Tennis has long been touted as the game for a lifetime. Over the years, it has proven to be that and more for many. It offers excitement and can be physically demanding, humbling and at the same time defining. The sport has a rich history but it is not solely about rankings or wins and losses. The players are the core. They give meaning to everything that takes place on court. In difficult, even dire situations, competitors have often proven to be more formidable off the court. Because the venues have been so different, little has been said or written about what each of them accomplished. World wars are that way. They don’t balance winners and losers. Wars are about ruin, rabble and rubble. Yet tennis players have stood out and in some cases stood alone. “The Untold Story…Tennis Players At War” will explore the depths of what many of these very special individuals experienced and survived…I hope this story helps define the mettle of those who played tennis and had the courage to stand up for right along the way.
Boris Becker has had a memorable career both on and off the court. Yet, for all of his accomplishments one of my succinct recollections is a comment he made in 1987. At the time, he was 19 and The Championships’ No. 1 seed. He was the defending champion and already a two-time Wimbledon winner. Peter Doohan had just handed him a surprising defeat in the second round, though. The stylish Australian, who was bunking at a YMCA in London during the fortnight, came out on top 7-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4. “I lost a tennis match,” Becker said after the upset. “It was not a war. Nobody died.” Looking back, truer words will never be spoken.
Since the game’s inception, comparisons have often been used to define the sport. The late comedian Robin Williams once opined that “Tennis is like chess at 90 miles an hour”. But even that clever phrasing doesn’t tell the story. War itself provides a much better perspective. It has long been one of the go-to words when it comes to searching for a fitting description of competition. In a historical context the idea gains even more clarity. Players are athletically skilled and fiercely competitive. They usually have strong personalities and make wise decisions under pressure. All of which are essential characteristics in life and death situations.
Australian, Norman Brookes was the first non-Brit to win the Gentlemen’s Singles title at The Championships. His initial victory was in 1907 and he triumphed again in 1914. On both occasions he teamed with Anthony (Tony) Wilding of New Zealand for Gentlemen’s Doubles honors. Wilding owned the Gentlemen’s Singles trophy taking it home from 1910 through 1913. In those days, Australia, and New Zealand competed in the Davis Cup as Australasia. Brookes and Wilding teamed for Australasia wins 1907-09 and 1914.
In August of 1914 World War I began. Brookes served as Commissioner of the Australian Red Cross in Egypt. Following the suggestion of Winston Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, Wilding joined the Royal Marines. He was moved to the Intelligence Corps before transferring to the Royal Naval Armored Car Division. He ended up in northern France and was in charge of 30 men and an armored regiment. On May 8, 1915, he wrote a letter about what it was like to be on the frontlines, saying, “… I and the whole outfit [are] being blown to hell…” The following afternoon that is exactly what happened at the Battle of Auber Ridge in Neuve-Chapelle, France. He was killed when a German shell exploded in the trench where he had dug-in, seeking to avoid the bombardment.
After the war, Brookes became the first President of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia in 1926. He held the position until 1955. The Australian Open Men’s Singles trophy was named the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in 1934. In 1939, he became Sir Norman Brookes in recognition of his lengthy stint of public service.
Henry Mayes was born in Northampton, Great Britain and served in the 1898 Boer War in South Africa. His courageous actions as a Natal Horse trooper earned him the King’s and Queen’s medals. He married Frances Hazard of Long Island in 1908 and a year later moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada where he went into the tanning business. At the beginning of World War I, he was one of the founding members of the Fort Garry Horse regiment that was part of the Canadian fighting effort in France from 1914 to 1916. After his service at the front he became the Director of Physical Training for the Canadian Air Force, then assumed the same position for the British Royal Air Force. For his RAF service he received an MBE in January 1918.
Mayes was a member of the first Canadian Davis Cup team. They lost 3-0 to the US at the All England Lawn Tennis Club in the 1913 semifinals. In 1922, he won the first of his three Queen’s Club singles titles (the others were in 1926 and ’27).
Looking back, Wilding wasn’t blessed with good fortune. Richard Norris Williams, II, actually, was – twice. Born in Geneva, Switzerland to American parents, he and his father happened to be passengers on the Titanic in April of 1912. When an iceberg was struck, they both jumped into the ocean. Charles Williams, his father, was killed by debris falling from the ship but Richard managed to tread water while hanging onto a damaged life raft and eventually, the RMS Carpathia rescued him.
He entered Harvard in the fall of 1912 and won the first of his two Intercollegiate singles titles in 1913. A year later, he became the US National Men’s Singles champion and recaptured the title in 1916. After the US declared war in 1917, Williams volunteered. Once the army learned that he was fluent in French and German, having been raised in Switzerland, he was sent to the French Staff School and in time became a member of the US General Headquarters staff.
While in that position, Williams witnessed the first aerial bombing of Paris, took part in the Chateau Thierry campaign, (America’s most significant engagement) and was a member of the team that negotiated the peace agreement that aimed to end the “War to End all Wars”. For his indispensable service he was awarded Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur.
Following the war, he combined his work as an investment banker with tennis, winning The Championships singles and the doubles with Chuck Garland in 1920. In addition, he was captain of the US Davis Cup team from 1921 until 1926 then again in 1934.
Mention Dwight Davis and followers of the game will immediately respond – Davis Cup – the competition that he created in 1900 (originally called the International Lawn Tennis Challenge and at the time, it was a competition between the US and Great Britain). But there was more to him than having been educated at Harvard and having the financial resources to provide the impressive silver bowl that would become the historic representation of the event.
A talented lefthander, he was the intercollegiate singles and doubles champion, with Holcombe Ward in 1899. The duo went on to win three US National Men’s Doubles championships.
When war broke out, Davis enlisted in the Missouri National Guard (He was born in St. Louis.) and ended up serving in France with the 69th Infantry Brigade of the 35th Division. Because of his courage in battle, he received the Distinguished Service Cross.
William Johnston was born in San Francisco in 1894. He was more widely known as “Little Bill”. (He was 5’8” while Bill Tilden, a regular opponent stood 6’2” and was nicknamed “Big Bill”.) Little Bill learned to play tennis at the city’s now famous Golden Gate Park. After the cataclysmic earthquake of 1906, schools were closed. Johnston took advantage of the long break and worked on developing an exasperating to play against, match winning Western grip forehand (…long before it became part of the arsenal of modern day players). He was one of the country’s best players, but after taking the 1915 US National Men’s Singles title, he left the lawns for a ship and served in the Navy during World War I.
Maurice McLoughlin was another top competitor who served in the Navy in World War I. He was from Carson City, Nevada, but his family moved to San Francisco in 1903. He spent time honing his game on the city’s public tennis courts. He played with an appealing, slashing serve and volley style that earned him the nickname, the “California Comet”. His approach netted him US National Men’s Singles titles in 1912 and ’13. Teaming with Tom Bundy, he won the National Men’s Doubles title three times, from 1912 to ’14. (In 1912, Bundy married the indomitable May Sutton, who in 1905 became the first American women to win the Ladies’ Singles at The Championships. They had four children including Dorothy “Dodo” Bundy Cheney, the 1938 Australian Championships titlist and the winner of an astonishing 391 US National championships.)
Women’s roles during World War I have been grossly overlooked. Of course, in those days, women were not supposed to actually participate in armed conflict. Nonetheless, Mary K. Browne, Molla Bjurstedt Mallory, a Norwegian who was a naturalized American, and Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman (yes, of Wightman Cup fame), did their part. Each had won multiple US National Women’s singles and doubles titles before the US entered the war in 1917. Once the country was engaged in the fighting, they took their talents on the road and played exhibitions in support of American Red Cross relief efforts.
Dorothea Douglass Lambert Chambers, who won The Championships’ Ladies’ Singles seven times, spent part of the war working at Ealing Hospital in London.
May Toupée Lowther, a wealthy British eccentric, who graduated from the Sorbonne, was an extraordinary athlete. She was an expert fencer and a brilliantly erratic tennis competitor whose temper, on occasion, lost more points than her creative shot making won. She was the British Covered Court Championships singles champion three times. She also claimed singles titles at the German and Monte Carlo Championships.
Frustrated that the British Army failed to take advantage of a women’s all-around skill she and her friend Norah Desmond Hackett organized the Hackett-Lowther Ambulance Unit, that was an all-female and an all-British group. They were assigned to the 2nd Army Corps of the French 3rd Army and worked near the front lines in Compiègne, France. Following the war, Lowther was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
While Lowther’s athletic achievements and war involvement were stellar – Jeanne Matthey surpassed all of those efforts…but gained little tennis notoriety. She was born in Alexandra, Egypt in 1886. Her father, William Matthey, was Swiss and her mother, Annette Bertin, was French. The family moved to France when she was four. She was raised in a rare environment where “sports was considered an essential part of daily life…” Her brothers took full advantage of the family’s Racing Club de France membership, playing football (soccer) at the multi-sport facility while she, along with her sister, Cécile, became tennis devotees.
In 1909, Matthey won her first French Women’s Singles championship (only open to French nationals) and defended the title until Marguerite Broquedis defeated her in the championship round in 1913. She teamed with Daisy Speranza in ’09 for Women’s Doubles honors and they kept the winner’s trophy until 1912.
When World War I began Matthey put her racquets in presses (as was done in those days) and became a Red Cross volunteer nurse. She spent four years on the frontlines and rose to the rank of head nurse. She was badly wounded and the damage to her right arm was so severe that she was never able to play tennis again.
Once she recovered, Matthey became a social activist, striving to make the lives of others better. In 1927, she received the Médaille d’Honneur de l’Assistance Publique (Bronze Medal of Honor for Public Assistance) for her services as a nurse. After her courageous participation in World War I, it was not at all surprising that after the Germans conquered France in June 1940, she joined the Resistance (Marquis). She was a message courier until captured by the Gestapo in August 1944. She endured torture but never revealed the names of those in her network. She was sent to Ravensbrück, a Concentration Camp for women, north of Berlin, where her physical and mental torment continued. She survived… barely… and after the camp was liberated by the Russians, on April 30, 1945, she eventually made her way back to Paris and set about restoring her health.
In 1952 she was named a knight in the Légion d’Honneur – (The Legion of Honor is France’s highest order of merit). In 1958 she became an officer, and in 1962 she was elevated to the rank of commander. Never one to seek attention, she was pleasantly surprised that some journalists recognized her when she attended Roland Garros in 1972. At 86, she was wonderfully communicative. When asked how she was, she joked, “In many pieces…” (because of her war injuries). As an aside, she mentioned having received close to 40 medals and recognition for her war service. She was a member of over 30 veterans’ groups. Matthey’s storybook life came to an end in Paris on November 24, 1980, when she was almost exactly two-months shy of turning 95.
Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. The Anschluss, unifying Germany and Austria to form a “Greater Germany”, took place March 12, 1938. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. The resulting hostilities swept across Europe and in effect, launched World War II.
Even now, it is chilling to see how what was taking place in Europe dramatically affected the game internationally. Looking back, Gottfried von Cramm (Baron Gottfried Alexander Maximilian Walter Kurt von Cramm, which could have been a test to inscribe on a champion’s trophy) and Henner Henkel (whose full name – Heinrich Ernst Otto “Henner” Henkel – was almost as testing to inscribe as von Cramm’s) were amongst the best players in tennis at that time.
They were supposed to be the “new” Germany’s standard bearers. As it turned out, one was loyal to his country and the other was loyal to National Socialism. They were sent on a world tour in 1937 to extol the Party’s strengths. (Henkel did, but von Cramm refused.) The Pacific Southwest Championships at the Los Angeles Tennis Club was one of their stops. Don Budge won the Men’s Singles final 2-6, 7-5, 6-4, 7-5 over von Cramm.
Charlie Hare and Pat Hughes of Great Britain, who ended up winning the doubles title, defeated Henkel and von Cramm in the semifinals. Von Cramm and Helen Wills (who had divorced Frederick Moody in Nevada on August 23, 1937 and since the tournament was played in September she was Wills again) downed Marjorie Gladman Van Ryn and Budge, 6-1, 6-4 in the Mixed Doubles final.
The Los Angeles Times covered the tournament that was held September 19th to 26th. According to the newspaper, Helen Wills and Gottfried von Cramm replaced Carolin Babcock and Frank Shields in Mixed Doubles beginning in the second round. The latter team was “persuaded to withdraw”. Tournament officials had paired Wills and von Cramm as a team, but they had neglected to consult with von Cramm. When he found out, he declined to play mixed doubles (with anyone) because that would have been too many matches for him. Wills was already in Los Angeles when she was told. Angry, she was reported to be on her way home when von Cramm quickly changed his mind. He was being blamed for the tournament’s biggest drawing card not being able to play. He told friends that he felt awful about offending her. Contrary to published reports, Wills was still in Los Angeles and did want to play, so their partnership was back “on.” The problem then was that there wasn’t an open space in the draw until Babcock and Shields withdrew (undoubtedly under pressure). This was the 11th edition of the Pacific Southwest Championships but the first time Wills had entered. (The Times reported that Budge played terribly in the Mixed Doubles final.)
Shortly before this tournament began, the German government had ordered all the German players to return to Germany immediately after its conclusion. This was the beginning of von Cramm’s lengthy nightmare.
(The LA Times pointed out that Perry Jones was the director of the tournament. He had assembled a dream field, including the newly divorced Wills, Alice Marble, Helen Jacobs, Katherine Stammers, Dorothy Bundy, Margaret Osborne, Anita Lizana from Chile, and Jadwiga Jedrzejowska (nicknamed YaYa) from Poland. (In the junior girls draw were Pauline Betz and Louise Brough.) About a month earlier, Anita had defeated YaYa in the final of the U. S. National Championships. Jones was interviewed by the Times just before he learned that YaYa had broken her foot. Here are some excerpts:
“Jones sat near the baseline and was shooing away good looking girls like Helen Marlowe who wanted to practice on that (center) court. ‘Nope,’ said the icy Mr. Jones, ‘we gotta keep our new sideline barriers clean. You (pointing at Marlowe) go play on some other court! We want YaYa to see our nice, clean, green-painted canvas before it is marked-up with ball prints.’ Turning to the reporter, Jones continued: ‘Now, this YaYa is some girl. She will warm the cockles of all the bosoms of our local tennis fans. They will take her right into their hearts. She would have been a tremendously popular champion if this Anita Lizana person from Chile had not beaten her in the finals of our National Championships. Don’t misunderstand me. This Lizana girl is popular, too, but YaYa just naturally bubbles over with personality. She has box office appeal. She can take the wind right out of your sails.’”)
Title photo of Helen Jacobs from the International Tennis Hall of Fame