The Untold Story…Tennis Players At War – Part 3

By Mark Winters

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One’s understanding of history often depends on interpretations derived from a variety of sources. This statement could be used to summarize opinions about Oscar Gustaf Adolf, better known as King Gustaf V. He was the towering (6’4”), pince-nez wearing autocrat who was the symbolic head of Sweden from 1907 until his death in 1950. In both World War I and II, some historians feel he was far too accommodating when it came to dealing with the Germans.

He was an avid tennis player, who entered tournaments using the name Mr. G. His appreciation of the game led to friendships with the likes of Prenn, von Cramm, Borotra and Ulrich and it seems to have been the reason he was comfortable asking the Germans for better treatment for these players. As the story goes, he attempted to get Hitler and Miklos Horthy of Hungary to stop persecuting the Jews (and asked Horthy to support the rescue efforts of Raoul Wallenberg, Swedish diplomat). In addition, he told the German ambassador to Sweden in 1938 that if Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, it would start a world war, one that Germany would certainly lose.

Deciding if the judgements he made in dealing with the Germans were good or bad can only be based on remembrances of the period and the fact that, after all, he was the King of Sweden.

Ladislav Hecht. Source: Gallica

Ladislav Hecht taught himself to play tennis by reading an instruction book, then hitting balls endlessly against a wall when he was 11. Born in Zlina which is now in Slovakia but then was part of Czechoslovakia, he progressed from playing “wall ball” to Davis Cup, representing his country from 1930 until ’39. Hecht won the first Maccabiah Games men’s singles title in Tel Aviv in 1932. After a portion of Czechoslovakia was occupied, a Hitler aide, unaware of his ethnicity, asked him to play for the German Davis Cup team. He turned down the opportunity. A short time before Germany completed the invasion of his homeland, he fled to New York. After arriving in the US he eventually found time to play again and became a formidable competitor on the Eastern tennis circuit. Allison Danzig, the well-known New York Times tennis writer, praised Hecht’s experience and cleverness, offering that he was “…strongly armed on both sides”. After the US entered World War II, he worked in various munitions factories in New Jersey.

Roderich Menzel. Courtesy: Alex Nieuwland

Roderich Menzel was born in Reichenberg when it was part of the Austria–Hungary Empire. In 1918, the area became a portion of Czechoslovakia. Teaming with Hecht in 1937, they lost in the semifinals of The Championships’ Gentlemen’s Doubles to Pat Hughes and Raymond Tuckey of Great Britain, 2-6, 2-6, 4-6. (In the bottom half of the draw, Budge and Gene Mako, after losing the initial sets, 4-6, 4-6 to Henkel and von Cramm roared back taking the next three 6-2, 6-4, 6-3. The Americans earned the title, scoring a 6-0, 6-4, 6-8, 6-1 victory in the final.) Menzel, who was 6’3”, and whose volatility matched his height, realized his best Grand Slam singles result losing to Budge in the 1938 Roland Garros final, 3-6, 2-6 , 4-6. (Further, Budge won the first of three consecutive Pacific Southwest Tennis Tournament Men’s Singles in 1935 defeating Menzel, 1-6, 11-9, 6-3, Retired. Throughout his career, Menzel had to deal with health issues.)

In September 1938, with the annexation of the Sudetenland, Menzel’s birthplace (Reichenberg) became the capital of a new German state. As a result, he was then a German citizen and played Davis Cup for his new country in 1939. In the European Zone Final, he and Henkel won the doubles, but Germany lost the tie, that was played July 28-30 in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, 3-2. (Von Cramm wasn’t on the German team.)

As mentioned, once the war began Henkel and von Cramm ended up fighting the Russians. During his tournament travels Menzel had regularly contributed stories to newspapers and magazines. This, along with his health restraints, led to his working as a journalist in Berlin while the war took place. After it ended, he returned to competition but, still plagued by heart issues, his results were spotty. Because of his reputation as a journalist, he turned to writing full-time and became a well-respected author of children’s books. He also gained acclaim for a collection of tomes about his true passion, world travel.

Roland Garros. Source: Roland Garros 2021

As most tennis aficionados know Roland Garros, for whom the second Grand Slam of the year is named, was not a tennis player. He was a renowned aviator. In May 1915 he was captured, after a clogged fuel line caused his plane to crash behind German lines. He remained a prisoner until escaping in February 1918. He quickly returned to flying, which proved to be costly. On October 5, 1918, he was killed when his plane was shot down near Vouziers, Ardennes, France. Regarded as an aviation pioneer and a war hero, he died the day before his 30th birthday and a month before World War I finally came to its end.

In the 1927 Davis Cup Challenge Round, France, (the les Quatre Mousquetaires perhaps the first “Dream Team” in sports), having lost the first two matches of the tie, staged a dramatic comeback to end the US’s six-year winning streak, 3-2, at the Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia. The next year, as the champion, France needed a venue to host the Challenge Round. When property was found near the Bois de Boulogne, it was stipulated that the new facility had to be named in honor of an army hero. (The French, being true to their nature, chose to name the venue after the famous aviator not a soldier.)  Stade Roland Garros was constructed just in time for the July 27-29, 1928 tie. The French won 4-1 and retained the Cup until Great Britain escaped with a 3-2 victory in the 1933 competition at the location.

Entrée Stade Roland Garros, 1927. Source: Stade-Français

During World War II, Roland Garros, an architecturally remarkable facility, was tainted by prisoner’s blood. For ten months (1939-40), it served as a “Centre de Rassemblement”, actually, an internment camp for political dissidents and foreign nationals. They were euphemistically “housed” at what is now Court Philippe Chatrier.

In his book “Scum of the Earth”, (published in 1941 after he made his way to Great Britain), Arthur Koestler, a journalist, and Hungarian Communist, wrote, “At Roland Garros, we called ourselves the ‘cave dwellers’, [and] about 600 of us lived beneath the stairways of the stadium.

Arthur Koestler. Photo: Erich Hartmann / Magnum

“We slept on straw – wet straw because the place leaked. We were so crammed in, we felt like sardines…It smells of filth and excrement, and only slits of light can find their way inside.

“Few of us knew anything about tennis, but when we were allowed to take our walk in the stadium, we could see the names (Jean) Borotra and (Jacques) Brugnon on the scoreboard.

“We would make jokes about mixed doubles. Indeed, compared to our experiences in the past and the future, Roland Garros was almost an amusement park.

Budge Patty in 1958. Photo: Joop van Bilsen

In “The Liberation Of Roland-Garros”, an article by Guillaume Willecoq that appeared April 4, 2018, on the website, Budge Patty revealed, “I experienced the liberation in Paris as a soldier in the 5th Army that returned from Italy. I returned to the United States in January 1946…and soon hurried back here [to Paris] five months later. I was 18 and wanted to be grown up –to study. I was actually heading to university when I got my mobilization orders. But after the war, you couldn’t hope to do that anymore. I lost two years of my life because of the war, and like all the young people in my generation, I had lots of things to catch up on.”

Patty provided Willecoq with an interesting aside remembering, “At the time, you had to make do and mend, and we were certainly pleased to use the army-issue shorts, as we had nothing else to wear.”

The long-time Lausanne, Switzerland resident was nicknamed “Budge” by his brother because, as a youngster, he was lazy and wouldn’t budge. He was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas but he grew up in Los Angeles. He developed his game playing at the Los Angeles Tennis Club and went on to win the USLTA National Boys’ 18 Singles in 1941 and ’42.

In time, he became known for his stylish play and his elegant attire. He combined both of these attributes with movie star good looks. Quite simply, he was debonaire. He had an Austrian grandfather and a  French-born grandmother which led him to say, “as a child I knew I’d like Europe”. Following the war, Paris, (before settling in Switzerland in 1960), was his home. He worked in a travel agency and competed only half the year playing tournaments in Europe and Great Britain. The milieu appealed to him because, as he once confessed, top players never smoked or drank and went to bed early but he thoroughly enjoyed night life “in the City of Lights”. His tournament results had been “ordinaire” until 1949 when he decided to change his training approach. 

It paid-off in a big way the next year when, Patty added his name to the record books by winning Roland Garros and several weeks later, taking The Championships titles in 1950. Before Open Tennis, only Don Budge, in 1938, and Tony Trabert, in 1955, achieved that same back-to-back slam double.

Gardnar Mulloy. Source: International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, Newport Rhode Island

In 1957, Patty added to his acclaim by teaming with Gardnar Mulloy, who, if he had followed tennis protocol, would have been enjoying Slam retirement at his home in Florida. Instead, the astonishing 43 year old and the 33-year-old Patty defeated Australia’s Neale Fraser, who was 23, and his partner, 22-year-old Lew Hoad, 8-10, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 for The Championships Gentlemen’s Doubles title. They remain the oldest tandem to claim a major title.

It would be hard to find a tennis player who could match Mulloy’s World War II exploits. (They are Captain America-like – or maybe a real life Superman.) He was a naval officer who commanded a LST32 (Tank Land Ship) in the Mediterranean during the European campaign and participated in heavy fighting. In 2015, the year before he passed away at 102, he received the French Legion of Honor, an accolade presented to him for his participation in the operations that took place in Italy and the Provence area of France. The recognition made Mulloy the oldest recipient of the order since it was created by Napoleon in 1802.

Tom Brown. Source: California Athletics Hall of Fame

The history of the war is filled with captivating stories. Tom Brown’s is one of the most enthralling. He spent much of the conflict in a tank – along with a tennis racquet. He never revealed if the racquet served as a constant reminder of his pre-war on-court success or if it was simply a good luck talisman.  If it was, perhaps it inspired him at The Championships in 1946 where he was a semifinalist, losing to Yvon Pétra 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 6-8. (Brown didn’t go home empty handed. He and Jack Kramer defeated Geoff Brown and Dinny Pails, an Aussie tandem, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 in the Gentlemen’s Doubles final. He bettered the Australian again teaming with fellow American Louise Brough for a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Brown and Dorothy “Dodo” Cheney in the Mixed Doubles title round.)

Pétra was the last Frenchman to win The Championships Gentlemen’s Singles and the last men’s winner to wear long pants in the final. In the trophy round, he edged Brown, a former Royal Australian Air Force gunner who played ambidextrously, 6-2, 6-4, 7-9, 5-7, 6-4. It was a memorable outcome because Pétra had been a German prisoner of war for two years. He was captured in 1940, in Alsace, France during the German invasion. In an effort to avoid being taken prisoner, he had seriously injured his left knee. Fortunately, because he had competed in Germany before the war, he was well known, which resulted in a doctor being sent from Berlin to treat his damaged knee.

Lee Tyler, Brown’s longtime companion in later life, responded to questions about the “tank racquet” admitting, “Tom Brown of San Francisco was the reigning tennis champ of Northern California when he joined the Army at the age of 20. He truly believed in tennis as a conduit to world peace. So, it was only natural that he packed his racquet to take along wherever he was sent. He was trained to be a mortar gunner and in February of 1945 was shipped to Europe with the 20th Armored Division of General George Patton’s 3rd Army. He was fortunate. The war was beginning to wane as they tramped through Southern Germany, Austria, and France where he was assigned to a half-track. Beneath the floorboards, he found enough space for his racquet. And there it sat, protected and ready for action. That summer his unit was sent home and he went to get his racquet. It looked okay but wasn’t. Two strings had popped. Regretfully, he tossed it away.”

But there is more to the racquet saga. Tyler happily recounted, “Tom’s army supplies also included condoms – they were free – evidently, the more the better. He built up a supply, thinking they might come in handy someday for something. True, they did just a year later. In 1946, he was named to compete at The Championships. He went over by ship, and had five racquets, all strung with the highest grade of expensive gut. How could he protect them from the wet sea air? Voila! He remembered the condoms. A friend helped him pull them over the racquet heads. First thing he did in London was to strip them off. The wooden frames and gut strings were just fine.” (Looking at it today, this seems to be a conundrum, leaving one wondering how even a very “stretchy” condom could ever cover the head of a wooden tennis racquet.)

Art Larsen in 1937. Photo: Smith Archive

Art Larsen was nicknamed “Tappy” because of his habit of tapping things for good luck. (He would warn players that a day would be a “onesie” or a “twosie” or…so they could prepare for the number of taps that would be administered. He regularly tapped his opponent on side-changes. It is rumored that late in a match, he chased Dick Savitt, the 1951 Australian and The Championships winner, around the court because Savitt had decided on that particular side-change he was going to avoid being tapped. On occasion, during a match, Larsen would talk to an eagle supposedly perched on his shoulder who, supposedly, provided tactical advice.)

A left-hander, Larsen had uncanny touch, rarely practiced, smoked and loved to drink. If a party was taking place during a tournament it was guaranteed that he would be on hand. (Unless, of course, he had found another to attend.) After World War II, he played competitive tennis for therapy. Having participated in the landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day, he was never the same mentally. Occasionally he discussed what he had experienced watching US planes mistakenly bomb their own troops thinking they were German forces. He admitted, after surviving without a scratch, that his behavior became “different…” because of the terror he had gone through, serving at the front for three years. (After the war, it was determined that he had “shell shock”. It was not officially diagnosed, but there are many references that point to that as the cause for his “curious” behavior. The condition today is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.)

Larsen’s colorful career came to an end on November 10, 1956. He lost control of his Italian motor scooter on a Northern California highway. The accident put the 1950 US National Men’s Singles title-holder in the hospital. He was in a coma for three weeks, lost the vision in his left eye and was partially paralyzed. (Savitt, Budge and a number of other players organized a fund-raising event to help defray some of his medical expenses.)

Don Budge. Source: Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum

Budge joined the US Air Force in 1942. In his book “A Tennis Memoir”, he discussed tearing a muscle in his right shoulder while completing an obstacle course during training the following year (’43). The injury never healed properly, and it wasn’t until the spring of 1945 that he was given a month’s medical leave so he could have Dr. J. LeRoy Near, an osteopath based in Berkeley, try to resolve the problem. Though the doctor made every effort, he was unable to return the shoulder to its Grand Slam winning playability.

Bobby Riggs. Source: The Telegraph
Frank Parker. Source: International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, Newport, Rhode Island
Wayne Sabin. Source: Oregon Tennis History

Even though he wasn’t 100%, in the summer of 1945, Budge played on the US Army team (the Air Force was part of the Army then) with Frank Parker in exhibitions against the US Navy team that featured Bobby Riggs and Wayne Sabin. Budge and Riggs were the “draw” in the Davis Cup-like island-hopping competition. In Guam, Budge defeated Riggs in straight sets. He did it again in Peleliu in Palau. Riggs then triumphed at Ulithi, (another one of the islands in the South Pacific) and Saipan. Budge told Parker he was shocked by the outcomes. When Riggs won the final match in Tinian, it marked the first time that he had defeated Budge in a competitive series.

Vic Seixas at Wimbledon in 1953. Photo: Leslie Preist
Fred Perry. Source: Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum

For three years, in World War II, Vic Seixas, the often overlooked, winner of 15 major championships, was an Army Air Force pilot. Surprisingly, Fred Perry was also in the US Army. Perry, the multi-slam singles winner, wasn’t from “the correct background” so he was looked down upon by the British tennis elite. After winning The Championships title for the first time, crushing Australian Jack Crawford in straight sets in 1934, he was demeaned. While in the locker room a “member” let it be known that “the best man didn’t win”. Even worse, his All England Lawn Tennis Club tie, (that is awarded to every Gentlemen’s Singles winner), was unceremoniously left on a stool in the dressing area. Because tennis was so pretentious in Great Britain, Perry was regarded as a “pauper” and didn’t fit in. After turning professional, he moved to the US in 1936. He became a US citizen in 1939, which was the reason he was drafted into the Army Air Force in 1942.

Jack Crawford and his flathead racquet. Source: tennishistory
Jack Crawford. Photo: Ranker

Crawford won 17 career Grand Slam titles. (In 1933, he was the Australian, Roland Garros and Wimbledon champion and only needed the US National Men’s Singles title to achieve the first Grand Slam, but leading Perry 3-6, 13-11, 6-4 he suffered an asthma attack and dropped the final two sets, 0-6, 1-6).

Baker’s Tennis Shop opened in Sydney in 1918. It was the premier sporting goods store in the city known for manufacturing flat-head tennis racquets. While working there, Crawford learned how to make the racquet with the distinctive shape (and played with one throughout his career). He added to his uniqueness by wearing long white flannels and long-sleeved white shirts. (He was also famous for having an occasional “tot” of whiskey in tight matches and from all indications it seemed to steady his performance.)

John Bromwich. Photo: Thelner Hoover
Adrian Quist. Photo: Thelner Hoover

Crawford was unable to enter the service in World War II because of his chronic asthma, so he played exhibitions for the troops to raise money for the Red Cross. Fellow Aussies, John Bromwich and Adrian Quist were also participants.

Title photo of King Gustav V from the Sveriges Tennismuseum Båstad

The Untold Story…Tennis Players At War – Part 4

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