Oakland's Tennis Revolutionary 

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

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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.

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