profiting from Vines’s many errors. The Providence Journal writer judged that Tilden’s persistent hammering at the Vines backhand was effective but a less decisive factor than his mixing of spins and speeds. Vines won in Cleveland, attacking net more regularly than before. Unhappy with the lighting and the tight playing space, Tilden insisted that the match be limited to best-of-three-sets. Vines outscored Tilden in aces, 17-3.

Tilden reclaimed the series lead in a five-setter on January 20 before a capacity house of 5,000 at the Broadway Armory in Chicago. Tilden as usual played from the baseline but Vines again came to net more, often immediately behind his own serve. But Elly then won in Denver, San Francisco, and Oakland, capturing the series lead. Their next meeting, in the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles on January 29, would put on display the competitiveness of Tilden. Writer Bill Henry of L.A. Times was a witness.

It was almost midnight, Vines ahead by two sets to one, wrote Henry. The long second set had gone to Tilden, 23 games to 21, when Bill hit two fine passing shots to break Vines’s serve. In duration the set had been equivalent to four or five normal sets. The third set too had been extended, and now the crowd knew Big Bill was weary. Some chanted to get the doubles started. But the old gladiator wouldn’t quit. Watching were the people Bill admired–actors Chaplin, Powell, Coleman, Weismuller, Raft, tennis celebrity May Sutton Bundy. The gaunt warrior, whose word decided such matters, looked up to the umpire: "This is a three-out-of-five-set match–play ball."

Tilden somehow captured the fourth set, 6-3. But the 19-year age difference proved inescapable. Fatigue ultimately prevailed, Bill failing 6-2 in the fifth. The last point was a Vines ace--actually a fault but not so called. Vines suggested a replay, but when this was finally done Bill made no effort to make a return. It was past midnight--too late to start the doubles. Writer Henry reported that the other troupe members afterwards complained strongly about Bill’s willful continuation of the too-long struggle.

After two more dates in southern California, the troupe played their way eastward. The final performance, in Carlin’s arena in Baltimore, February 16, showed the extent of Vines’s improvement. Tilden won the first set and seemed as good as ever, the local writer reported, but it was Vines who then lifted his game–who returned Bill’s serve with nearly equal velocity, who smashed his overheads with authority, who left Tilden standing flatfooted before dazzling placements, who produced 46 aces and placements to Bill’s 18. Thus Ellsworth Vines became the winner of the initial transcontinental tour, 11 matches to 9.

Tilden analyzed the tour with his usual seeming honesty. Vines had indeed adjusted well to the indoor game, Bill affirmed, and was playing better than he ever had as an amateur. Especially, Vines had learned how to hold down his errors. As to his own game, Bill said he was playing about as well as ever.

In preliminary matches actually completed, Bruce Barnes led Vincent Richards by a margin of three. In the doubles, Richards-Vines finished ahead of Barnes-Tilden. Financially the tour was an unqualified success, and writers speculated that the example of Vines’s sudden wealth might cause Fred Perry to turn.

THE PLAYER VINES

New pro Vines had Tilden’s fine tennis physique–nearly 6-2 in tallness and about 150 pounds in weight, still filling out at age 22. Elly came to the pros a three-time Slam winner but was yet an unfinished player, largely wedded to overpowering his opponents with heavy serves, overheads, and ground-strokes that often created their own opening. But when the errors came, Vines’s confidence vanished and his game descended to mediocrity, as had happened sometimes in 1933.

Blessed with the game’s most powerful first serve, he also had an excellent twist service, usually "kicked" to the opponent’s backhand. His legendary forehand was usually delivered with no spin or perhaps with some sidespin, and had to be kept very low over the net to avoid error. His grips were Eastern, and he slipped his little finger (and sometimes more) off the handle for extra velocity. His backhand was less natural, often hit with a little backspin. Elly seldom temporized by hitting safely inside the lines. His half-volleying and volleying skills were good but not superior, and he was not usually a persistent serve-and-volley player. In his analysis of Vines’s game, aficionado Julius Heldman noted that Elly moved well sideways and disliked backing up. His overhead was positively the game’s best, unleashed with a sweeping, windmill motion. He was calm and outwardly unemotional on court, and when his eye and timing were right, as in his great amateur triumphs, he played with great confidence.

But his supreme asset remained his power serve. Karl Keyerleber of the Plain Dealer described watching this weapon, employed in Cleveland against Tilden:

"Vines just seemed to stretch, lazily it seemed, and toss the ball over his head. Back went that racket, a long, lean arm gripping it at the very end of the handle, up and over–and suddenly a spurt of white hit the court at Tilden’s feet."

Youthful Vines was sometimes soft in affairs of business and law. His undercover agreement to turn pro had troubled his conscience and stirred inquiries during his final months as an amateur, he later admitted, and he blamed his 1933 losses on this distraction. He and Tilden were sued for moneys in 1934 by an individual who claimed to have a verbal agreement to be Vines’s agent in turning pro. Tilden and O’Brien had told Vines that since there had been no written document, Vines need not heed any such agreement.

THE TOUR WITH COCHET AND PLAA

French stars Cochet and Plaa arrived in New York in early February from their visit to South America. Cochet, interviewed by Allison Danzig, spoke highly of the Facondi brothers of Chile, both of whom had taken at least one set in twice losing to Henri. In the forthcoming tour the French pair would play singles and doubles against Tilden and Vines in a series of two-night stands under the Davis Cup format.

In practice sessions over the next fortnight, Cochet and Plaa played closely against Sidney Wood and against one another, Cochet slightly ahead. Expectations were that Tilden and Vines, who were currently well-tuned for indoor play, would prove too strong for the physically smaller French players. Still fresh in memory were Tilden’s crushing victory over Cochet in Henri’s pro debut at Garros, and Vines’s three wins over Henri in Slam meetings as amateurs. Quietly confident, however, Cochet answered that his game had now returned.

A combined total of some 24,000 watchers attended the two evenings of action at Madison Square Garden, February 19 and 21. On the first night Tilden defeated Plaa in straight sets, though Martin kept the ball deep and moved Bill about the court, thus escaping the purely defensive mode seemingly dictated by Bill’s superior power. Vines and Cochet then played what Allison Danzig deemed "a beautiful match," Cochet used his short game featuring net attacks off the half-volley. But once Vines cut down on his errors, the American’s strong serving and the unending pace of his ground-strokes undid Henri. Vines closed out the match after four close sets, and the crowd gave tribute to both men. The Americans then won the doubles, finishing long after midnight.

Two nights later in the Garden, Vines won a 13-11 first set over Plaa, then ran out the match by cutting down his errors. Tilden and Cochet next played what Hawthorne of Herald Tribune deemed "the greatest exhibition of the game ever staged on any court within the last thirty years." It was Cochet at his best. The French star won the first set, 9-7, sometimes presenting a stone wall to Bill’s power in back court, sometimes moving to net behind his perfected short-court tactics. Tilden won the second set, but in the third once again, as Hawthorne wrote, "Cochet worked his way into forecourt in the face of Tilden’s fiercest drives and then scored on superb crossing volleys at daring angles." When Henri took the third set and the first two games of the fourth, Tilden looked beaten, seemingly exhausted.

Then came the improbable turnaround. Especially, it was Bill’s backhand that overcame Cochet’s strong net attack. Allison Danzig called the shot "terrorizing in its accuracy, speed, and range." Probably Cochet had never before been passed so often. The writer for American Lawn Tennis, probably Merrihew himself, agreed that Tilden’s five-set win "was one of, if not the greatest match ever played."

The same foursome moved on to Boston, then to Montreal and points west– two-night stands in a total of ten cities, all play indoors. The outcomes stayed essentially the same. The power of the Americans off the ground and in serving proved almost always too much for the French players. Often, matches were at first close until Tilden or Vines began stepping up the power. Bill defeated Plaa in all ten of their matches, and won eight of ten against Cochet. (Cochet won a five-setter in Montreal and a four-setter in Indianapolis.) Vines won all ten matches against Cochet, eight of ten against Plaa, whose steadiness along with Elly’s errors produced Plaa wins in Chicago and Baltimore. In doubles, the French pair won six times, the Americans four. The Americans thus won all ten team engagements. Aided by the drawing power of Cochet’s name, the financial returns were good, almost matching those of the recent Tilden-Vines tour. In odd contrast to their respective styles of court tactics, Plaa was always animated in manner, a crowd-pleaser. Cochet sometimes seemed withdrawn.

SPRING TOURS, NORTH AMERICA

Two recruits signed with O’Brien in late February. Keith Gledhill, 23, had been teammate of Vines at Southern Cal and Elly’s partner in winning the U.S. national doubles in 1932. Less well known was Alfred Chapin, who had been ranked seventh in the U.S. amateur list in 1926 and been a doubles partner of Tilden, but had been relatively inactive since. The two newcomers would join Tilden and Vines in another U.S. tour, while Cochet and Plaa would join Barnes and Richards on a different itinerary. The cities visited were smaller ones than in the earlier tours.

Gledhill easily defeated Chapin in their pro debut in New Haven, March 21, after which Tilden defeated Vines in five sets of "superb tennis." But in the next weeks in Scranton, Albany, and other locations, Vines began consistently to prevail over Bill. At the state fairgrounds in Columbus on April 3, before a good crowd Vines’s victory gave him a 15-12 lead in matches for the year to date, reported Columbus Dispatch. The margin grew rapidly. Vines won a fourth-straight victory in Des Moines on May 1, then continued the streak at Moline, Lansing, and Grand Rapids. The exact count cannot be documented in detail, but American Lawn Tennis reported that on May 17, at tour’s end, Vines led Tilden by 19 matches for the year. (Slightly over about fifty matches would have been played.)

Meanwhile the other foursome toured the East and Midwest. Opening night was April 2, in Providence, where Plaa defeated Barnes, Cochet defeated Richards, and the French pair defeated the American twosome, all in two straight sets. That pattern largely continued through the end of the itinerary in mid-May, except that the two pairs proved roughly equal in doubles.

A NEW TOURNAMENT CIRCUIT

Immediately ahead lay a full schedule of week-long outdoor tournaments in different geographical sections of the U.S. It was an ambitious test by Tilden’s group and the Professional Lawn Tennis Association to test whether pro tennis could develop circuits like those of pro golf and amateur tennis.

The Eastern Pro Championships began on May 17 at Park Avenue Tennis Club, New York. The draw of 28 included the eight members of the recent dual tours, along with leading club pros. A single clay court was laid out, east-to-west, with grandstands placed close to the sidelines. The eight touring pros were seeded, and all of them advanced to the quarters, where the most interesting match-up pitted Vines and Richards. For the first two sets, Vinnie gave Vines a mixed diet of slow shots and forcing shots, attacking net behind the latter. Behind by two sets, Vines began controlling his power, gradually forcing Richards to the defensive and eventually claiming the expected outcome. Hawthorne nevertheless deemed it Vinnie’s finest singles performance since 1926. Also reaching the semis were Martin Plaa (who beat Gledhill), Cochet (who in "a splendid battle" beat an attacking Barnes), and Tilden (who easily defeated Chapin).

In the rain-plagued round-robin that followed, both Tilden and Vines defeated both Cochet and Plaa in three straight sets. The championship was decided in the Sunday match-up between Tilden and Vines. Tilden led by two sets to one, but Vines’s slightly superior power, speed of foot, and stamina eventually carried the day. Hawthorne wrote that Vines played unevenly but managed to control his power when it was most needed. The attendance had been only fair. Some 1,100 watched on Sunday.

The rainy weather persisted into the next week, holding down the gate for the Middle States tournament at Germantown Cricket Club, outside Philadelphia. In one semi of the single-elimination event, Tilden crushed Cochet one-sidedly. In the other Vines defeated Richards in "four bristling sets." Vines had earlier been carried by Barnes to five sets, while Richards displaced the pleasant warrior Plaa by comfortable margin. Vines then won the tournament final on June 2, dominating a seemingly ill Tilden.

If the attendance at Germantown had been disappointing, the turnout was almost nonexistent at the New England Championships at Longwood, outside Boston. The announced gate for the full event, June 4-10, was only 648 (compared with 4,683 in New York and 1,566 at Germantown). Cochet and Plaa, who were earning little money as losing semi-finalists, had already started back to France. Vines won the grass-court tournament, defeating Tilden, Barnes, and Gledhill in the concluding round-robin.

The circuit was looking like a serious failure. It was clear that the teaching pros were adding nothing competitively or at the gate, and that the only person making money was Vines. Vines won again the following week, at the Western Championships in Cleveland, where Tilden lost matches to Gledhill, Barnes, and Vines. A pleasant sidelight was the appearance of Mary K. Browne, Lenglen’s opponent in the 1926 pro tour. Browne, who lived in the area, paired with Tilden in a doubles exhibition.

The arrival of Karel Kozeluh for the Great Lakes Championships in Detroit offered some hope. Kozeleh, who had wintered in Florida, now worked at a club outside Chicago. Rainy weather plagued the first four days, however, and only about 50 fans attended on June 20 when Barnes defeated Gledhill. In the semis Tilden beat Barnes, and in their first-ever meeting Kozeluh upset Vines. In winning, Kozeluh steadily fed Vines’s backhand, mixing in softly sliced shots to open areas, often for winners. In the Sunday final, Kozeluh won the first two sets over Tilden, working Bill’s backhand. Tilden seized the attack thereafter, equalizing at two sets. Kozeluh then retired because of foot blisters. Attendance for the final was only 350.

The end of the line was near. Vines, saying he needed rest, started back to Pasadena, where his wife was carrying their first child. At midweek Tilden in Milwaukee announced that the remaining tournament schedule was cancelled. Bill showed his disappointment in an interview with a local editor. He and his associates, Tilden explained, had believed that people wanted the tournament competition. But it was wise to stop, he continued, as things were becoming "a joke." He mentioned that equipment sponsors had dropped away. (Publicly released materials always named the manufacturer of the balls.) Bill added, "I still think pro tournaments can be made successful. Perhaps we are a little ahead of our time."

The North-Central tournament went on to its conclusion in Milwaukee. Tilden and Kozeluh were seen arguing loudly several times during the week over financial matters, but in the concluding round-robin both men defeated both Barnes and Gledhill. The two long-time court foes met on Sunday, June 30, before about 600. (In a tabulation released in early 1934, Tilden was listed ahead of Kozeluh in their lifetime series, 79-24.) Kozeluh won in four sets, an error-prone Tilden reacting poorly to Kozeluh’s ball placement. Gledhill defeated Barnes for third place. Most of the cast except for Kozeluh then went on to St. Louis for one final tournament, originally intended to be the Missouri Valley championships but now called the Clayton pro tournament. Tilden won the event, defeating Gledhill on the last day after both men had defeated Barnes. Attendance was better than recently–some 4,300 for four nights.

The tournaments in Memphis, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis were lost. A final event remained--the annual U.S. Pro Championship, now planned for mid-August on the familiar clay of South Shore Country Club, Chicago.

THE U.S. PRO, CHICAGO

The entry-list was a good one, although Tilden and Gledhill had gone to Europe. Vines was back from California, and also on hand were past-champion Kozeluh, Hans Nusslein, fresh from recent work with the U.S. Davis Cuppers, and recent touring pro Emmett Pare, now coach at Tulane. Well represented were the U.S. teaching pros, including Charles Wood and Robert Murray of the New York area, Paul Heston of Washington, D.C., and George Jennings and newcomer George O’Connell both of Chicago.

Vines lost a set in defeating O’Connell in an early match, but otherwise the favorites advanced comfortably to the quarter-finals. Kozeluh then defeated Barnes, Richards defeated Heston, and Vines defeated Wood, all in straight sets. Meanwhile Nusslein lost the first two sets by one-sided scores to Emmett Pare, who displayed a potent backhand that broke up the German player’s baseline game and passed him whenever he ventured forward. But in the third set Nusslein began sweeping the lines with his shots, avoided the Pare backhand, and stayed resolutely in back court. Pare tired at the end, winning only a handful of points in losing the fifth set.

The clay hurt Vines in his semi-final against Nusslein. The German star handled Vines’s power well, flicking back deep drives with consistency and awaiting the Vines errors. The American tried to soften his game but his errors persisted, while his net attacks generally failed before Nusslein’s fine passing game off both sides. It was Nusslein in four. The other semi was a reprise of the classic Kozeluh-Richards finals. In past clay-court matches between the two Kozeluh had been always superior, and this occasion was the same, the European winning in three straight sets.

Thus it was an all-European final pitting two men, friends, who had not shared in the lucrative tour opportunities earlier in the year. In their August 26 showdown, Nusslein played a careful but firm game, willingly accepting long exchanges. In one rally the ball crossed the net 81 times. But Nusslein was the harder hitter of the two, and the younger player’s steady pressure, backed by consistency, proved too much for Kozeluh. The two were almost even in total errors, while Nusslein led in winners 32-17. Nusslein won the match in four sets, reversing the outcome of the final round two years before.

The tournament also produced interesting doubles results. The winning pair was Barnes-Pare, who defeated Heston-Vines in a straight-set final and Kozeluh-Nusslein in a four-set semi–a crowd-pleasing match deemed by one watcher "classic in its perfection."

The U.S. Pro essentially closed the pro competitive season in America. It was clear that Vines had no peer indoors on hard courts, but Nusslein and Kozeluh had shown themselves superior on outdoor clay. Ahead lay a full calendar of appealing competition in Europe.

LATE SUMMER, EUROPE

Martin Plaa returned to France in June, Cochet in July after stopping for exhibitions in Havana, Haiti, and Martinique. Tilden and Gledhill arrived in Paris in early August. Several days later writers reported that Plaa was more than holding his own in practice against Tilden, preparing for their ensuing tour of the Basque country and southern France. In mid-August engagements on outdoor dirt courts at San Sebastian (Spain), Biarritz, and Hossegor (France), Bill won two of three from Plaa (Plaa won a five-setter in Hossegor), and Gledhill won two of three from French player Estrabeau. The French cast changed for a two-day meeting at Bayonne, August 26-27, where Tilden and Gledhill opposed Cochet and Ramillon in a Davis Cup-format team event. Tilden defeated both French players in singles and Gledhill defeated Cochet to produce a 3-2 American team win. A gallery of 7,000 was reported the first day. The same players competed in the same format at Marseilles starting September 1. Tilden won both his singles and the Americans took the doubles, producing another 3-2 team win. Le Figaro termed Bill’s four-set win over Ramillon amid high winds "a magnificent battle." Harsh weather kept the crowds both days to slightly over 1,000.

It was said that when Cochet turned pro in late 1933, Tilden promised to come to Lyon, Henri’s boyhood home. Now, Tilden and five others came to the courts at Stade Henri-Cochet, Lyon Football Club, for a two-day elimination tournament, September 15-16. Bill defeated Ramillon in the semis and faced Cochet in the final before a capacity crowd of about 8,000, with thousands turned away. Cochet won the first set and nearly won the third, but Tilden raised his game to add to his list of triumphs. Tilden won the doubles with Albert Burke, his usual partner Gledhill being ill.

The climax of the continental tour was a three-day tournament at Garros, September 21-23. Cochet missed the event because of a nagging sickness, perhaps contracted in South America. Tilden in turn defeated Edmond Burke and Robert Ramillon. Watcher Ed Potter praised the shot-making of Ramillon, the "blonde little Frenchman," who nearly forced a tiring Bill to a fifth set. Potter especially liked Ramillon’s whipping backhand, which he said resembled Lacoste’s. It was a "sparkling" match, though the crowd was held down by threatening weather.

Warm sunshine came on Sunday, and with it about 5,000 watchers. The Tilden-Plaa final, Le Figaro reported, was "a classic match, interesting, but without the animation seen in major amateur tennis." American writer Al Laney wrote that Tilden showed "a superb display of severe hitting, interspersed with every shot in his wide repertoire." Plaa fought hard but never had a chance. In contrast, the doubles were disappointing, offering a "low-comedy element," wrote Potter, and were left unfinished. In disputes with the umpire, "nobody cared much except Tilden."

Tilden, Gledhill, and Plaa then traveled to Britain for one more outdoor event, 27-29 September. Cochet had been billed to appear but did not. Joining the troupe at Southport, near Liverpool, was Dan Maskell, pro at the All-England Club and long-time coach of the British Davis Cuppers. Maskell had successfully defended his British Pro championship recently. The new tournament, a four-man round-robin, was promoted by the Southport Corporation and was held on grass at a municipal site. Rains made for slippery footing and held down crowds, which were in any case limited because the tourist season was nearly over.

The players performed well. Maskell showed a faultless style described as half-way between slugging and pat-ball. Plaa as always pleased the gallery with his on-court gestures and exclamations. Gledhill hit consistently hard and "chased down everything." Tilden, playing close to his best, defeated all three of his opponents, Plaa lost only to Bill, and Maskell defeated Gledhill. In closing remarks, Bill told of plans to return to Southport in 1935 with Vines and Nusslein.

The circuit had amply confirmed Tilden’s superiority over the others, though several of Bill’s matches with Ramillon, Plaa, and Cochet had been close. Quite welcome was the hint for future financial success at Lyon, Paris, and Southport.

NUSSLEIN VS. VON CRAMM

With Vines and Cochet now in the pro ranks and with Fred Perry thought ready to turn, officials of the amateur game in many countries had grown more rigid toward the pros. The International Federation prohibited affiliated clubs from accommodating pro events at their facilities without permission. Thus the decision of the German Tennis Federation to invite pro Hans Nusslein to play a sanctioned match against amateur star Gottfried von Cramm seemed contrary to the trends of the time.

Equipped with superb strokes from back court, von Cramm, 25, earlier in the year captured Roland Garros, his first Slam title. Nusslein had been pro champion in 1933 by our ranking, and had won the 1934 U.S. Pro, described above. In late September Nusslein easily won the German Pro championships in Berlin over Roman Najuch and other European players. One year earlier Tilden had defeated von Cramm in straight sets, so that the betting odds now favored Nusslein, 2-1, but the Berliner Morgenpost noted that von Cramm often played over his head, that this "could be the match of his life."

It was Sunday, October 7, amid summer-like weather. About 6,000 watchers filled the Rot Weiss in Berlin. It was a splendid setting surrounded by woodland, one end of the arena open to greenery. Nusslein, the softer but steadier hitter, took the early lead, 5 games to 3, von Cramm playing cautiously. Gradually von Cramm increased the pace on the famous clay, hitting firmly in all situations with few errors, though Nusslein managed to close out the first set, 7-5. But to the Morgenpost reporter, who noticed signs of tiredness in Nusslein in answering von Cramm’s pressure, the "Baron" was beginning to take command. Now, amid many long back-court rallies, it was the amateur star who hit with the greater force, whose sweeping strokes especially off the backhand carried low over the net, often ticking the net cord with little loss of velocity. Meanwhile Nusslein’s shot-making gradually softened, perhaps from caution, perhaps from tiring. Von Cramm’s serving was a real weapon, Nusslein’s a weakness. Nusslein was almost never at net, while for Gottfried, net was almost always a winning position. After losing the first set von Cramm lost only seven games.

Perhaps it was that the slow court favored von Cramm inordinately, as Nusslein’s competitive play since turning pro had been primarily, though not exclusively, on indoor hard surfaces. Nevertheless, on this date Gottfried’s superiority was undeniable, not only in the score but also in his shot-making, power, and mobility. Hans’s steady game was simply too soft against the stronger player. Clearly the day belonged to the amateurs, when afterwards von Cramm and young partner Henkel defeated pros Nusslein and Messerschmidt in straight sets.

It was bad news for the pro game. Writers everywhere, including Fred Perry, had been conceding that the pro lineup was probably superior to the amateur. Now, such a conclusion seemed doubtful.

WEMBLEY AND PARIS

As 1934 entered its final months, it was evident that Vines, Nusslein, and Tilden stood at the top of the pros. Late-year indoor events in Europe would confirm this hypothesis and sort out the rank order among the three. The new tournaments at Wembley and in Paris would, like the U.S. Pro, prove indicators of world championship status in pro tennis, not only in 1934 but in years to come.

The grand Empire Pool at Wembley Stadium, London, was drained and converted during October for a season of events on ice. By placing a temporary wood floor directly on the ice, the arena could accommodate other sports. Seating exceeded 10,000 for tennis. For this, the first World’s Invitation Pro Tennis Championships, November 19-23, white lines for a tennis court were laid out on the green-painted wood. The product was a very fast playing surface.

Six players would compete in five evenings of round-robin play. Vines arrived from a long stay in Pasadena, where his golf skills had improved at a remarkable rate. Tilden returned after a short visit to the U.S. after Southport. Bruce Barnes was a late replacement for an indisposed Kozeluh, who was himself a replacement for Cochet, still recovering from his malady. Completing the field were Hans Nusslein, Martin Plaa, and Dan Maskell.

Difficult weather had hampered many of the pro outdoor events during the year. The bad luck persisted at Wembley, as extreme fog engulfed London during much of the tournament. Attendance was badly diminished, and the mist penetrated even into the arena, curtailing the brightness of the lights in a bizarre way. One night it took Tilden four hours to get back to his hotel by taxi. But there were no postponements, and good crowds turned out late in the week as the fog abated, perhaps exceeding 10,000 twice.

The quality of play was uniformly deemed superb. In the earlier sessions, each member of the top three–Vines, Nusslein, and Tilden–won all three of his matches against the lower three. Most of these outcomes were in straight sets, though there was plenty of excellent, crowd-pleasing tennis. Among the lower three, Plaa’s win over Barnes was the most crowd-pleasing. Barnes played magnificently in winning the first two sets but then sagged. Both men defeated Maskell. Fan interest, however, and the championship as well, rested on the head-to-head matches among the top three, held the final three evenings.

The London newspapers printed excellent accounts. On Wednesday evening, Nusslein and Tilden faced each other for the first time in 1934. (Earlier in the year it had been ascertained that Tilden led Nusslein in wins lifetime, 116-47.) On this occasion the two offered a fascinating five-setter. Bill’s power baseline game and excellent mobility, as was often the case, amazed writers who had not watched him since his amateur days. Tilden, now 42, forced play from the outset, serving with customary authority and hitting hard from both sides with little use of slice. Nusslein withstood the bombardment with fine defensive play and occasional sting, mixing in drop shots often not touched by Bill. Tilden led, two sets to one, then fell behind and yielded the fourth set. The veteran stepped up play in the fifth set, "opening up his shoulders to save his legs," wrote the Daily Telegraph’s reporter, almost surely Myers. But a tiring Tilden lost serve in the tenth and last game, so that it was Nusslein who prevailed. The ovation for both players at the end was "tremendous."

On Thursday night, it was Vines against Nusslein. Once again, the German star countered well an opponent possessing outstanding serve and ground power. With Vines coming to net more regularly than usual, Nusslein hit many "full-blooded" passing shots and other winners sometimes from seemingly hopeless positions. Both men used drop shots effectively–a growing weapon in Vines’s arsenal. But despite several dismal spells and his chronic weaker backhand, noticed by the British writers, Vines persisted unruffled about his business, which was painting the lines with strong deliveries. Nusslein won the first set but Vines took the next three, all by close scores.

So it remained Friday for Vines to dispatch Bill, a regular happening during spring and summer in North America. A Tilden win would have produced a three-way tie for the tournament championship, to be settled by sets and games won. Both players hit with close to consistent, full power. Bill played well, "covering court like a panther," wrote Myers. Neither man went to net often in the face of his opponent’s power. Myers especially admired Vines’s use of drop shots. Elly’s overall superiority in mobility, reach, shot-making, and power produced the victory 9-7, 7-5, 6-2 and with it the championship.

The new indoor tournament in Paris opened the very next Wednesday. The same six players competed except that Albert Burke replaced Maskell. The format was simple elimination for singles, round-robin for doubles, over three evenings. The playing surface at the Palais des Exhibitions, seating 3,000, was a slow clay said to match that at Roland Garros. Low rafters hampered lobbing. But despite the extreme change in court speed, the outcomes essentially repeated those at Wembley.

On opening night, November 28, Tilden defeated Burke one-sidedly and Plaa defeated Barnes, whose forcing game was largely neutralized by the heavy court. In an afternoon semi-final Thursday, Vines defeated Martin Plaa in five sets. Vines’s play was uneven, and it was clear that he disliked the slow and insecure surface. By the end, however, it was clear that Vines had mastered the transition from the fast wood in London and was now uninterruptedly battering Plaa.

Our three top stars remained. Nusslein faced Tilden in a Thursday evening semi. Once again the German player prevailed, more easily than in London, reflecting the slower playing conditions. Tilden captured only the third set but reached six games all in the fourth, only to lose serve after leading 40-love. It would be a Nusslein-Vines final, Friday.

It took less than an hour. Vines hit everything at full power and almost never missed. Nusslein did what he could, but the American, having mastered the slow court, simply delivered winner after winner. Nusslein consistently returned the service rockets but usually without pace or depth, inviting the point-ending crush. Before a capacity crowd, with hundreds more standing, Vines in straight sets showed himself "the greatest tennis player in the world," printed New York Herald Paris.

Doubles had not been played at Wembley. But in Paris, Nusslein-Vines won the doubles round-robin. Second place went to Tilden-Barnes. A week later in the feature singles of a one-night indoor program before a full house in Brussels, Vines defeated Tilden in five sets.

THE RANKINGS

Little doubt lingered that Ellsworth Vines was indeed king of the pros for 1934. After narrowly defeating Tilden in the early-year transcontinental tour, the Californian had one-sidedly mastered Cochet and Plaa, and, in a second tour, Tilden. Vines won nearly all the summer sectional tournaments in America, and through he failed to win U.S. Pro, losing to Nusslein, he captured Wembley and Paris, in both cases defeating both Tilden and Nusslein.

Second place in our rankings goes to Nusslein, who won U.S. Pro, won the German Pro, and was second, defeating Tilden, at both Wembley and Paris. Tilden remains third, reflecting his dominance in countless events on both sides of the Atlantic. Karel Kozeluh competed little during the year but showed wins on outdoor clay over Vines in Detroit and over Tilden in Milwaukee as well as a runner-up finish at U.S. Pro. We therefore place Kozeluh fourth, ahead of French players Plaa and Cochet, with Plaa just ahead of his countryman because of Martin's fine late-year showing in Europe. Bruce Barnes ranks seventh, and French player, Robert Ramillon, who consistently pressed Tilden late in the year, eighth. Just outside the first eight are Richards, Gledhill, Maskell, Burke, Najuch, and Chapin, roughly in that order. In doubles, where pairings changed often, Vines gained successes with several partners, but the Gledhill-Vines summer wins in America seem most deserving of the top place, just ahead of Richards-Vines. Tied at third are Cochet-Plaa, who led Tilden-Vines in their winter tour, and Barnes-Pare, winners of U.S. Pro.

In combining our ranking of pros with Myers's of amateurs, we find atop Myers’s amateur list Fred Perry, who won all three grass-court Slams of 1934. (Tilden was almost alone in arguing that von Cramm was better than Perry.) Should we place amateur Perry above pro champion Vines? Influenced by amateur von Cramm’s convincing win over pro Nusslein, we accord the top honor to the amateur. Another two years would pass before Perry and Vines would compete head-to-head as pros. After Perry and Vines, we place amateurs Crawford and von Cramm third and fourth, respectively. Pros Nusslein and Tilden are fifth and sixth. Amateurs Austin and Allison are seventh and eighth.

YEAR-END RECRUITING

Year 1934 had been a promising time for pro tennis. But there had also been disappointments, especially in the failure of the sectional tournaments in America. Meanwhile Nusslein’s loss to von Cramm in Berlin remained an embarrassment for the pros beyond erasure. Throughout the year it was generally known that large offers to turn pro were being considered by Fred Perry. Meanwhile offers to female champions Helen Wills Moody and Helen Jacobs were promptly and firmly rejected. The open tournament idea remained in the air, but the hostility of the national amateur associations to the pro game was stronger than ever. Only in Britain, where the Lawn Tennis Association administered the British pro tournament at Eastbourne, did accommodation seem to be emerging. In Paris during the indoor tournament in November, the pros organized themselves into an International Players Association.

With Perry having decided against turning, the new recruits were announced in November. In accord with earlier rumors, Americans George Lott and Lester Stoefen signed with promoter O’Brien to tour with Tilden and Vines. Neither Lott nor Stoefen stood in Myers’s top ten in singles, but the pair were the current doubles champions of Wimbledon and Forest Hills, and had won the doubles in the 1934 Davis Cup challenge round. Doubles had been pleasing to galleries during past pro tours. Whether fans would buy tickets primarily to watch doubles at its best seemed worthy of test.

--Ray Bowers

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Between The Lines Archives:
1995 - May 1998 | August 1998 - 2003 | 2004 - 2014


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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.

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