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.