.Oakland’s Tennis Revolutionary

Seventy-five years ago, Don Budge made tennis history. Today, his legacy continues to have relevance.

As you watch the US Open tennis tournament this week, you’ll see one thundering drive after another: powerful shots fueled by vivid hip and shoulder turns, forceful use of the legs, and well-crafted deployment of the racquet.

But did you know that the roots of all that derive largely from a man born and raised in Oakland? The man was Don Budge. Seventy-five years ago this September, Budge made history by becoming the first and only one of two men to have earned all four of tennis’ major titles in one year. And a technique he honed continues to have relevance today.

His journey started in Oakland, on a set of three courts just off Shattuck Avenue. Less than a decade after playing his first tournament, Budge found himself on an athletic par with such American icons as baseball great Joe DiMaggio and heavyweight champion Joe Louis. He entered fame’s stratosphere. Today, few people outside of tennis probably know his name.

But if celebrity is fleeting, craftsmanship endures. Budge is consistently ranked among the sport’s elite, not just for his accomplishments but also for the sustained brilliance of his technique. In tennis historian Steve Flink’s 2012 book, The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time, Budge is rated the eighth-best player in tennis history. His backhand is ranked as the best ever. More than a man of his time and place, Budge crafted a playing style that left significant fingerprints on such champions as Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, and current world number one Novak Djokovic.

Budge, Connors, and Agassi also have something in common that’s increasingly rare in professional tennis: a Grand Slam title. Not since Andy Roddick’s 2003 US Open win has an American man won a Grand Slam singles title.

What inspired great Americans such as Budge, Connors, Agassi, Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Tony Trabert, Arthur Ashe, Jim Courier, and Pete Sampras? What did these champions have that hasn’t surfaced in contemporary American men? Thousands of hours and millions of dollars have been spent addressing these questions. Facilities have been built, young athletes studied, coaches hired, competitive milieus assessed and reassessed.

But in large part, what so many prior American champions possessed boils down to the broader sociological concept of upward mobility. If tennis in America often took place in affluent environments, its champions came from middle- and working-class backgrounds. In many instances — including those of Budge, Agassi, and Sampras — at least one parent was an immigrant, possessed of a new arrival’s sense of urgency that has driven America for centuries. Others — such as Riggs, Gonzalez, Ashe, and Connors — were outsiders to the tennis establishment, and in their own distinct ways channeled that sense of exclusion into a competitive desire.

And then the rest of the world entered the picture — and showed an even more ravenous level of desire and attendant focus. Over the last forty years, Eastern Europe, oppressed for decades by the Soviets, has been by far the biggest spawning ground for professional tennis players. What started with the defection of Martina Navratilova in 1975 has become a floodtide, with players putting in far more hours than many of their more financially comfortable American counterparts in the pursuit of results and financial rewards. Eastern Europe is but one region where tennis is popular and embraced. Similar growth has happened more recently in Asia, most notably in the growing economy of China. As these nations — none of which boasted players of significance in Budge’s time — enter the picture, it’s quite clear that no sport more than tennis has proven how much indeed the world is flat.

And yet, to this day, hardly any of them have achieved what Budge did.

Don Budge was born in Oakland on June 13, 1915, the youngest of three children. His father, Jack Budge, was a former soccer player in Scotland, and his mother, Pearl Kincaid, a linotype operator at the San Francisco Chronicle. The family lived in a three-bedroom house at 673 60th Street, two blocks west of Shattuck.

Tennis wasn’t the first passion of the youngest Budge. That was baseball. Bushrod Park, two blocks away from the Budge house, was where he played baseball all day. His left-handed swing drove one ball after another. Occasionally, he’d loft one onto the three tennis courts just behind right field.

It was Don’s older brother, Lloyd, who introduced him to tennis. He was number-one on UC Berkeley’s team. Many times he’d beg his little brother to hit. Standing all of five-feet-six-and-a-half inches until the year he turned eighteen, Don felt his slight size aided his growth as a player. As Budge wrote in his 1969 book, A Tennis Memoir, “It forced me to learn an entirely different game from the one I would have played had I been a big kid who could just get out on the court and huff and puff and blow everybody down. Since that possibility was denied me, I had to find another way to win …. The best way to do that was to keep the ball in play.”

If consistency aided young Budge in the short-term, it was his immersion in baseball that would help him greatly in the long-term. As a left-handed batter, Budge struck the baseball with a smooth low-to-high swing; he applied that same technique to his backhand. Budge likely didn’t know that at the time, but he’d created a motion that would revolutionize tennis.

At that point, tennis was barely fifty years old. Technique and instruction was rather rudimentary. The easiest way to get the ball over the net was to chop at it from high to low and impart underspin on the ball so that it would loft over the net. Functional as this was at keeping the ball in play, chopped strokes hardly moved through the court with much speed or force. Even more, the rising qualities of a ball struck with underspin made it ineffective against a player who came forward to net to play a volley. It is much easier to volley a ball that is rising than one dipping with topspin.

But even though Budge had unknowingly developed a game-changing backhand, baseball remained his first love. Then, one night at the family dinner table, in May 1930, Lloyd issued a challenge to his fourteen-year-old brother. If you weren’t so lazy, he told Don, you could win the upcoming California State junior championship. This is when Budge’s competitive nature kicked in. He lived for the chance to compete.

So Don took up Lloyd’s challenge. In his first round match against number-one seed Phil Carlin, Don scampered all over the court in dirty sneakers, a white T-shirt, and light-tan corduroys, and beat him. The next day, Don’s father bought him the long white flannels befitting an ambitious tennis player. Budge went on to win the tournament. So long, baseball.

During this time, Budge would characterize himself largely as a defensive player, a pint-sized boy who could run all day and get back one ball after another. There were also times when his competitive nature got the best of him. In the wake of a loss, Don declared the victor “lucky.” His mother instantly took him to task with a forceful explanation about sportsmanship.

Budge’s tennis education was aided by the fact that the East Bay was a lively spot for tennis, thanks in large part to the Berkeley Tennis Club. Located next to the Claremont Hotel, the tennis club had become the red-hot center of the Northern California tennis universe, boasting such stars as eight-time Wimbledon champion Helen Wills, four-time US titlist Helen Hull Jacobs, and a host of other superb players such as Ed “Bud” Chandler — a man Budge would later regard as a personal hero on a par with Babe Ruth. Berkeley also hosted one of the premier tournaments in the world, the Pacific Coast Championships.

In 1933, the year he turned eighteen, the red-headed Budge grew six inches to his full height of just over six feet tall. At a slender 155 pounds, he had blossomed into a build perfect for tennis — tall, nimble, and supple. His dimensions were similar to those of such champions as Gonzalez, Sampras, and Roger Federer. By the end of that summer, he’d become the best junior tennis player in the United States.

Then another East Bay venue entered the picture — the Claremont Country Club. Its tennis instructor, Tom Stow, had won the NCAA doubles title with Chandler at Cal in 1925. He began refining the teaching techniques that would eventually make him one of the most highly regarded instructors in the world.

At the time, tennis was considered an amateur sport, and there wasn’t much attention paid to technique. But Stow began to make connections between tennis and other sports such as golf. “Tom saw that there was a lot of sophisticated instruction in golf,” Bill Crosby, a 92-year-old lifelong Oakland resident who began working with Stow in the Thirties, told me. Particularly, Stow saw the similarities between the golf and the tennis swing — which both involved hips, shoulders, and core strength. Stow also studied baseball, boxing, dance, and many other activities that involved a swing. Seeing Budge, a promising young player already graced with a backhand the likes of which no one had ever seen, Stow offered to work with him for free.

Budge enrolled at Cal in the fall of 1933. In A Tennis Memoir, Budge recalled a simple question he asked himself during those apprenticeship years: “Is this good for my tennis, or is it not?” An emphatic “yes” came in the spring of ’34. The highest honor a tennis player could attain during those years was to represent his country at the Davis Cup, the international men’s team competition pitting nations all over the world against each other. At that point only four countries — Australia, France, Great Britain, and the United States — had won this prestigious event (that would remain the case until 1974). Budge was asked to join the auxiliary squad; in essence, the junior varsity. Already regarded among tennis insiders as a potential supernova, Budge traveled throughout the US playing tournaments and by the end of the year was ranked number nine in the country. Among his most notable results: In the fall of ’34, at Berkeley, Budge narrowly lost, 7-5 in the fifth set, to reigning Wimbledon and US champion Fred Perry.

Following that defeat, Budge declined the chance to compete in South America and the French Riviera. That fall and winter were devoted to honing his game with Stow. Stow altered Budge’s forehand grip, making it easier for him to strike the lower-bouncing balls faced on the grass courts of Wimbledon and the US Championships. Hours were spent on footwork, balance, and point patterns. In The Fireside Book of Tennis, Julius Heldman wrote that Budge “was drilled so thoroughly by Tom Stow and he was so willing and apt a pupil that he never hit it in any manner but letter-perfect.” The Budge-Stow alliance continued over the next three winters.

But Stow wasn’t Budge’s only mentor. America’s best player of the early Thirties, Ellsworth Vines, had three assets Budge emulated: a long and lean body, thundering strokes, and a languid court demeanor. Budge also became best friends and doubles partners with tennis player Gene Mako, his victim in the ’33 national boys’ championship. German Gottfried von Cramm, who Budge met on his first trip to Wimbledon in 1935, kindly offered insights into handling line calls.

Two matches involving Perry taught Budge lessons that took him to the pinnacle. Budge was seeded one at the ’36 US Championships. To order to avoid the commotion of Manhattan, he and Mako stayed at the Long Island home of US Davis Cup captain Walter Pate. Each evening, following a few hands of cards, he and Mako would trek to a nearby drugstore for a milkshake. “Usually,” wrote Budge in A Tennis Memoir, “I went for chocolate …. It certainly seemed like a harmless enough nightcap.”

It wasn’t. Mid-tournament, Budge’s stomach, in his words, had turned “sour … my stamina was gone.” Struggling to reach the finals, he came up against Perry. Unable to close out the match when serving at 5-3 in the fifth, Budge succumbed, 10-8.

Enraged — though never vocally — Budge returned to Oakland, jettisoned sugar from his diet, and commenced a new fitness regimen: more sit-ups and knee bends. He would drive his new Packard 120 — paid for with money earned from work as a part-time shipping clerk — up to Tunnel Road near the Berkeley Tennis Club and set off on a long run through the Berkeley hills.

The second lesson from Perry came in January ’37. Asked to umpire a match in Chicago between Perry and Vines, Budge studied the two closely. Vines hit the ball so much harder than Perry that Budge figured he would win handily. But as the match went on, Budge saw how Perry was hitting the ball sooner, in a manner akin to a baseball infielder fielding drives on a short hop. It was Perry, not Vines, who was dictating the tempo. As Vines wrote in his 1980 book, Tennis: Myth and Method: “It occurred to Budge: Suppose a man hit as hard as Vines and took it as early as Perry? Who could beat him? … Budge went back to California to implement the ideas with the help of Tom Stow.”

Over the course of seven years, Budge handcrafted a new, aggressive tennis game of sustained drives from the baseline, struck early and hard. What he created built the template further honed by Connors, Agassi, and Djokovic. Many other champions such as John McEnroe and Monica Seles also put Budge’s ideas into place, most notably when they use the term “taking the ball on the rise.” In large part, the lessons Budge gained from watching Perry and Vines were the final stage in his ascent to the pinnacle.. As 1937 got underway, Budge was a well-oiled machine. That year he won the game’s two biggest titles, Wimbledon and the US Championship. He also led the US to the Davis Cup title, a run highlighted by an amazing match versus Cramm that featured a pre-match phone call to Cramm from Hitler and a stirring comeback by Budge from two sets to love down and 1-4 in the fifth set. Budge opened his memoir with the tale of this match, titling the chapter, “The Greatest Match.” It remains ranked among the five best of all time.

But for all the glory that had come Budge’s way, the matter of making a living was a significant challenge. At the time, the tennis world was split in two. Amateurs such as Budge were barred from taking money. Compensation came randomly and meagerly in the form of expense allocations and under-the-table payments from tournament directors. Budge later said he scarcely made a penny as an amateur. The premise was that the amateur player would dabble in tennis and soon enough meet people who could open doors, often to jobs in such cronyism-friendly fields as finance.

The alternative — but only for the very best amateurs — was to become a professional, earn a salary, and compete on a barnstorming tour. Bill Tilden, Vines, and Perry had taken this path. As was the rule at the time, they’d instantly been banned from such prestigious amateur events as Wimbledon. (The split between amateurs and pros was not mended until 1968.)

At the end of 1937, Budge declined a $50,000 offer to turn pro. This was surprising, both given the large sum and the fact that Budge was pragmatic, soft-spoken, and disciplined. But he was also a competitor and a creator, two forces that triggered a vision in Budge he was certain would trump all. He was right.

In 1933, Jack Crawford had won the Australian and French championships and Wimbledon. A US victory would give him what several writers called a “Grand Slam” of the national titles of the four nations that had won the Davis Cup. But Crawford had lost the US final to Perry.

Budge set out to win all four titles. He only shared his goal with Mako. At the end of ’37, the two set sail on a three-week cruise from San Francisco to Australia. Proving that dominance is not inevitable, at each event a beguiling hiccup surfaced. Though Budge took the Australian title without the loss of a set, a virus left him unable to speak for a few days. Later, in the spring at the French Championships, Budge’s stomach woes returned, a case of diarrhea. Fighting through that, he won the title. His victory celebration featured a two-hour private performance by famed cellist Pablo Casals. Such celebrity encounters dotted many Budge tales, be it musicians such as Casals, Benny Goodman, and Carly Simon, or athletes like DiMaggio and actors like Errol Flynn.

Wimbledon saw a rare technical breakdown in Budge’s backhand: He’d gotten into the habit of swinging more high-to-low than low-to-high. Spotting his own weakness, he quickly corrected it by watching an older woman at the tournament, in his words, “hit this gorgeous zinging topspin backhand.” Budge regained command of his signature shot and marched to the title with ease.

Were a player to arrive in New York with three of these titles in hand these days — and only one man has done this since Budge, the great Rod Laver in 1962 and ’69 — the crush of public attention would be off the charts. But that year, the biggest stress Budge faced came from inside his mouth. On the eve of the US Championships, a dentist determined that his January vocal problem was the result of an infected tooth that needed to be removed instantly. Budge wrote that he “could almost feel the poison draining out of me.”

Per usual, Budge stormed through the field. Fitting that his last opponent would be Mako, who was playing the best singles of his career. Budge and Mako split the first two sets, at which point Budge kicked into high gear, dropping just three games to take the title.

There it was, the Grand Slam.

After his Grand Slam victory, Budge turned pro, this time for $75,000, a sum spread out over the next three years. Over the course of tours with Perry, Vines, and Tilden he’d end up making more than $100,000, paying a grand total of $5,200 in taxes.

By now Oakland was in his rearview mirror. The boy from the East Bay had become a man of the world. In 1941 he married Los Angeles resident Deirdre Conselman, relocated south, and, according to his son Jeff, had plastic surgery on his nose and ears.

Then came World War II. Budge enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and at a base in Wichita Falls, Kansas while running an obstacle course, he grabbed a rope without a sufficient warm-up, and tore a muscle in his shoulder. In the spring of 1945 he returned to Berkeley to have treatment from an osteopath.

The injury and the resultant scar tissue hindered Budge’s tennis. In the rush to compete once again, he embarked on a tour sooner than he was ready. His opponent: the great Bobby Riggs. A superb competitor, Riggs won thirteen of the first fourteen matches. Budge rallied to win 21 of the next 33, but it was not enough to catch Riggs. Such was pro tennis then that Riggs’ 24-22 record made him the reigning champion, with little for Budge to do other than play occasional tournaments.

But if the war had nipped Budge’s competitive career, he continued to thrive. In the early Fifties he relocated to New York City. On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he taught the rich and famous, started his own laundry business and a tennis camp, divorced, and remarried. In 2000, he died from injuries sustained in a car accident. He was 84.

The summer prior, in Boston, I happened to meet Budge at a Davis Cup dinner.

“Mr. Budge,” I said, “I play at the Berkeley Tennis Club with Bill Crosby and took lessons from a man who worked with Tom Stow.”

It had been decades since Budge had conquered the world, but for a moment, we were in a time machine, seven decades back, to 60th Street.

“Son,” he said, “don’t let anyone tell you Tom Stow taught that backhand to me. I taught it to him.”

So as the 2013 US Open rolls forward, and the world watches the concussive force of a Novak Djokovic drive down the line, or a Roger Federer backhand laced with topspin, remember it all started at Bushrod.

courtesy of Jeff Budge

East Bay Express E-edition East Bay Express E-edition