Oakland's Tennis Revolutionary 

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

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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

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