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Between The Lines
November 22, 2005 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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FORGOTTEN VICTORIES:
History of the Pro Tennis Wars 1926-1945,
Chapter X:
Budge's Great Pro Year, 1939

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; Awaiting Perry, 1936; Perry and Vines, 1937; and Readying for Budge, 1938.)


Donald Budge's impact on the pro game was strong and immediate. Early in the new year the California red-head, age 23, faced Vines and then Perry in tours of North America. Budge and Vines then went to Europe for further show-downs against each other and also against Nusslein. It seemed clear that the world's best tennis players were the aforementioned four superstars--all of them pros. Never had professional tennis seemed healthier than at mid-summer 1939.

THE BUDGE STYLE

It was probably the most famous stroke in tennis history. Unquestionably it was the greatest backhand of its time, comparable in its variety and penetration to superior forehands. Delivered with moderate backswing, it carried relentless weight, including moderate overspin for hitting cross-court and sometimes sidespin for down-the-line. It was unpredictable in direction, ruthlessly accurate, and remarkably free from error. Opponents seldom served to it. Almost always it was an offensive shot, even when hit while on the run. It was the most important weapon in the arsenal of J. Donald Budge.

Budge later said his backhand came from his boyhood years playing baseball and batting left-handed. Master analyst Julius Heldman admired the stroke's simplicity and freedom of motion--racket and arm thrown forward, the arm straightening during the hit, a classic form. Vines would deem Don's down-the-line backhand the main difference in the outcome of their tours.

Budge's forehand was essentially learned, not natural, but it came to near his backhand in its accuracy and force. Early-on, his rolling Western forehand had been well suited to the cement courts of his native northern California. But to improve on low-bouncing grass, Budge in 1935 changed to an Eastern grip and delivery, made standard by the example of Tilden. Robert Geist tells us that Nusslein, who worked with Don for several weeks in that year, recalled that Budge "grew under my hands like grass." Don had been smallish in his high-school years, developing an early style around strong defense and consistency. His relentless power came in his late teens when he suddenly spurted upward to nearly 6-2. But he always remained a fast mover, able to play patiently.

But his mature game was built about his heavy groundstrokes, delivered using a racket that at nearly 16 ounces was heavier than anyone else's. From both sides, Budge produced sustained and controlled weight to the corners, forcing his opponents to weak positions, keeping them deep. He preferred to meet the ball near the top of the bounce, but he learned to hit on the rise, crediting Fred Perry for the recommendation. In attacking short balls, his approach shots were scaled-down versions of his drives and were often so well delivered that his volleys became easy. Meanwhile his strong ground game made it hazardous for even the very best net-rushers to come forward. He seldom lobbed, undersliced, or tried drop shots. His serve carried excellent pace and moderate topspin, though usually with less velocity than Vines's cannonball and less hop than Elly's second delivery. His power carried into his doubles game, where it complemented the variety, angles, and sometimes better overhead of his usual partner as an amateur, Gene Mako.

BUDGE-VINES TOUR

Advance sales for the Budge-Vines opener in Madison Square Garden, January 3, 1939, were excellent. Both men spoke confidently amid the customary pre-match interviews, appearances, and speculations. The two had not played since early 1937 in Florida, when Budge won their single set, 14-12. Most people expected a close match--the four-year pro king against history's first Grand Slam champion, the world's best forehand against the best backhand. Vines was said to be the betting favorite to win the opener, Budge to finish ahead at tour's end. The Garden filled rapidly as the preliminary match began, reaching a record total of 16,725, some attendees in evening dress. The nation's top tennis writers--Danzig of the Times, Laney and Hawthorne of Herald-Tribune, Allan of the Sun--give us full accounts.

Once again, a Garden opener proved undeserving of the crowd and the occasion. From start to finish one player was completely the master, able to deflect the power of his opponent and extend most points until his opponent erred. For the loser, Ellsworth Vines, unable to escape his own morass of errors, it was a night of crushing disappointment. Meanwhile Budge pounded back Elly's heaviest and most-forcing shots with a consistency that, as Hawthorne saw it, must have been disconcerting to the pro veteran.

Vines started off well, breaking Don early by hitting several outright winners. Both men played mostly in back court, both trying to keep the ball deep with good pace, Vines hitting harder, Budge showing the better control. But soon the Vines backhand began to fail under Budge's hitting to the deep corner, noted Hawthorne, while Elly's serve-return too lost its effectiveness as Budge gradually raised his forcefulness and accuracy in serving. Several times Elly volleyed miserably into net. Amid these goings-on, Budge ran out the first set and took the lead in the second. Though he briefly lost his edge mid-way in the second set, Don remained confident and resolutely forceful, completing his victory in slightly over one hour, 63 64 62. The crowd, disappointed in the one-sidedness of the affair, gave only token applause. Alice Marble courtside gave Don a congratulatory kiss.

In the preliminary match earlier, Dick Skeen defeated Bruce Barnes 62 64, showing an aggressive net-rushing game with some good volleying. Barnes-Vines, the losers in singles, later defeated Budge-Skeen in two sets of doubles. What was left of the gallery departed unsatisfied.

Some analysts wrote off the affair as one of Vines's inexplicable bad performances. But others noted that even in those sequences when Elly was playing well, Budge had been able to turn back the pressure and continue winning games. Al Laney wrote that the margin between the two men was scarcely as extreme as it seemed on this occasion, but that Budge was indisputably the better player. He admired Budge's "exceptional power, almost inhuman accuracy, especially at the crises."

One night later before 6,980 in Boston Garden, Elly played better but Budge again won in straight sets. Don stayed mostly in back court, returning firmly those shots he could reach and watching when Vines either nailed or narrowly missed attempted winners. Elly persisted in his customary flat hitting with little safety margin, refusing to accept the defensive. In the final compilation, Vines led in placements 38-16 and in aces 9-6, but Budge had far fewer errors.

But in their third meeting the older player reversed matters. On January 5, before 6,000 in Philadelphia's Convention Hall, Vines skimmed the net and blistered the lines with his rocketry, seldom missing and keeping Budge running to the corners. Don's errors on this evening outnumbered Elly's. It was annihilation in three straight sets--seeming confirmation that when Vines was at his best, no one could stand up to him. Two nights later before 9,000 in Chicago Stadium, Vines at first played erratically but then repeated his Philadelphia performance. Down by two sets, Elly began finding the lines with a ferocity that Don's defenses could not answer. In closing the last few games Elly went to net repeatedly, playing with confidence and precision. Winning in five sets, Vines thus equalized the series.

The two alternated in winning the next four engagements, all of them ending in three split sets. In Detroit on January 12, Vines outscored Budge 51-17 in placements, 9-1 in aces, but Don won the match, taking the deciding set 13-11. Don noted wryly that Vines's low-trajectory shots gave Elly many lucky net-cord winners, a phenomenon seen against past opponents. Budge then won the next four meetings, so that through January 19 Don led in the tally, 8-4. Elly now played with a taped mid-section, result of a pulled muscle, and also suffered with digestive trouble. Don had blisters. Having watched most of the matches to date, Skeen and Barnes analyzed the fundamentally sound and more patient nature of Don's game, including the marvelous backhand. Vines, they noted, had been up and down, rising to superior heights on some occasions.

Attendance had been good so far, and most audiences had been pleased with the play. In the preliminary singles, Barnes led Skeen 5-3, with four ties. In doubles, Barnes-Vines had W-L record of 6-1. Budge and Vines sometimes played as partners, their record 4-1. Then on January 20 in Buffalo, Barnes became stricken with appendicitis. A local player took his place that evening, and former tour pro Al Chapin joined the troupe the next night in Baltimore as permanent replacement.

The patterns largely persisted for the remaining seven weeks of the tour. On those dates where nothing worked for Vines, Don's victory came quickly. But more often the crowds saw competitive tennis--hard-fought struggles featuring ferocious rocketry from both baselines. Vines won on clay in Miami Beach, January 29, using the drop shot frequently to move Budge from his place of comfort in back court. Elly hit 32 aces in 14 serving games, winning in Atlanta, February 3, and he also won their five-setter on February 12 on a canvas-over-wood court at one end of Los Angeles Coliseum before 9,000 chilled watchers. Home city was no advantage when Vines beat Budge in Oakland and when Budge beat Vines in Pasadena a few weeks later. Elly made the telling observation that Don was able to stroke, not block, Elly's serve while returning from inside the baseline. Both players became annoyed when reporters sometimes asked whether the outcomes were prearranged. Knowledgeable tennis people dismissed the notion.

The Budge-Vines tour ended on March 6 in Montreal, where Don easily won in three straight sets. Budge thus led in the final tally, 22-17. Of their best-of-five-set matches, each man won three. The tour verified that Vines at his best was unbeatable, but that Budge's combined power and consistency would prevail a majority of the time. In the preliminary matches Skeen dominated over Chapin after Barnes's departure, winning 11 of 13 times where results were reported, with 4 ties. The doubles were as usual light-hearted, partnerships changing, the wins now dividing roughly evenly.

Elly had often seemed disinterested during matches, and at tour's end said he was happy to get back to the golf course. He predicted that Budge would lose to Fred Perry in their forthcoming tour, as Don lacked Fred's speed of foot and variety in shot-making.

BUDGE-PERRY TOUR

Donald Budge missed his late train from Montreal to New York and instead rode in the equipment truck, saying "it was fun." He and Perry had played several times as amateurs. Fred usually won, though Don had taken their last meeting in late 1936, his Eastern forehand now having matured. Looking to their coming tour, Don noted that it would not be enough to keep Fred on the run.

The opening night crowd at Madison Square Garden, March 10, was a disappointing 8,000. The match itself was even more one-sided than Budge's opener against Vines. Fred first tried steadiness, then attack, then steadiness again. Nothing worked, as Don answered Fred's baseline play with merciless corner-to-corner groundstroke power backed by solid volleying and overhead work. Fred's attacking faltered when his approach forehand and his volleying often misfired. Allison Danzig wrote that the main factor was the pressure of Don's groundstrokes, which provoked Fred's mistakes. It was Budge over Perry, 61 63 62, ending in less than one hour. The next night in Boston, Budge won the first nine games, coasting home thereafter. It seemed clear that Don was now a better player than in January and at least a full level above Perry.

The itinerary reached many of the places visited by Budge and Vines two months before. Attendance was down everywhere. Fred's humiliation persisted through the first six matches, all won by Don in straight sets. Perry rarely won more than two games a set, though he seemed to be improving with each outing. Fred won his first set in Chicago on March 21, then won his first match in Detroit two nights later. Don sprained an ankle in late March but led in the running tally at month's end, 11-2.

Accompanied on much of the tour by his wife after a reconciliation, Fred outwardly kept up his confidence and as usual added color to the interviews and performances. But when he tried to answer power with power on the court, his own mistakes multiplied. At net he was usually helpless against Don's devastating passes. Most lobs or drop shots against Don were suicidal. Fred often had little choice but to chase down ball after ball in the deep corners, which he did well but usually fruitlessly. Fred improved in April, earning high marks from local reporters in his several victories. But Don closed out the tour with eight straight wins. The tally at tour's end on May 8 was 28-8.

The tour's other performers were hard-hitting Ben Gorchakoff, previously a college star and then a teaching pro in Los Angeles, and last year's tour player Walter Senior. The two played some interesting singles matches, dividing the victories closely, and in doubles partnered Budge and Perry in changing combination. A Vancouver writer called that night's doubles "farcical."

But the doubles play was fierce on the two occasions where Keith Gledhill and Ellsworth Vines joined the cast. Gledhill-Vines defeated Budge-Perry in a five-setter in Dreamland Auditorium, San Francisco, March 27. The same four played another five-setter on April 2 outdoors at Los Angeles Tennis Club. It ended in darkness at score 19-all in the fifth set, the players haggard and cramping. One writer deemed that the unsmiling Vines "stole the show."

APRIL TOURNAMENTS

Efforts by U.S.P.L.T.A. helped preserve the pro tournament sequence in the eastern U.S.. Several tour veterans but none of the superstars participated.

Bruce Barnes, now recovered from his appendix surgery, won the North and South tournament at Pinehurst, North Carolina. His final-round opponent on April 19 was Joe Whalen, 6-4 and 200 pounds at age 23, who on this day had trouble in his net-attacking game amid blustering winds. Among those eliminated earlier were Dick Skeen, Berkeley Bell, and Karel Kozeluh, who nursed hand/wrist trouble.

A new event followed--the Virgina pro championships, held at Country Club of Virginia, Richmond. Whalen defeated Barnes in the final on April 23, when Bruce failed to capitalize on two match points and finally lost by 8-6 in the fifth set. Whalen was the more aggressive player, earning admiration from a local reporter who contrasted Joe's strong volleying and overhead work with the steadier and more cautious baseline play of most other entrants. A troubling footnote were the concerns of Karel Kozeluh, whose wife had become trapped in Prague upon the recent the Nazi takeover.

A gap in the Budge-Perry schedule raised false hopes that the touring pros would play in the Greenbrier open, now in its third year, 25-29 April 1939. Those few amateurs present were eliminated in the first round. Al Chapin and Frank Hunter lost in the second round, Vincent Richards and Joe Whalen in the quarters, Joe before the slow-ball tactics of teaching pro Herman Peterson. The tournament winner was Dick Skeen, who beat Bell in the quarters, Barnes in the semis, and Peterson in the final. The new "U.S. Open champion" meanwhile attacked the "stuffed shirts" of U.S.P.L.T.A. because of that body's closeness to U.S.L.T.A., which continued to punish amateurs for entering the open.

Thus three different pros--Barnes, Whalen, and Skeen--won the three tournaments. The doubles too had been closely contested. Barnes-Bell reached all three finals, losing to Kozeluh-Whalen at Pinehurst, defeating the same pair in Richmond, and defeating Whalen and George Jennings of Chicago at the open.

OLYMPIA

Six leading European pros joined Americans Tilden and Stoefen in a round-robin tournament arranged by Tilden, held on fast boards in London, March 22-April 4. Each night of the Olympia International Tennis Tournament and Carnival brought three matches and usually some good tennis. Attendance was only fair--several thousands each date. The main outcome was to reaffirm the superiority in Europe of Hans Nusslein. Hanne defeated all seven opponents, losing just one set along the way, to Robert Ramillon on opening night.

Some of the best matches involved Lester Rollo Stoefen. Rollo's improvement as a pro had been obscured by his many tour losses to Vines and then injuries. But now at Olympia, Stoefen began with a fine victory over Henri Cochet. Henri led early, but Rollo saved two set points with aces and eventually aced out the set at 86. After that, amid Stoefen's sharp volleying, Cochet "never had a look-in," wrote the Daily Telegraph reporter. Next, Stoefen proved "much too severe" for Ramillon, where the American's serve allowed him to take net "with impunity." The special correspondent for the Times wrote that Stoefen's policy was "consistently to try to knock the cover off the ball."

In their meeting on March 30, Nusslein handled Stoefen's strongest serves quite well, while Rollo produced serve-returns of excellent depth and pace. But in either situation, Hanne was usually able to bring about long rallies, where Rollo's ground strokes tended to break down. It was Nusslein, 75 64.

Nusslein thus led in the final standings, with W-L record 7-0. Stoefen and Cochet were both 5-2, with Stoefen in second place because of better W-L record in sets. Tilden and Ramillon were both 4-3, with the official edge to Bill by sets and games although Robert won their head-to-head match-up. The other three--Dan Maskell, Jan Kozeluh, and G. Palmieri--failed to defeat any of the top five, though Maskell, who was recovering from shoulder trouble, held a match-point against Cochet. The doubles competition was double-round-robin among four pairs. Tilden-Stoefen won all six of their matches, all in straight sets. Nusslein-Maskell were second at 4-2, Cochet-Ramillon third at 2-4.

Nusslein's stated prize for winning the singles was 350 pounds sterling. Writers extolled Hanne's "artistry and perfection in his orthodox stroke play." One wrote that Nusslein was among the world's pro leaders, "if he could only get on the same court with them." That eventuality would happen soon.

WEMBLEY

Donald Budge, Ellsworth Vines, and Jack Harris, plus the Vines and Harris wives, sailed from New York aboard Queen Mary on May 10. Arriving in Cherbourg, the three males on May 15 dashed by air to London ahead of the wives and luggage, hopeful of getting in some practice before their opening performance the next evening.

Once again the wood court over Wembley's Empire Pool became the center of pro tennis--host to a three-night round-robin, featuring Budge, Vines, Nusslein, and, at age 46, Bill Tilden. Bill was there "because he cannot stay away," wrote A. Wallis Myers in Daily Telegraph. Myers and the other London writers give us admiring accounts of what would prove one of the finest gatherings in pro tennis history.

First-night action, May 16, pitted Budge against Tilden--the current world's best against the champion of a decade earlier, Budge at half Tilden's age. Myers warmly appreciated the many fine rallies and deuced games where "the old master returned many hammer blows." But some writers saw that in the face of Don's relentless pressure, Tilden's once-thunderous backhand was now usually undersliced. Several judged that Budge was playing better than in his great amateur triumphs, containing his power well inside the lines. The younger man won 62 62, in what the Times called "an astonishing standard of skill." In words that were quickly flashed around the world, Bill gasped, "he is perfect."

Nusslein and Vines were next on court, producing "three magnificent sets." Both men exploited fully their foremost weapons--Elly his thunderous serve and forehand, Hanne his wonderfully smooth court coverage and stroking control. As usual, Elly as easily produced winners from situations of disadvantage as send unforced shots into net. Rallies that went longer than three or four strokes usually were won by Hanne, and the "stocky" German player won the first set and led early in the second. But Elly stepped up his forehand pressure, cut down his errors, and called on his cannonball to recover from occasional trouble in his serving games. Vines was the winner, 57 63 64.

Two nights later, May 18, Nusslein one-sidedly defeated Tilden 63 62, who visibly tired from chasing down Nusslein's accurate drives. Myers again liked the depth and pace of the driving exchanges, but on this night he too noted the weakness on Bill's left side.

By the time Budge and Vines came on court for their first meeting outside America, the crowd reached a near-capacity 6,000. Watching closely, Myers liked how the Budge backhand offered "impregnable defense," while Vines answered with superior forehand power in attacking Budge's forehand. Both players showed wonderful serves. Don was the winner 64 63--quicker on his feet, safer and more patient in driving, "more ruthless" in volleying. Deeming the match a delight, the Times writer concluded with a question, "Is there any good reason they should not be at Wimbledon?"

The tennis was even better the third night, May 20, before the event's largest crowd. Vines had spent the previous day golfing at Hoylake--site of the British amateur championship where Elly would compete the following week. Perhaps the diversion gave the old master the edge he needed. Hamilton Price of Sunday Times judged that Bill's sliced backhand was on this night a foremost weapon, marvelously controlled and severely cut to the discomfort of Elly. Spurred by the shouting gallery, Bill claimed his "great victory," 63 10-8.

Budge and Nusslein then took the court for their first meeting as pros before a near-capacity house. Hanne's pattern was to start points quietly, controlling depth and pace during the exchange, then counter-punching if his opponent in attacking exposed a small opening. Don had seldom if ever faced such precision so intelligently applied. To Myers, it was tennis of a standard never before seen, remindful of the great Budge-von Cramm Cup match of 1937. Gottfried's serve had been stronger but Hanne's control was better, mused the great writer.

Budge took the long and shifting first set, 13-11, Hanne suffering for his inability to deliver the service ace when most needed, noted Myers. Hanne led early in the second set, and Don acquiesced, limping. Then in the third and final set, with Budge ahead 4-2, Hanne equalized the score behind three disguised drop shots, each beyond the American's reach, the crowd roaring with every point. Don next held serve for 5-4 behind two service aces. It was time for Budge to lay on the pressure, and young Californian did just that. Repeatedly coming to net against Hanne's serve, Don closed out the match with three superb volleys, the winner 13-11 26 64. Hamilton Price deemed the match among tennis history's most magnificent.

Wembley 1939 had been an unqualified sporting success as well as financial. Budge, having defeated all three foes, collected 500 pounds in prize money. His claim to the world crown was now beyond dispute, though further engagements lay ahead.

HARRIS TOUR

Nusslein now returned to coaching responsibilities in his homeland. Vines indeed played the golf tournament at Hoylake, losing to his second opponent in match play. Vines, Budge, and Tilden, joined by Stoefen, now began the extended four-man tour organized and managed by Jack Harris. The plan called for many appearances in the British Isles and western Europe followed by engagements in South Africa, Asia, and Australia.

The troupe assembled in Ireland for a round-robin May 25-27, held outdoors at Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club, Dublin. Budge defeated all three opponents in turn, losing just one set, to Stoefen. The others all finished at W-L 1-2, Bill having again defeated Elly. The tall Americans next moved on to Southport, where Budge defeated all three others in straight sets, June 1-3. Elly, playing with an injured right hand, had further trouble with Tilden but finally prevailed in five sets. Stoefen upset Vines, winning regularly at net, so that aside from Don everyone again finished 1-2. As at Wembley and Dublin, each session closed with "cheery" doubles. Stoefen was the doubles goat, losing at Southport each night with a different partner.

A portable board court was installed on the St. Helen's rugby grounds, Swansea, Wales, for another three-day engagement, June 7-9. Budge again swept all three foes, again losing just one set (to Stoefen). Vines was second, losing only to Don in a "fitting finale" 11-9 97. On June 16-17, the troupe performed a two-day event on the same wood court moved to Bradford, Yorkshire. Stoefen won both his matches, defeating Budge and Tilden. In another two-day engagement in Scheveningen, Netherlands, June 24-25, Budge won both his matches--split-setters over Vines and Stoefen. In a three-day event in Brussels June 27-29, Vines and Budge both finished 2-1, Elly having beaten Don in their face-to-face match-up. Tilden and Stoefen both ended up 1-2. Budge won the doubles each night with a different partner.

GARROS

Thus the tourists reached Paris for another intersection with Hans Nusslein. It was the world pro championships, "le championnat du monde professionnel," June 27-July 2, at Roland Garros. The four Americans were seeded directly into the quarter-finals, scheduled one day after their final-day matches at Brussels, while Nusslein and three other Europeans were seeded into the previous round.

The event began with play among the unseeded Europeans, June 27-28. Some of the play was indoors because of rain. Four survivors emerged to face the four seeded Europeans on June 29. Cochet, Ramillon, and Nusslein all defeated their unseeded challengers, while unseeded H. Vissault defeated veteran pro Martin Plaa. All four matches ended in three straight sets, none of them extended.

Amid wet and slow conditions the next day, the harder-hitting Americans won all four quarter-final matches. Budge had no trouble with Vissault, while Vines, nonchalant in manner as usual, dismissed Ramillon in straight sets. Maurice Blien, writing for American Lawn Tennis, described the climactic fifth set between Cochet and Tilden. There had been long interruptions for rain, and though Henri wanted to wait for the next day, Bill insisted they continue. Henri led 4-2, but Bill "irresistably" closed the gap with "courage, cleverness, and talent." Letting distant balls go to save his energy, Bill attacked the others, lowering his trajectory while stepping up his velocity. Tilden closed out the match 7-5, the big crowd standing to applaud both veterans.

Meanwhile in a seemingly unlikely result, Stoefen defeated Nusslein in straight sets. Rollo had been playing well in recent weeks, his power game improving in its control. The tall American showed several recent wins and close losses against Budge and Vines. Now, the wet conditions probably helped Rollo's control, while exposing Hanne's weaker serve to punishment. Domergue of Le Journal wrote that Stoefen's technique this day had been complete, his serving masterful. Hanne looked overweight, "nettement trop gras." Blien thought that Nusslein seemed "heavy-footed," that Stoefen played with speed and power, and that on this date the unexpected result seemed natural.

It therefore remained for the four Americans to settle matters among themselves. Budge defeated Tilden in their semi in three straight sets, two of them extended. It momentarily seemed to Blien that Elly might lose to Rollo, who led two sets to one, but the steadier Vines eventually prevailed over a wilting opponent in five sets. Then in their final on July 2, Budge won three straight sets against Vines. Both men played aggressively, seeking early end to points, reported Blien. The doubles champions were Budge and Vines, who defeated Cochet-Ramillon in four sets.

The Herald-Tribune Paris termed the singles final between Budge and Vines "a sparkling match." Assuredly it was for most of those present who had never watched the breathtaking tennis of Budge vs. Vines. The enthralled crowd of 11,000 was said the largest at Garros since the Davis Cup loss in 1933. That the size and enthusiasm of the gallery on the last four days far surpassed those at the amateur Slam at Garros two weeks earlier was not lost on the journalists.

SOUTHPORT

The Harris troupe moved on to engagements at Bordeaux and Marseille, then back to Britain for Manchester, Birmingham, and other arenas. One final meeting with Nusslein remained, a last chance for the German star to assert his standing. It would happen August 4-7 at Southport, a place where Hanne had always done well.

The format was six-player knock-out, featuring the Harris foursome plus Nusslein and Britisher Maskell. In first-day action, Tilden eliminated Stoefen in a spirited four-setter. Rollo kept Bill on the run in capturing the first set, but after that Bill enforced his solider ground game. Bill had seldom played better at Southport, wrote a local reporter. Next, Vines kept away from serious trouble in winning three close sets from Maskell. Elly's serve was soft because of back trouble, and that disability became a fatal handicap the next day against Nusslein, whose precision proved too much for Elly lacking his primary artillery.

The second day also produced the tournament's biggest surprise. Tilden had been regularly beaten by Budge during the summer, but on this date Bill produced an unusual tactic. Watcher E. G. Gillou recognized that Bill was keeping the ball low by using heavy backspin off both forehand and backhand. Don was thus required to lift his shots upward using less-than-usual pace. Bill then readily pounced on the non-forcing offerings, punishing them accurately and regularly. Mixing in aces down center, throwing in droppers and occasional power, Tilden captured three straight sets, recovering from 3-1 down in the second and 4-1 down in the third. The enthralled crowd gave a great ovation. Budge, who never found his top game but made no excuses, explained: "He played the finest tennis I have ever seen."

Bill also played well in the final against Nusslein and, in Gillou's view, would have beaten anyone but Hanne. Bill almost won the second set but for a lucky net-cord by Hanne. But Hanne's mistake-free tennis and superb defense led to narrow errors by Bill in trying to step up the pressure. For the fourth straight year Nusslein became champion at Southport, 62 75 64. Afterwards Budge-Vines won the doubles title by defeating Stoefen-Tilden in four sets.

END OF AN ERA

The growing threat of war caused Jack Harris to cancel mid-summer performances in Italy and France and instead, ever resourceful, to arrange further bookings in Britain. The troupe performed August 15-16 in Glasgow, where Budge beat both Vines and Stoefen. A few days later Vines and Harris played golf at St. Andrews. A three-date round-robin in Edinburgh, August 24-26, followed, where Budge lost all three evenings, while the others split even in matches among themselves. The onset of war then stopped all further engagements, including a scheduled return to Paris in early September and a visit to Scandinavia. Harris briefly hoped to resume the itinerary outside Europe, but on September 18 the Americans boarded S.S. Washington for home.

The European tour had been extremely successful at the box office, especially the dates at football grounds where crowds several times neared or exceeded 10,000. Donald Budge confirmed his top ranking among the Americans, showing a 15-5 W-L edge over Vines during spring and summer. Writers uniformly marveled at the troupe's calibre of play. Harris praised Stoefen's improvement as well as Tilden's performance at advanced tennis age. Tilden wrote that Budge's superior standard of play "lifted all of us with him."

The larger world events may have kept Gottfried von Cramm, 30, from joining the pros. Cramm told a reporter in March 1939 that he intended to remain amateur "unless I get a good professional offer." In May Jack Harris said he expected to "talk business" with Cramm in Britain. Gottfried socialized with Budge and Tilden at Queens, while his request for a visa to compete in America was denied by U.S. officials in Berlin because of his 1938 morals conviction. At war's onset Gottfried returned to Germany, telling Budge it would otherwise have seemed cowardice.

Open tennis had seemed closer than ever before. Writers covering the pro events in Europe pointedly questioned the exclusion of the pros from the amateur Slams. The Daily Telegraph contrasted the empty seats at the 1939 Wimbledon final, thought to reflect the softish, controlled style of amateur champion Bobby Riggs, with the size and enthusiasm of the crowds watching the power tennis of the Harris pros. (Garros had stirred similar observations.) Budge and others, probably with wishful exaggeration, wrote that the war interrupted the imminent coming of open tennis.

THE U.S. PRO, LOS ANGELES

Stoefen, Tilden, and Vines, in southern California in mid-October, joined Perry and Gorchakoff in several exhibitions. The U.S. Pro tournament followed, held under U.S. P.T.A. sanction, October 16-22 at Beverly Hills Tennis Club. Ben Gorchakoff, who was now manager at the Club, served as both manager and player at the tournament. About a dozen teaching pros from the West entered, along with a similar number of tour pros. All eight seeds were from the latter group.

One seeded player, Bruce Barnes, failed to reach the quarters, losing in straight sets to John Faunce, who displayed a net-attacking, relatively error-free style. Gorchakoff was taken to four sets by recent tour rival Walter Senior. Vincent Richards, ostensibly overweight, was easily beaten by Keith Gledhill.

In the Thursday quarter-finals, Ellsworth Vines, despite a lame shoulder, scorched the lines to defeat Gorchakoff comfortably. Gledhill made Fred Perry work hard to win in four sets, and in the tournament's biggest surprise to date, Dick Skeen defeated Stoefen in three close sets. Rollo played erratically, Skeen "heady and steady." On Friday, Tilden defeated Faunce in three close sets, Bill playing a careful tactical game until stepping up the power in the late going.

The schedule called for Vines to face Skeen on Friday, Perry to face Tilden on Saturday, the winners to play in Sunday's final. But Skeen had foot blisters and wanted his match postponed to Saturday. Turned down, Skeen firmly threatened to withdraw. (A former pupil later wrote that Skeen was not the "kindly uncle type.") His withdrawal from both singles and doubles was accepted. Thus Vines, with his shoulder problem and with blisters of his own, passed into the final. On Saturday Perry won his semi-final test against Bill, prevailing comfortably in four.

Sunday, October 22. Once again Perry and Vines faced each other, a reprise of their grand tours of 1937 and 1938. It became perhaps the greatest of all their meetings, lasting nearly four hours. Watchers agreed that neither had ever played better. Vines afterwards said it was a match he had vowed to win.

Elly took the first set 86, Fred the second by the same score amid scorching temperature. A rash of doubtful calls unsettled Fred in the third set, won by Vines 61. Elly led 5-2 in the fourth but now seemed nearly out of gas. Fred recovered to 5-all, then 6-all, and on and on. More than once Elly lost serve and faced defeat but managed to survive. At 15-14 for Fred, a very tired Elly fought back with sizzling placements to the corners. Then at 18-19 it was Perry in trouble. It finally ended with a double-fault by Fred, bounding off the net cord and beyond the service line--the end of a grueling but magnificent match, witnessed by an appreciative, capacity gallery.

The match statistics followed the pattern of their many past meetings. In winning, Elly led in aces 22-6 and in placements 57-25. Fred had fewer errors, at 156-184. The doubles final lasted well into darkness using a lighted court, Barnes-Gledhill defeating Perry-Vines in three straight sets. Total prize money for the tournament was $2,267, of which Elly earned $453.

THE 1939 RANKINGS

By past standards there was a wealth of match data to establish rankings, where Wembley, Garros, and Southport counted heavily in sorting out the top three. Budge was clearly the pro champion, confirming his primacy ahead of Vines by ample head-to-head results and ahead of Nusslein by Don's close win over Hanne at Wembley. (Hanne's tournament win at Southport where Don lost earlier was balanced by Don's tournament win at Garros where Hanne lost early.) For second place, the choice is Vines narrowly ahead of Nusslein. Elly lost to Hanne at Southport, beat him at Wembley, and beat Stoefen at Garros after Rollo beat Hanne.

Fourth place in the pro rankings belongs to Perry owing to his good showing at U.S. Pro. Tilden and Stoefen are close for #5 among the pros, the edge to Bill primarily because of his excellence at the important Southport meeting in August. After Stoefen at #6 are Cochet at #7 and Skeen at #8.

A. Wallis Myers died in July, but other authorities generally agreed that Riggs, Bromwich, and Quist were the year's top three amateurs, in that order. In our combined pro-amateur rankings, however, the top four positions belong to the first four pros led by Budge. The above amateurs follow at #5, #6, and #7, respectively, with pro Tilden at #8. Cramm did not appear on the amateur lists, as he did not play the Slams or Davis Cup, but it is worth noting that he handily defeated Riggs in winning the tournament at Queens.

The year's pro doubles champions were Budge and Vines, winners at Southport and Garros. Second was Tilden-Stoefen, winning pair at Olympia and second at Southport. Tied at #3 were Barnes-Gledhill, who won U.S. Pro, Barnes-Bell, who won Richmond and the Greenbrier, and Cochet-Ramillon, second at Garros.

EXIT VINES

Ellsworth Vines in 1939 often said he intended to retire from pro tennis when the Harris world tour ended. He once admitted that tennis was taking its toll on his body. His financial situation was reasonably secure, and he disliked being away from his family, which now included a small daughter with serious medical problems. Budge, who was four years younger, had taken away his pro tennis crown, and Elly had previously spoken disdain for "just hanging around." Although there would be occasional tennis engagements in the future, nearly all Vines's time and energy thereafter were for golf.

Vines could take satisfaction in his six-year pro tennis career. He had taken and defended the pro crown against prime opponents Tilden, Cochet, Stoefen, Nusslein, and Perry, and he had forced Budge to produce his very best. Comparing Vines and Perry after the 1939 tours, Budge wrote, "It was simply that after enduring Vines's power game, I never felt any real pressure against Perry." Years later, Don deemed that the world's all-time best player had been Ellsworth Vines, "on his day." Elly's deceptively easy manner of stroking was widely admired, along with his always forcing style however tight the score. Safely blocking a return was not in his nature, not even against the firmest serves. In manner of conversation he was quiet and relaxed, seldom aggressive or competitive. He disavowed strong competitive ambition, but his concentration and will at the end of close matches was intense. Budge esteemed Elly for his decency and friendship. There was no posturing in Ellsworth Vines--he usually said what he thought, directly and with few reservations.

Maskell won the British Pro at Eastborne in August, but the German Pro was canceled in September. International tennis shut down in Europe for the duration as most pro and amateur stars turned to war roles. The United States remained officially neutral in 1940, but Jack Harris decided against staging an American tour. There was no attractive opponent for Budge, as Vines was uninterested and amateur champion Riggs seemed not yet a box-office superstar. But other faces would keep alive a scaled-down version of pro tennis in America.

Green DotGreen DotGreen Dot

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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