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Between The Lines
December 3, 2004 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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History of the Pro Tennis Wars
Chapter VIII:
Perry and Vines, 1937

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; of Tilden and Nusslein, 1932-1933; of The Early Ascendancy of Vines, 1934; Vines's Second Year: 1935; and Awaiting Perry, 1936.)


Frederick John Perry seemed just the right medicine for pro tennis. The acknowledged world's amateur champion 1934-1936, the British superstar was the first player in tennis history to have won each of the four Slam tournaments at least once during a career. He was undefeated in the last three Wimbledons and Davis Cups.

At 27, Perry was two years older than Ellsworth Vines, with an athletic physique only slightly less tall and wiry. He was generally thought an attacking player, having perfected Cochet's technique of meeting the ball very early on the rise, often executing a kind of swinging half-volley. He sometimes moved in to punish opponent's second serve in this manner, especially off the forehand. His wrist strength and continental grip--hand atop racket on the forehand--led to a pronounced snap in executing shots, with relatively short backswing. His reactions at net were quick, as would be expected from his earlier international success in table tennis, his overhead excellent His forehand was superior in effect if not in classic form, his serve could produce aces though it lacked the weight of Vines's, Stoefen's, or Tilden's, while his backhand--executed without grip change--was generally deemed ordinary and was usually sliced. He could rally with firmness and consistency, and was excellent defensively behind his superior court mobility--strengths that would be critical against Vines's artillery. Both his speed of foot and physical stamina as an amateur were legendary. Cochet described his on-court presence in tough competition--"ruthless, full of confidence, insolent, a rough fighter."

But most observers thought that the tour winner would be Vines, who brought the more powerful serve and ground strokes and who was more experienced indoors. Donald Budge, who practiced with Elly in California and had just faced Perry on the world stage, believed that the power of Vines would dominate. Tilden strongly agreed. Elly had won most of his meetings with Fred as an amateur, though Perry won their last battle, on Paris clay in 1933.

OPENING ENGAGEMENTS

The two titans arrived in New York from California by rail on January 3, 1937. Perry had been working in movies, avoiding hard tennis in order to stay fresh, he explained. Vines had been nursing a sore right shoulder during his recent tour of the Orient. Now, with only three days to go, both men played practice sets with other pros in Brooklyn. Also in New York was Bill Tilden, who would appear in the doubles at the Perry-Vines opener but would then embark on a separate tour. Seats for the January 6 engagement in Madison Square Garden sold briskly, and at top price $9.90 it was evident that the gate would be tennis's greatest ever. Inauspiciously, as the hour approached both men began to experience flu-like symptoms, and early in the day of the showdown Elly became confined to his room with sore throat and very high fever. There was no announcement of his illness.

In the preliminary match Bruce Barnes and George Lott played spiritedly. Barnes won the first set, and the second was stopped at five games all. The house then darkened, and first Perry and then Vines entered under spotlights and amid introductions. National anthems were sounded, and large national flags were lowered from above. Perry afterwards said the ceremonies lifted him emotionally. A pause for photography followed, and then came the warm-up. Every standing-room space had been filled for at least an hour.

Sadly, the tennis failed to equal the setting. Both men held serve for the first ten games, both playing largely from the baseline. Both seemed off their game, and their many errors kept most rallies short. But perhaps tellingly, watchers noted that Perry seemed able to get a racket on nearly all Vines's hard serves even when receiving close-in--i.e., standing roughly on the baseline. Perry finally broke in game eleven and took the first set at 7-5. The quality of play improved in the second set. Elly broke early when Perry several times came to net unsuccessfully, but then Fred broke back with some fine angled drives. Vines broke again later with some accurate hitting and then closed out the set with two winning serves to equalize at one-set-all.

With both players now coming to net more often, Elly took the early lead in set three, but it soon became clear that the American's stamina was gone. The Vines forehand, whether hit neutrally or in attack, now often found the net or flew over the baseline. But even in those moments where Elly pounded the corners at his best, Perry's quickness and replying power seemed able to neutralize or even reverse Elly's bombardment. With his primary weaponry thus largely denied, and with his own flu-like symptoms deepening, Elly's tennis degenerated. The American dragged himself through a listless fourth set, and Perry--mostly not attacking but simply letting Vines miss--finished off his win, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. After watching the evening's doubles, Tilden-Barnes defeating Lott-Perry, John Kiernan of New York Times wrote that Tilden had been the best player of the night.

The 17,630 watchers who paid $58,000 murmured at the subpar play of the two superstars. Vines made 108 errors, earned only 37 points, and Perry's numbers were only a little better. Newsweek called it "a black eye for pro tennis." Back in the hotel afterwards, Elly's temperature exceeded 102 degrees. Most writers were surprised not so much that Perry defeated a sick opponent, but that Perry had shown an ability to blunt Vines's game even when Elly's power was working. The great writer Al Laney judged that Vines must now realize that hitting the ball hard would not be enough against this opponent.

Two nights later before 3,000 in Cleveland, Vines took an early lead but Perry won again, 13-11 6-3. Vines still looked tired and drawn, especially in the second set. Both men played primarily from back court. Vines's only edge was in his serving. Then in Chicago before 12,600 on January 9, $5.50 top, Vines's strength failed totally. He seemed out on his feet, utterly weary, and often leaned on the railings to rest. Perry won easily, 6-0 6-2 6-3. Elly staggered through the doubles and then went directly to St. Luke's Hospital, where he was admitted as a patient. The public announcement of his hospitalization cited influenza complicated by tonsillitis.

The Chicago crowd had been mostly quiet, offering only a few catcalls and boos. But Arch Ward of Chicago Tribune afterwards wrote that the paying fans had been swindled. Agreement was general that the match should have been postponed. Vines acknowledged that he should not have played any of the matches to date and said that he would not play again if ill. There were no apologies or refunds.

Elly stayed in St. Luke's for five days. The scheduled engagement in Detroit was canceled when Tilden, whose own tour had already started, replied that he could not serve as a replacement. Vines stayed in the hospital until, much improved, he entrained on January 14 for Pittsburgh.

RESUMPTION

Vines's first win came on January 16 in a nearly filled Duquesne Garden, Pittsburgh, before 7,000. There seemed no trace of Elly's recent illness, and in some stretches the tall Californian played flawlessly, seemingly effortlessly. Elly's serve was a major weapon, generating 12 aces and many near-aces, while Fred produced more double-faults than aces. Most of the play was from back court, though rallies were generally short. Vines won again the next night before 6,500 in Olympia Auditorium, Detroit. The first set required 26 games, ending when Elly broke Fred's serve with a down-the-line pass. Vines then quickly won sets two and three, his scorching drives eliciting many errors by Fred.

Elly drew even in the series, three-wins-all, before 9,700 on January 18 in Boston Garden. The tennis was excellent both in quality and competitiveness. Perry made fewer errors, but Vines led in earned points 59-39--most of them "booming" backhand winners, reported Associated Press. Perry had match point in the fourth set, but Elly survived and finally triumphed by 7-5 in the fifth. The Boston Globe reporter noted that the only thing lacking was "an element of relief from the intensity of the play." For aficionados of competitive sport, there could scarcely have been higher praise.

Perry won in Buffalo on January 20 amid erratic play by Vines, and again in Philadelphia two nights later before more than 6,000 in Convention Hall. The writer for American Lawn Tennis, apparently the renowned coach Mercer Beasley, reported that Vines was nearly at his best in Philly but that Perry was able to keep Elly on the move and in deep court, unable to set up for attacking. There were many backhand-to-backhand exchanges, often ending when Fred was able to smoke a winning forehand to Elly's deep forehand. Matters remained tense until the end, but the British star won in four sets. Perry thus took a 5-3 lead in matches won.

The ensemble now headed south, completing five more engagements during January. Vines won on all five occasions, winning in two straight sets in Baltimore and College Park, outside Washington, and then winning split-setters in Richmond, Charlotte, and Miami. Elly's power serving and stroking dominated amid relatively few errors in these matches, and there seemed little Fred could do to change the outcomes. In College Park the match was played on shiny wood instead of the usual canvas, amplifying the effect of Elly's hitting. In Richmond Elly produced 30 aces in just 14 serving games, and he consistently answered Fred's bids to take net with strong passing shots. The Miami match was played on outdoor clay, and the slower conditions helped Fred keep matters close. With most action from the baseline, Vines missed many drop shots in losing the first set but he persisted in this tactic, which eventually worked well.

Attendance had been generally excellent through month's end. Vines now led in the series 8-5 and seemed clearly the stronger player. Meanwhile Barnes and Lott were exactly even in the preliminary matches, which included one tie. The doubles pairings changed after January 20 so that the two superstars thereafter opposed the two preliminary-match artists, at the suggestion of the latter. Play was often in a light vein but intensity sometimes became high, as when Perry-Vines won deciding third sets by 14-12 in Baltimore, by 20-18 in College Park, and by 10-8 in Miami. At month's end Perry-Vines had won five matches, Barnes-Lott one.

ACROSS AMERICA

February began for the troupe in Florida and would end in the Pacific Northwest. Perry won on outdoor clay at Palm Beach on February 1. Dodging floods while heading west, Perry and Vines divided wins in Birmingham and New Orleans, then did so again in Houston and Dallas. The two superstars then flew from Texas to Burbank airport in southern California--home country for both men now that Fred owned a home in Beverly Hills. On February 16 they played a best-of-five-set match in Pan-Pacific Auditorium, Los Angeles. Elly won in straight sets behind his blasting serve and "a pitiless barrage to the right-hand corner" against the Perry backhand. Among the 7,400 watchers at $6.60 top were Gable, Dietrich, and other glitterati. The win also gave Elly a three-match lead in the series. But Fred then captured their next three meetings, all in California. Elly then won in Vancouver, but Fred again prevailed in Seattle and Portland. Unlike in past tours the tally of match wins was regularly announced and reported worldwide, albeit sometimes erroneously, and February ended with Perry ahead 13-12.

By now, the strengths and strategies of the two headliners were generally understood. Local writers had often expressed surprise that both stars played mostly from the baseline, but most soon recognized that (1) the shot-making power and depth of both men made it difficult for either opponent to move forward and that (2) the mobility of both, especially Fred, made it made it hard to win points at net without severely pressing opponent first. Both men were conscious of keeping the other deep. In one interview, Elly described what it was like playing Perry. Certainly, he told the reporter, there were no habitual weaknesses in Fred's game. Fred had the finest defense Elly had ever seen and could readily shift from defensive situation to attack. Elly admitted that sometimes it was possible to defeat Fred by purely blasting away but only on those rare occasions where Elly's game was at its absolute best. Most of the time, he continued, he tried to play varied and changing styles, concentrating on making every shot as perfect as possible. In his autobiography Elly later cited Julius Heldman, a fine player and a watcher over many years, in explaining that Fred's return of serve was "masterful," his overhead "deadly," his continental-grip forehand "the finest of its kind in history."

Meanwhile Vines's primary asset remained his potent first serve, which he backed with an ability to deliver a severely bounding second-serve twist. Against Elly's deliveries, Fred's patented technique of stepping in against second serve was almost useless. Too safe a return, however, often invited Elly's forehand rocketry. In those cases where match statistics were reported, errors by both men usually exceeded earned points by about 2-3 times, Elly always producing more of both than Fred. Spectators easily saw that both headliners were much harder hitters than the preliminary performers Lott and Barnes. Generally when on court Elly showed his customary serious, indeed dour manner, while Fred when ahead would often become the showman, courting the audience in an unobjectionable way.

During March the warriors roamed the American heartland, visiting most of the middle-sized cities known from past tours. Fred won on wood in Salt Lake City on March 2, then lost several nights later in Denver, where Elly produced what one writer called "the best tennis I've ever seen." Starting March 15 in St. Paul and ending March 20 in Chattanooga, the troupe performed on six consecutive nights, each time in a different city. Such difficult intervals seemingly produced little drop-off in the play, indeed some extremely attractive performances.

At the end of March Perry and Vines were exactly tied at 19 wins each. In the preliminary singles Barnes was now slightly ahead of Lott, while in the doubles Barnes-Lott despite improvement were still behind Perry-Vines.

PERRY vs. TILDEN

Everyone understood that Bill Tilden, now 44, had no chance of prevailing in an extended tour against either Perry or Vines. For a single evening, however, or indeed for a short series, Big Bill was thought likely to do well. The ovation given Bill for his doubles appearance at the Garden in January suggested that public interest in such matches might be high. In late February, promoters Voshell and Hunter announced that Tilden and Perry would play a five-match series, starting March 24 in Madison Square Garden and ending 12 nights later in Boston. Bill insisted that all matches be best-of-five setters.

Tilden and his ensemble had been on the road since mid-January. With Bill were French player Martin Plaa, Hytaro Satoh of Japan, and Al Chapin, augmented at some locations by Vincent Richards or local pros. The itinerary criss-crossed the nation reaching Florida, California, and the northeastern states. Many of the engagements were at private tennis clubs. Tilden, whose past arm discomfort had been helped by surgery in late 1936, regularly beat Richards and Plaa and in Miami on January 17 defeated Joe Whalen, winner of the diminished U.S. Pro in 1936, by one-sided scores. Asked in late February about his forthcoming series against Perry, Bill said he thought he knew how he could win, hinting that to beat Fred you must "smack the ball."

The Garden attendance on March 24 was indeed excellent--in excess of 15,000 at $5.50 top. The crowd gave Bill wholehearted support at the outset, and Bill responded spiritedly. But after the first four games the hall quieted down. Allison Danzig reported that the match-up was "hopelessly uneven," that Bill was wholly outclassed and that his weapons were failing him badly, especially the once-magnificent backhand. Bill's recent tour opponents had given him little preparation for Perry's power, accuracy, and mobility. Tilden took the third set but a total of only three games in the other three sets. Grantland Rice wrote that Bill was now but a shadow of the past--that his demise meant "the end of the Golden Era of sports."

Perry won again in Chicago Stadium before 6,000 on March 28. Tilden played better, producing fine power in serving and stroking in capturing the first set. But Bill's stamina faltered thereafter, and Fred took command. Perry meanwhile also played main-tour matches against Vines on March 25 and 29 at other cities. His tiredness was beginning to tell, and his overnight auto trip from Milwaukee in Elly's Buick almost surely contributed to Bill's four-set win in Pittsburgh on March 30. Fred later explained that prior to their match in Milwaukee he and Elly had reached their only collusion of the tour, agreeing to play just two sets, but that Elly reneged. Fred resumed his success over Bill on March 31 in Detroit, and won again in the final match of their scheduled five-match series in Boston on April 5. The Boston crowd of 5,000 showed disappointment in the endless baseline play of the principals.

Vincent Richards played the preliminary singles on the five dates of Perry-Tilden, either losing or splitting sets with Bruce Barnes or George Lott. In the doubles, Perry-Vines won on all five occasions over Richards-Tilden, all in straight sets. The match-ups seemed strange--Vines played only doubles, and Lott and Barnes played only singles.

An ankle injury to Vines gave Tilden two more chances against Perry, both best-of-three setters. Substituting for Elly on a main-tour engagement, Bill played Perry in Elizabeth, New Jersey, April 9. At first Fred was genial in manner amid many backhand-to-backhand exchanges. But after splitting the first two sets, a more determined Fred began advancing to forecourt. But there he found himself regularly beaten by Bill's lobs and angled passes. Bill broke serve early and stayed ahead thereafter. A local writer noted that a wringing wet Tilden afterwards showed obvious joy in winning. Bill won again the next evening in Rochester.

Tilden sailed for Europe three weeks later. Perry later wrote that Bill had been a tough opponent, in some ways more difficult than Vines, as Bill had greater variety and was less predictable.

FINISH IN NORTH AMERICA

Perry and Vines continued their odyssey into early May. Vines took the series lead on April 12 in Ithaca, extended it in Albany the next night, and never thereafter relinquished it. The principals split best-of-five-setters in Montreal and Toronto. Writers at several places noted that both men seemed tired, that their play seemed flat.

The troupe returned to Madison Square Garden on May 3 before 6,800. Elly won in three straight sets, seemingly far more motivated than Fred and plainly the more interested in attacking net. One count of points decided at net showed 19 winners and 4 errors for Vines, 4 winners and 4 errors for Fred. Watchers noted that Perry had lost weight and Vines had gained since their January opening. One writer saw that Vines seemed to have developed a new attacking weapon, a down-the-line backhand. Elly explained that using his preconceived tactic of attacking Fred's backhand had made him "tired of being continually passed at net." Fred reversed the Garden outcome on May 5 in Chicago, however, winning in three straight sets. Elly then won three straight sets at Louisville the next night.

Satoh or Chapin filled in on occasion for Barnes or Lott. Meanwhile irritations built up among the cast. During the doubles at Hartford on May 9, George Lott started to punch Perry and had to be restrained. Observers had overheard harsh words among several of the players earlier and had been surprised that even Vines addressed Perry by his last name. Years later, however, Lott told an interviewer that Perry had become a warm and lifelong friend.

Vines's win in the tour finale in Scranton on May 12 created a 32-29 lead in match wins for Elly. (The count did not include the two occasions when Tilden substituted for Vines.) Vines also led in sets won 88-86. The North American tour had been touted for the world's pro championship, so it was everywhere recognized that Vines now held that honor. Meanwhile Barnes became the narrow winner over Lott. Bruce led 18-11 in my count of matches played to completion, and by 25-19 if incomplete matches are included. (Excluded are 10 ties and 4 unknown outcomes.) In doubles match-ups where Perry-Vines played against Barnes-Lott, the former pair led by 25-16 (not counting 4 ties and 6 unknowns).

Financially the tour had been easily the most successful to date. Announced gross revenue was $412,000. Payments to local promoters, expenses, and taxes left $91,000 for Perry (well in excess of his guaranteed amount), $34,000 for Vines, and $57,000 for the investor-promoters. Bill O'Brien had been only a minor investor in the Hunter-Voshell syndicate but served for a time as tour manager.

The closeness of the Perry-Vines running tally stirred suspicion that the competition was not completely honest. No one pointed out specific episodes indicating fraud, however, and both players insisted that they always did their best. Vines several times pointed out that he felt it critical to win the tour in order to be the prime tour opponent when the next top amateur turned pro.

Rough statistical tests can be applied to examine the tour's integrity. For example, if two opponents are exactly evenly matched and if each set is independently decided, then the player winning the first set of a match should also win the second set half the time on average. But if the players wish to make things more entertaining, then they might split the first two sets more often than not. In actuality, in their 61 matches in North America, Perry and Vines divided the first two sets 37 times, while the same player won the first two sets 24 times. Was the idea to keep matches close to improve the entertainment value?

Another test raises suspicion of a different kind. In matches played when Vines was ahead in the running tally by two matches or more, then Elly's W-L record was 8-17. In all other matches his W-L record was 24-12 (or 24-9 excluding the first three matches when Elly was ill). Vines lost all seven times when he was three matches ahead. Why did Elly perform so poorly whenever he was comfortably ahead? Was he purposely allowing the tally to stay close?

The results of both tests are eyebrow-raising but both are within the limits of plausibility. Indeed, there are mental factors that may help explain the patterns. All tennis competitors know that a player who is behind improves in determination and concentration, while a player who is ahead tends to let up. Our suspicions therefore remain unproven, but they remain.

PERRY AND VINES IN BRITAIN

Perry and Vines sailed for England on May 15, arriving six days later. Their first engagement would be a three-match show-down on the boards at Empire Pool, Wembley, the winner to receive the King George VI Coronation Cup. In preliminary matches on the three evenings, four other pros would compete for the Coronation Plate. The scheme protected Perry and Vines from the others, Fred having earlier said that he was not willing to play a tournament at Wembley. Preparing for the matches, Perry practiced with British coach Dan Maskell at Queen's Club. Having not seen Fred in nearly a year, Maskell now wrote that Fred had developed a faster first and a more effective second serve along with a better-controlled backhand. He also noted that Fred was now keener and more thorough in his match preparation.

The new Perry-Vines series began at Wembley on May 25 before more than 5,000 watchers and a knowledgeable corps of tennis writers. The painted wood floor made for sensational velocities in the exchanges, and the gallery applauded regularly and with enthusiasm. The correspondent for The Times marveled in Perry's ability to return Vines's service rockets, and contrasted Vines's flat forehand power from well behind baseline with Perry's quickness and skill at taking "the rising ball he loves." In observing the many backhand exchanges, A. Wallis Myers detected that the two warriors knew each other so well that their styles were automatic and their rallies "unrelieved by enterprise." He saw Vines the usual aggressor in serving and at net, Perry the more patient and the more likely winner of long rallies. Vines won in five sets. Afterwards a tired Perry told Clifford Webb of the Daily Herald that he was terribly disappointed in the outcome, though still determined, while Vines was jubilant at having offset Perry's win in the New York opener. Webb deemed the fourth and fifth sets "superior to anything seen at Wimbledon in recent years."

Perry reversed the outcome on the second night, May 26. Elly won the first set, playing "hurricane tennis," but Fred outlasted him in the second behind excellent lobs and passes with Elly at net. Webb took note how Vines's heavy groundstrokes largely neutralized Perry's attacking forehand by keeping him deep. Perry also won the third match on May 29 before 8,000, this time in straight sets. Fred's usual edge in steadiness was pronounced on this occasion, and Elly achieved only mixed success in countering by coming forward. Maskell wrote that the difference was Fred's ability to handle Vines's serve. Perry thus became the winner of Coronation Cup, two matches to one.

Preceding the main bout each evening was the Coronation Plate competition. On the first night, Tilden defeated Martin Plaa in two comfortable sets. Myers wrote rapturously on Bill's display of genius. On the second night, Hans Nusslein beat Lester Stoefen in an entertaining straight-setter. The survivors, Nusslein and Tilden, met on the third evening in what became a baseline contest, Tilden trying to get Nusslein on the run with strong drives mixed with heavily sliced shots of varying depth. The German star returned consistently, making some incredible recoveries and awaiting Bill's errors. Nusslein won the match and the Plate, 10-8, 6-3. In the late-night doubles matches on the second and third evenings, Perry-Vines defeated Plaa-Tilden and Tilden-Stoefen, respectively.

The principals played four more times in Britain. Vines won outdoors at Bournemouth on June 5 and indoors in Glasgow on June 8. Perry won a second Glasgow match on June 9 and won again on June 12 before a reported 11,000 at a football grounds in Liverpool. The British writers agreed that Perry had improved substantially from his amateur days, and praised the quality if not the emotion in the play. Two more matches remained, in Dublin on Irish grass, June 14 and 15. Most of the play on the first date was from the baseline, but the fifth set was decided when Perry attacked net more regularly. An Irish Press reporter liked the tactic, noting that "volleying coups are the spice of the game." Perry won both matches in Dublin, the second in three straight sets. Tilden appeared in the preliminary matches, regularly defeating Plaa. Perry-Vines continued their success in doubles, though Tilden-Stoefen defeated them in their extended and crowd-pleasing match in Liverpool.

Thus Perry claimed six victories in the nine matches played in Britain and Ireland, and the global tally between the two superstars thereby became exactly even, 35 wins each.

EUROPE

Perry and Vines departed for America immediately after Dublin, leaving Tilden and Nusslein the primary contenders in the subsequent European circuit. Both would prove clearly ahead of the next echelon--French stars Cochet, Ramillon, and Plaa, along with the tall American Stoefen, who like Bill would traverse Europe all summer. Tilden had already, in mid-May, played and defeated Cochet in a tournament in Scheveningen (near The Hague) where Plaa and several Dutch pros also competed. The season's first major event would be the French Pro Championships at Garros, planned for mid-June following the Perry-Vines tour. It had been understood that Perry and Vines might come to Paris to compete, and their absence was a disappointment. According to Paris-based writer Maurice Blein, both Cochet and Nusslein asked to be quoted denouncing the headliners for this "indignity to pro tennis, which had been built up by Tilden and others." They charged that the absence of Perry and Vines showed "fear of an untimely defeat."

The tournament at Garros went on as scheduled June 16-20, with over two dozen entrants. Martin Plaa, said to be out of condition, lost in the first round to French pro Alfred Estrabeau. The latter went on to upset Stoefen in the quarter-finals, playing David to the American Goliath, one writer put it. The best quarter-final pairing was between Robert Ramillon and Nusslein. The score reached one set all, the French player having dazzled with disguise, spins, and variety. But "the German machine" remained solid and prevailed in four sets. In the semis Nusslein repeated his Coronation Plate victory over Tilden by superior defense, forcing Tilden to nail the lines with near-perfect shots in order to win points. Bill won the first set and extended the second but finally lost in four. Cochet then defeated Estrabeau in four, and in the final round Nusslein scored regularly on passing shots against a net-attacking Cochet to win in three. In the doubles final, Tilden-Stoefen defeated Cochet-Ramillon by their superior serving. Blein noted that neither pair seemed interested in closing on net.

After a short interval for the early rounds of Bonnardel Cup, described later, the cast reassembled for the annual tournament in Southport, July 13-17, except for Cochet, who had left on a trip to Soviet Union. Knocked out early were the English pros Jeffery and Poulsen, along with Plaa, Estrabeau, and the Burkes. Heavy rains delayed things at mid-week but the En-tout-cas surface recovered well, and the quarter-finals were completed by mid-day Friday. Joining Tilden and Stoefen in the semis were the continental stars Ramillon and Nusslein.

One semi-final brought no surprise. Lester Stoefen dictated play at all times, but his own errors and Nusslein's retrieving powers produced a straight-set win for Hanne. The other outcome was unexpected. Robert Ramillon narrowly lost the first set to Tilden, playing well and scoring often with drop shots. Bill also won the second set but then lost the third 13-11 after holding set-point four times. Ramillon then pressed on to complete his win over a very tired Tilden. In the final on Saturday, Nusslein defeated his French opponent in a "nice but not spectacular" four-setter. Ramillon showed the effects of his previous day's struggle with Tilden and could not produce the needed super-tennis. Stoefen-Tilden won the doubles in three extended sets by weight of firepower over Plaa-Ramillon.

Lesser tournaments in coastal France followed. Stoefen won the final at Deauville on July 25 over Plaa, who had beaten Tilden, and Tilden won the next week at La Baule over Ramillon, who had beaten Stoefen. Tilden-Stoefen and Plaa-Ramillon in turn won the doubles at these events. The cast also played at Touquet on August 12-15, while across the channel at Eastbourne, Dan Maskell relinquished his British pro championship after a nine-year run, losing to T.C. Jeffery in a match lasting over three hours.

The Grand Palais, Paris, hosted what was billed the World's Pro Championships, indoors. Play on the first day, August 6, reduced the field of eight down to four--the identical semi-finalists of Southport. Round-robin matches started with two rounds on Saturday August 7, where Nusslein defeated both Ramillon and Stoefen, and Tilden defeated the same two players. Bill's match with Stoefen was a five-setter that lasted long past midnight. Thus the Sunday match-up between Tilden and Nusslein would decide the championship. Bill was not fresh after his late-night ordeal against Stoefen, and Hans became champion of the event in three straight sets. The Herald-Tribune Paris reporter wrote that after making a good fight in set two, Tilden "went out like a candle." Ramillon took third place by defeating Stoefen. Doubles was not played.

BONNARDEL CUP

In the opening round of Bonnardel Cup, Netherlands faced Ireland in Southport on July 7-8. Waasdorp and Hemmes both won two singles in defeating the Burke brothers 4 matches to 1. The Hollanders then played France on July 9-10. Waasdorp defeated Plaa the first day but otherwise Ramillon and Plaa swept the remaining matches for a 4-1 team victory and a place in the coming Cup final. The reporter from Liverpool Post wrote that Ramillon looked very strong, showing good power with his usually soft forehand.

Meanwhile Germany hosted the Americans in Koln, July 10-11. The Americans won two of the first three matches when both Tilden and Stoefen defeated the German player Goritschnig in singles. Tilden then completed the U.S. team victory by defeating Nusslein after losing the first set. A reporter wrote that Nusslein was playing below form and that Tilden had been motivated by his recent losses to Hans. The American pair then won the doubles to make the team score 4-1.

The final round of Bonnardel Cup was held at Southport on September 3-4 amid meager attendance. The event was marred by a foot injury in the opening match to Stoefen, who had won the first two sets from Ramillon. The French star then won the last three sets comfortably. Tilden next defeated Plaa, dominating in a strong cross-court wind, thereby equalizing the team score. On the second day Stoefen took the court against Plaa but was forced to retire, and Tilden proved unable to withstand a Ramillon playing at his very best. Ahead 3-1, the French pros thus claimed the Cup for the second time in its three-year history. Stoefen-Tilden defeated Plaa-Ramillon in a meaningless resumption of their recent battles.

ON THE CONTINENT

Hanne Nusslein resumed his run of success by capturing the first Dutch international pro championship, held at Scheveningen, September 9-12. The German star defeated Stoefen in a straight-set semi and Tilden in a four-set final. Bill had beaten Ramillon in five sets.

Next came the German Pro at the Blau-Weiss in Berlin. On hand were the customary German teaching pros along with a strong international cast. The prime quarter-final match-up pitted Stoefen against Nusslein. Rollo held up well, losing an extended first set and then winning the second. But the big-serving American faded thereafter, yielding sets three and four quickly in the face of the inevitable. Joining Hanne in reaching the last four were Tilden, Ramillon, and Goritschnig. In the ensuing round-robin, 17-19 September, Goritschnig, as expected, lost in straight sets to each of the other three. The championship thus was decided in the head-to-meetings among Nusslein, Tilden, and Ramillon.

Tilden and Ramillon squared off on Friday, September 17, Bill winning in three straight sets. Saturday produced a "sensation" when the French player defeated Nusslein in four sets. Our watcher from the Morgenpost deemed that Hanne was not in best form, and that it was Ramillon who on this day was the great one. But the defending champion still had a chance to win the championship if he could defeat Bill in three straight sets. Before more than 7,000 spectators on Sunday, Hanne almost did that. In the "battle between the masters," the younger player won the match against Tilden, comfortably capturing sets one, three, and four. But the second set went to the grand veteran, 6-3, and with it, the championship--decided by sets won and lost during the round-robin. (Tilden was 7-3 in sets, Nusslein 7-4, Ramillon 6-4.) It was a rare blemish against Hanne's almost-perfect record during the year.

On Sunday, Nusslein and Ramillon combined to win the doubles in a well-contested five-set struggle against Tilden-Stoefen.

Tilden and Stoefen opposed Cochet and Ramillon in Bonnardel-like reprises in Brussels on 21-22 September and then in Roubaix in northern France, outside Lille. The Americans won by 3-2 in the first case, the French by the same score in the second by reversing their previous loss in the doubles. Tilden won all his singles.

WEMBLEY

The indoor tournament at Wembley again crowned the European pro season after a one-year lapse. It was understood that Tilden had been a driving force in reviving the event, insisting that it be held despite the absence of Perry and Vines and the possibility of financial loss. The field consisted of eight pros. Knocked out on the first two dates, September 28 and 29, were the recent finalists at Eastbourne, Maskell and Jeffery. Also eliminated early was Martin Plaa, who lost to Nusslein in three sets amid many long rallies and occcasional "strokes of genius" by the winner. Ramillon also exited after a duel with Stoefen lasting more than two hours. The American was erratic, but he also produced lightning on the fast boards often enough in his drives and smashes to prevail in five sets.

Both Nusslein and Tilden won their semis in three straight sets. Hans defeated a Stoefen unable to win points except by outright winners, and Bill defeated Henri Cochet, just back from Russia. Myers judged that the wood floor helped Cochet in his volleying but that Bill was too good on this evening. Tilden scored often with lobs when Henri Cochet came forward. Another Nusslein-Tilden final thus lay ahead, October 1.

Myers called it a magnificent match, played by two "shrewd apostles of controlled speed," both striving for victory at all times. Big Bill's serving was no longer enough to win strings of easy points, but Nusslein's backhand was a "weapon of steel, which Tilden attacked only in vain." If neither man came forward, it was because the driving from both sides was severe and accurate, and the gallery rewarded the splendid exchanges with warm applause. It came to a fifth set, which to Myers became a question of who would wear down. Bill saved one service game with two aces but then faltered, victim of the years. Hanne won, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 6-3.

In the doubles final, Nusslein teamed with Plaa to defeat Stoefen-Tilden in straight sets. The new pairing combined Plaa's excellent close-in and low-ball skills with the overall excellence of Nusslein.

FIRST U.S. OPEN

Years of brave talk among members of U.S. Pro Lawn Tennis Association finally produced a first U.S. Open tournament--open to both pros and amateurs. The pioneering event commenced on October 13, 1937 at the Greenbrier Golf and Tennis Club, White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. Neither the Greenbrier nor U.S.P.L.T.A. were now members of U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, which in any case withheld sanction of this "open" competition as required under rules of International Lawn Tennis Federation. A total of 10 amateurs, all of them obscure, and 28 pros entered. Three of the amateurs withdrew before the first round. Six others lost their first match in straight sets. The only winning amateur was Gordon Riach, who then lost in straight sets the next day. Because of their participation, Riach and five of the others were later officially barred from future U.S.L.T.A. amateur competition.

Rain and frost troubled the late rounds and amplified the advantage of the slow surface to the steady baseliners. The quarter-finals were delayed to Saturday, October 16, on which date veteran Karel Kozeluh defeated Herman Peterson, pro at Larchmont, New York, and young Joe Whalen defeated Al Chapin. Both matches were straight-setters. In matches completed on Sunday, Bruce Barnes defeated Vincent Richards in four sets, and George Lott defeated Los Angeles pro Ben Gorchakoff in five.

In one semi-final, also played on Sunday, Kozeluh swept Whalen in straight sets. Then on Monday morning Barnes won his semi by defeating Lott in straight sets. In the final round that afternoon, Barnes faced Kozeluh amid light rain. The younger player had announced his intention to attack net aggressively, but for most of the match the depth of the master pro kept Bruce nailed to the baseline. The deep placement of Kozeluh grew increasingly effective, and in the fifth set the Czech veteran closed out the tired American 6-1. Kozeluh thus became the first U.S. Open champion.

Lott-Richards won the doubles final, played on Sunday, defeating Barnes-Kozeluh by 9-7 in the fifth set. Years later Lott nostalgically recalled the long match--the only occasion where he played as Vinnie's partner. The opponents regularly challenged Vinnie's overhead, Lott remembered, but though he was less than two years from having broken two hips, Lott related, Richards never cracked.

LATE-YEAR

During October, Nusslein, Tilden, Cochet, and Ramillon toured major cities of Italy. (Hanne was a replacement for the injured Stoefen.) A highlight was a three-day round-robin in Milano, where Tilden defeated all three others including Nusslein. In an unusual twist, the players changed doubles partners each date. Cochet lost with all three partners, so that each of the others won twice. At the ornate Foro Mussolini in Rome, October 17-18, Nusslein proved dominant after Cochet surprised Tilden in split sets. The group then traveled to Egypt, Albert Burke replacing Nusslein, for six weeks of exhibitions and teaching, pursuing a "world tour" that would carry the travelers to India and Southeast Asia in the New Year.

Perry and Vines spent summer and fall in California giving attention to their investment at Beverly Hills Tennis Club. Various tennis and movie celebrities played often at the club. Perry's instructional movie, "Tennis Tactics," was released, and Vines gave lessons at $5 each. Elly, who had worn a back brace during much of the 1937 tour, underwent surgeries designed to correct back-muscle and throat problems.

PROS AGAINST AMATEURS

There had been little on-court competition during the year between the top amateurs and pros. Don Budge was understood to have won "his fair share" of his practice sets against Vines. Elly also practiced sometimes with teenagers Jack Kramer and Joe Hunt. On one occasion at the Beverly Hills club, Hunt reportedly carried Elly to an 11-9 set and with Gene Mako split doubles sets against Perry-Vines.

Vincent Richards and Berkeley Bell provided practice opposition for the Australian Davis Cup players preparing for the summer's Aussie-U.S. Cup showdown. In doubles the two pros nearly held their own against Crawford-Quist, the Cup nominees. Meanwhile George Lott and Karel Kozeluh worked with the Americans. A Herald-Tribune reporter watching Kozeluh's practice match with Frank Parker on May 13 saw "a long deep-court duel marked by great court covering and deadly accuracy by both men." Lott regularly partnered amateur Wayne Sabin in doubles practice against Budge-Mako, where the pairs proved almost exactly equal. A surprise happened one day when rising player Bobby Riggs, replacing Budge, partnered Mako in defeating Lott-Sabin. Nusslein served as coach with the German Cup team, Ramillon with the Italian.

RANKINGS FOR 1937

The long Perry-Vines series of 1937 failed to produce a clear pro champion for the year. Elly has usually been accorded that honor because he won the North American tour. But Perry's success in Europe exactly balanced the count, where both men won a total of 35 matches in the two tours combined. In these 70 matches Perry won the most sets, 108-102, along with 11 of the 21 matches that were best-of-five setters. Of their six meetings in seemingly prime situations, Perry won three (New York opener, Chicago opener, Philadelphia), Vines three (Boston, Los Angeles, London opener). Perry won their two meetings on outdoor grass. If Vines was handicapped by illness at the start, Perry endured extra fatigue at mid-tour in his singles matches against Tilden. Disagreeing with the majority view, long-time watcher E. C. Potter, Jr. in his rankings placed Perry ahead of Vines. In my judgment, the extensive record requires that Vines and Perry be deemed equal for 1937.

The remarkable 1937 achievements of Hans Nusslein place him very close to Perry and Vines. Nusslein never played against either headliner during the year, but he regularly defeated all others in capturing nearly all the major European pro events. Nusslein won the Coronation Plate at Wembley, the tournament at Garros in June, Southport, the World Pro in Paris indoors, the Dutch Pro in September, and Wembley in October. He lost the German Pro only by the round-robin tiebreaker method.

Nusslein's results against Tilden during the year can be compared with Perry's. Both Nusslein and Perry defeated Bill regularly in the prime meetings, and both lost at least twice in lesser situations. Tilden in early 1938, praising Hanne's superb consistency, accuracy, and variety, added that while Vines at his best was superior, over the long haul Nusslein might be slightly above either Perry or Vines. As I see it, Nusslein ranks behind Perry and Vines for 1937 only by the thinnest of margins--perhaps equivalent to Hanne's misstep in Berlin.

Here then are our pro rankings for 1937:

1/2. Perry, Vines
3. Nusslein
4. Tilden
5. Ramillon
6. Cochet
7. Stoefen
8. Barnes, Kozeluh

In merging our pro list with Myers's amateur, the foremost problem is in placing the year's top amateur, Budge. Vines late in the year offered that the young Californian was in the same class with the top pros, and in early 1938 Elly ventured that Budge might be ahead of Perry outdoors and would be close indoors after a few weeks. Rising amateur Jack Kramer, who practiced with Vines during the period, in a later book apportioned honors for 1937 equally to Budge and Vines. E. C. Potter placed Budge first. Certainly Budge improved from 1936, rising over von Cramm by defeating him in the Wimbledon and U.S. finals and in their epochal Davis Cup meeting. But Perry too improved during the year, attested in Maskell's close and expert judgment. We place Budge co-equal with the two top pros.

Just behind the top three are Nusslein and von Cramm. These two played practice sets against each other fairly frequently in these years but results were not reported. In his very helpful short biography of Nusslein, Robert Geist quoted an official of Deutschen Tennisbund that Nusslein should regularly defeat Cramm. (Geist added that after their 1934 public match in Berlin, won by Gottfried, the Tennisbund would not agree to Hanne's wish for a chance at revenge.) Both Nusslein at age 27 and Cramm at 28 were in 1937 close to prime tennis age. Our pro-am rankings follow:

1/3. Budge, Perry, Vines
4/5. Nusslein, von Cramm
6. Henkel
7. Austin
8. Tilden

The year's top doubles pair among the pros was Perry-Vines, whose success in America was reinforced by wins in the British Isles. Barnes-Lott, who regularly pressed and often defeated the top pair, in my opinion shared second place with Tilden-Stoefen, who won Southport, Garros, and Scheveningen and were runners-up at Berlin and Wembley. The various combinations of Nusslein, Cochet, Plaa, and Ramillon are only slightly behind, along with Lott-Richards, champion pair at U.S. Open.

It had been a remarkable year for men's pro tennis. The Perry-Vines grand tour proved a financial success and brought wide attention to the sport. Meanwhile the makings of an enduring circuit of European pro tournaments seemed at hand, complemented by annual team competition analogous to Davis Cup. Holding the first U.S. Open seemed perhaps another forward step. Perry and Vines, however, by not participating in these events, surely held back the game's upward evolution. The two superstars talked of the need for open tennis, but their bodies were absent when needed at the Greenbrier and on the European continent.

--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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