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Oakland's Tennis Revolutionary

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



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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.

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