The Untold Story…Tennis Players At War – Part 4

By Mark Winters

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Vivian McGrath, whose name is pronounced “McGraw” and like Bromwich played with a then unusual two-hand backhand, served in the Royal Australian Air Force during the war, but regularly received permission to participate in the fund-raising exhibitions.

Frank Kovacs. Photo: Thelner Hoover

Frank Kovacs seemed to spend more time playing fund-raisers than serving in the US Army. Not only was he a rare talent, Kovacs was  “idiosyncratic”. He had the reputation of allowing his extraordinary ability to “play him out of a match”. On one occasion, he candidly said “Amateur tennis stinks…there’s no money in it anymore”. During the 1940 US National Men’s Singles quarterfinal against Joe Hunt (more on Hunt will follow), he paused and looked up at an airplane that was flying overhead. Hunt did the same. Kovacs then decided to lay on the grass court at Forest Hills to get a better view of the plane and Hunt, on his side of the court, followed along. The crowd enjoyed a hearty laugh, which provided a brief respite in the 6-4, 6-1, 6-4, drubbing that Hunt delivered.

Thelma Coyne Long. Photo: Douglas Miller

Similar to World War I, women, for the most part, were marginalized in World War II. Thelma Coyne Long was an exception. Just as her tennis career was unfolding in 1941, she made the decision to do her part and became a transport driver for the Red Cross. Nine months later (February 1942), she joined the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) and by April of 1944 had reached the rank of captain. Long, who would go on to win 19 Grand Slam trophies, earned the War Medal 1939-1945 and the Australia Service Medal 1939-1945 for her valor.

Frank Guernsey. Source: Rice Athletic Hall of Fame

Frank Guernsey and Don McNeill share a curious link. In 1941, they defeated Jack Kramer and Bobby Riggs in the US National Indoor Men’s Doubles final. Five years later, they were champions again downing Pancho Segura and Alejo Russell, an Ecuador/Argentine combination, 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 in the title round. As a team, their top showing at a major was a 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 18-20 loss to Mulloy and Bill Talbert in the 1946 US National Men’s Doubles final. 

Guernsey played for Rice University when he won the 1938 and ’39 NCAA Men’s Singles. (The competition took place on the clay courts at the Merion Cricket Club in Haverford, Pennsylvania.) McNeill, who represented Kenyon College, was the 1940 NCAA singles champion. He was all but unstoppable that year, defeating Riggs for the US National Clay Court Championships Men’s Singles trophy. That summer, he won back-to-back invitational grass court tournaments at Southampton and the Newport Casino. He finished the season spectacularly coming from two sets down to edge Riggs, 4-6, 6-8, 6-3, 6-3, 7-5 in the US National Men’s Singles final. Not only did he knock-off the defending champion but by coming back from two sets down he joined Maurice McLoughlin (in 1912) and Bill Tilden (in 1922) who had made similar title “saves”. (Not to take anything away from McNeill, who finished the year No. 1 in the US Men’s Singles ranking, but reviews of the match bring out that Riggs was “gifted” with a number of bad line calls.)

Don McNeill. Source: Kenyon College Athletics

At Roland Garros, in 1939, he followed up Don Budge’s victory a year earlier, scoring a 7-5, 6-0, 6-3 victory over Riggs in the Men’s Singles final and with American Charles Harris slid past Borotra and Brugnon, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0, 2-6, 10-8 for the doubles championship (The Frenchmen were the winning team in 1934 and their names were still on the scoreboard when Stade Roland Garros was used as an internment camp as Koestler mentioned in his book.)

Frank Guernsey. Source: Texas Tennis Hall of Fame

Guernsey joined the US Army Air Force in April 1941 and was sent to California. Once he qualified as a pilot, he went to Alaska and participated in the Aleutian Campaign in 1942. He spent the next year training pilots in Florida. It turned out to be preparation for 1944  when he was transferred to the 8th Air Force, based in Great Britain. He flew P-39, P-40 and P-47 fighter planes in support of Allied bombing efforts over Europe. His bravery earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters.

McNeill’s war service was a good deal less dangerous. He became a Naval lieutenant and was assigned to the US Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It wasn’t an all work and no play situation, since he was able to win the Argentine Men’s Singles defeating Chilean Andrés Hammersley (who was nicknamed The Huaso – cowboy) in November 1942. He defended the title downing Segura in the trophy battle the next November. That spring, the Ecuadorian, who attended University of Miami, claimed the first of his three consecutive NCAA Men’s Singles titles. The tournament was played on the clay courts at the City Park Tennis Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. (It is important to note that before and during World War II, Argentina had a “simpático” relationship with Germany and this was particularly true of the armies of both countries, who regularly sent officers either to Buenos Aires or Berlin.)

Fred Kovaleski. Source: William & Mary Athletics

Fred Kovaleski was a prominent US junior player when he enrolled at the College of William & Mary in 1942. Shortly thereafter he decided to become an Army Air Force ROTC cadet. By 1945, he was an 11th Airborne paratrooper whose division freed 2,100 prisoners in Los Banos, a Japanese prison camp near Manila (and he received a presidential citation for it). Following the war, he returned to William & Mary, leading “The Tribe” to the NCAA Men’s Team title (the tournament was played at UCLA) in 1947 and ’48. That same year, he teamed with Bernard “Tut” Bartzen to win the NCAA Men’s Doubles.

Kovaleski was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) because of his Russian language skill. He joined the organization in 1951. The fact that he was playing tennis internationally was a perfect “I Spy” cover for his work. In the mid-1950s, he was assigned to Cairo (where he regularly played with von Cramm). While there he met Manya (Poliakine) Jabes, whose parents had fled to Egypt after the Russian Revolution. Unfortunately their relationship was not “blessed” by the CIA.

Kovaleski, whose parents were Polish immigrants, was told that he would have to leave the agency if he decided to marry her. He resigned and they married on April 1, 1957. (Later, both Fred and Manya were hired by the CIA to translate information obtained from the Russian Embassy in Cairo.) He continued to compete around the world while working in international development for Pepsi, Revlon, and Nabisco.

Simonne Mathieu. Photo: Getty

Though the Roland Garros Women’s Doubles trophy is named for her – Coupe Simonne Mathieu – as well as the 5,000-seat show court that opened in 2019, (adjacent to the Serres d’ Auteuil), on the Stade Roland Garros grounds, Simonne Mathieu is known but not renowned. True, a few may be aware of her Roland Garros trifecta in 1938, winning the singles, doubles with Billie Yorke of Great Britain, and the mixed with Dragutin Mitić of Yugoslavia, but Simonne Mathieu is a name that is on the tip of the tongue of only French tennis trivia experts.

A 13-time Grand Slam winner, she was a relentless and fiery competitor. After France’s surrender in June 1940, she went to London and worked with General Charles de Gaulle. She founded the “Corps des Volontaires Féminines Françaises” (French Women’s Volunteer Corps) and became the groups’ commanding officer. In that capacity she was responsible for recruiting and training. When Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944, she was a captain in the Free French Army and  marched with de Gaulle up the Champs Elysées to celebrate the city’s regained freedom.

Henri Cochet, Simonne Mathieu and Yvon Pétra. Photo: AFP

On Sunday September 17, 1944, dressed in her Free French Army uniform, she umpired the Liberation Match, in which Yvon Pétra defeated Henri Cochet, 6-1, 6-2. It was the first competition staged at Stade Roland Garros after the Germans departed.

Raymonde Veber Jones. Photo Courtesy of Jones Family

Raymonde Veber, born December 1, 1917, was the last of six children in a family that lived in the posh Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Her family’s wealth was the result of owning a rubber factory that made tires. Because of the financial security when she was 12 and a doctor advised her to get more activity, she began to play tennis at the nearby Racing Club de France (RCF).

A petite, but gritty player, she rose to the top of the French women’s ranking. Her talent was acknowledged particularly by Henri Cochet. It turns out that Mathieu, a Neuilly neighbor, was her most formidable opponent locally and nationally.

When the Luftwaffe began bombing Paris in 1940, Veber’s family left for Cantal. (It is a region halfway between Paris and Montpellier.) When it was possible and though risky, she traveled back and forth from Neuilly and the countryside. Her brothers joined the French Army. One was captured and spent several years as a POW. Another, after the surrender joined the Resistance. Because her brothers were “occupied” (a play on words) it became her responsibility to run the family business. She rode her bicycle every day to the tire factory. (On one fortunate ride, she avoided a German checkpoint where people were being questioned. She had no idea what was taking place, but later, riding home, she saw the bodies of 30 men and women in the field next to where she had nearly been stopped. The Resistance had killed a soldier and the Germans responded by staging a “public payback…” Having no fondness for the occupiers, this solidified her ill feelings toward them. In a further expression of her contempt, under her coat she wore armbands with either the Cross of Lorraine or FFI – Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur – indicating her Resistance support.)

The Vichy government decided in 1941 that the Tournoi de France would be staged instead of Roland Garros, which gave Veber a reason to practice again. She added to her already busy schedule by working on her game at night. The formation of a traveling team that went from city to city playing for foodstuffs was an outgrowth of the Tournoi competition. For Veber it was simple. If she won, she ate. If she lost, she went hungry (as did her teammates).

Wherever they conquered, the Germans followed the same MO when it came to dealing with Jews. They were deported. With Paris, the numbers vary but in September 1940 a German census designated 150,000 individuals, 64,000 of whom were foreigners, as Jewish. Veber’s quick reaction saved Jacqueline Foy, a tournament player with whom she had occasionally practiced. Foy’s father had been arrested and she desperately needed a place to hide. She went to the Veber’s apartment and ended up spending six months there, never going outside. Finally, Foy’s mother, who was hiding in the countryside, sent a note saying it would be safe to join her there. Foy cautiously left Paris.

[Years later Veber, who was now Veber Jones, returned to Paris and learned that Foy had survived the war. She went to the address where Foy had been living and learned that she had recently passed away. In September 1945, Veber had gone to Cannes to play a tournament. While she practiced, Ray Geyer Jones, a major in the artillery of General George Patton’s 3rd Army, watched.

He was a good athlete, having played wingback on the same Harvard football team as John F. Kennedy. He figured playing tennis against a woman couldn’t be that tough. So, he asked her…After not winning a game in three sets (6-0, 6-0, 6-0) he figured the best way to “even the score” would be to ask her out. After the tournament, Veber returned to Paris and Jones was able to secure a three-day pass to visit the city. Their friendship quickly flourished and on November 5, 1945,  they were married at a church in Neuilly.]

In late-July 1944, Veber won the Tournoi de France, defeating countrywoman Jacqueline Patorni 6-4, 9-7. The Racing Club de France was delighted that one of its members was the French champion. They held a celebratory dinner and, in true French fashion gave her a gift, in this case,a new Hermes dress. Unfortunately her success brought about unwanted attention. General Dietrich von Choltitz, the German commander of Paris, enjoyed playing tennis. He asked a member of the Racing Club to see if she would play him. As she had done throughout the occupation, she never spoke to the Germans or had anything to do with them…including Choltitz. (He has been praised, mainly in his own book, for ignoring Hitler’s command to burn Paris to the ground.)

[Veber Jones, after enduring all that she had in Paris during the war, used her honed adaptability to make her way in a new country. Though she had taken English in school, she was not fluent. In addition, the military facilities where her husband was stationed were nothing like cities in France. Realizing that her country was in ruin, she knew the US offered a great deal more. She began playing tournaments again which kept her going while her husband, who had become a pilot, flew three-tours in Vietnam. She raised three children and maintained a top ranking in the Mid-Atlantic section (one of the USTA’s 17 that includes the states of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, D.C. and West Virginia). She dominated women’s singles play winning the championship from 1961 to 1971 without losing a set. She also won 13 national senior championships.]

Alice Marble. Photo: Thelner Hoover

In the annals of tennis it would be hard to find anyone more interesting, perplexing and  mysterious than Alice Marble. She was one of a collection of outstanding players who grew up in Northern California and initially used Golden Gate Park as her “club”. Eleanor “Teach” Tennant, an outstanding competitor in her own right and a standard setting tennis instructor, micromanaged Marble to greatness. In spite of contracting tuberculosis in 1934, she went on to win 18 singles, doubles, and mixed Grand Slam titles during her career.

Alice Marble was Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1939 and ’40. Photo: AP

Marble was never bound by tennis’ restrictive rules. Her skill set extended well beyond the lines found on a court. She had a fabulous singing voice, was a creative writer and had tremendous personal appeal. Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year in 1939 and ’40. She was comfortable mixing with Hollywood movie stars and government officials…What’s more she apparently had a photographic memory.

Over the years, the story, with various additions or subtractions, has been told, that she wanted to serve her country in some capacity in World War II.  Unable to qualify for the military because of her bout with tuberculosis she was appointed co-chair of the Office of Civilian Defense fitness program. Before assuming the position, Marble was interviewed by the FBI, who after talking with her in 1945, believed that she could be the perfect spy (because of her international tennis contacts and her HSAM – Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory).

A backstory plays a critical role in what took place. In 1942, Marble married captain Joseph (Joe) Crowley, who was a US Army Air Force pilot. Two years later, Crowley was killed when his plane was shot down over Germany. Days before his death, Marble was in a car accident which resulted in a miscarriage and the loss of their child. Distraught, she attempted to take her life using sleeping pills, but a friend came to her rescue.

A version of her spy activity maintains she was going to use playing tennis exhibitions in newly liberated parts of Europe to mask an effort to reconnect with an influential Swiss banker, who was her former lover. He allegedly had access to  important German financial records. Using subterfuge she obtained the needed information. Trying to escape, she had to drive through the mountains in Switzerland. She was stopped at a German checkpoint and while attempting to flee, she was shot in the back. Efforts to discover the name of the Swiss banker, or who treated her wound, or where she was hospitalized have failed.  Another account suggests that a German, not a Swiss banker, provided the “needed” documents. The truth about her spying has never been completely revealed. One historian observed that a spy does things that are supposed to be secret. If they become public then there probably wasn’t much spying involved…

One thing about Marble is very clear. When it came to Althea Gibson, she was succinct. In the July 1, 1950, issue of “American Lawn Tennis Magazine”, in an editorial, she said “Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites…If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”

She added that if Gibson was not given the opportunity to play the 1950 US National Championships, “then there is an ineradicable mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly ashamed.

(The then 23-year-old became the first African–American to compete in a Grand Slam tournament.)

Despite the mystery that surrounded Marble, Helen Hull Jacobs was pretty much an open book. Born in Arizona in 1908, her family moved to San Francisco when she was six. She grew up in Berkeley, learned the game at the Berkeley Tennis Club and appropriately – attended the University of California, Berkeley.

Helen Hull Jacobs, Time Magazine, September 14, 1936

Jacobs was a nine-time Grand Slam winner. She was the outgoing, entertaining Helen who lost regularly to her taciturn, reserved rival Helen Wills (Moody). Jacobs, the Associated Press 1933 Female Athlete of the Year, was a religious and social pioneer proclaiming her Jewish faith and the fact that she was gay. Stylish in her own way, she appeared in the 1933 US National Women’s Singles final wearing shorts and no stockings and donned a similar outfit as a Ladies finalist at the 1934 Championships. (At Forest Hills in 1934, she scored a rare triple, winning the singles, doubles and mixed.)

When the US entered World War II, Jacobs decided to become a Navy WAVE and took courses at the College of William & Mary. Upon completing her studies, she joined Naval Intelligence. Eventually, she rose to the rank of Commander, one of only five women in the Navy to receive the designation.

Once her competitive career came to an end in 1947, she led a wonderfully diverse existence, authoring 19 books, designing sportswear and becoming a farmer.

Jack Kramer and Joe Hunt. Photo: International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, Newport, Rhode Island

September 6, 1943 was unmercifully hot and humid at Forest Hills. The weather didn’t deter Naval Lieutenant Joseph (Joe) R. Hunt. He remained on course, downing Coast Guard Seaman Jack Kramer 6-3, 6-8, 10-8, 6-0 in the US National Men’s Singles final. It was a valiant performance by both players. When Kramer’s last shot sailed long, Hunt collapsed on the baseline’s tattered grass with leg cramps. His opponent, who had suffered a bout of food poisoning during the tournament, slowly made his way to where the winner was sitting to shake his hand. It was a dramatic end to an equally unforgettable match.

On February 2, 1945, fifteen days before his 26th birthday, Hunt was on a training flight when his Navy Hellcat, a World War II combat aircraft, went into a spin at 10,000 feet. It crashed into the ocean off the coast of Florida. Neither his body nor the plane were ever recovered.

Joe Hunt. Photo: Thelner Hoover

Hunt, who was born in San Francisco but raised in Los Angeles, had it all. Based on his looks alone – he was blond and blue-eyed and built like he regularly worked out at Muscle Beach in Venice, rather than on the Los Angeles Tennis Club courts.  

He won the National Boys’ 15 and 18 titles. By the time he was 17, his playing ability earned him a 1936 US Men’s Top 10 ranking. Playing No. 1 for USC, in 1938, he never lost a team singles nor doubles match. He rounded out the season taking the NCAA Doubles Championship with teammate Lewis Wetherell.

He played doubles with Kramer in the 1939 Davis Cup Challenge Round against Australia. With the US leading, 2-0, the youngsters came up short in the critical match. John Bromwich and Adrian Quist, a veteran duo, triumphed 5-7, 6-2, 7-5, 6-2. (It was the first occasion Australia had ever trailed 0-2 in a final. But Australia ended up claiming the Cup, 3-2.)

Hunt was almost too good to be true. Besides his looks and being a stellar player, he had charisma. People really liked him. What’s more, he was exceedingly realistic. He was aware of what was taking place in the world during the late ‘30s. His concerns led him to leave USC and transfer to the Naval Academy in 1939.

Two years later, Hunt became the first (and only) player from the Naval Academy to win the NCAA Singles title. (Proving he was an all-around athletic he also was a halfback on the Navy football team.) His military commitment kept him from participating in the US Nationals later in 1941 and again in ‘42.

When he returned to Forest Hills in 1943, World War II was ravaging Europe and the Far East, so the US was the only Grand Slam tournament held that year. As it turned out, the final featured two competitors who were on “leave”.

Hunt’s great-nephew Joseph (Joe) T. Hunt is the family historian. (He grew up playing tennis in Santa Barbara.) By trade, he is a lawyer practicing in Seattle, Washington. In addition, he is a member of the Pacific Northwest, (a USTA section including the states of Alaska, Northern Idaho, Oregon and Washington), Board of Directors.

Ted Schroeder. Source: International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, Newport, Rhode Island

“Seattle” Joe Hunt pointed out, “I know that Joe was not the only player to miss a chance to defend his US National title. Ted (Schroeder) won it in 1942 and was not able to defend in 1943. They both were Navy pilots stationed in Pensacola, Florida. Neither was granted leave to play Forest Hills in 1944 so they both entered a Pensacola tournament held at the same time as the National Championships. Of course, the local tennis community couldn’t believe their lucky stars to have the 1942 and the 1943 champions likely facing off in a local event. It was billed as the ‘Clash of Net Champions’ and would supposedly determine the true No. 1 player in the country, despite that ‘other’ tournament that was taking place in New York.  

“Joe and Ted reached the final, where ‘urban legend’ has it that they played their match in front of thousands of spectators on September 4, 1944, while at the same time, Frank Parker was playing Bill Talbert in the final of Forest Hills – with Parker winning 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. I have spent hours trying to vet the truth of this story. I just don’t know if it is 100% true that the two finals were played simultaneously. In any event, Joe beat Ted 6-4, 6-4. Despite what many have written, this was, in fact, the last tournament match of Joe’s life.”

(At the 2019 US Open, the tournament took a monumental step and decided that every year on Labor Day it would honor the 1943 champion by staging US Open Lt. Joe Hunt Military Appreciation Day.)

In 1954, Armistice Day became Veterans Day. The designation honors all of the US military veterans who served their country. It should not be confused with Memorial Day, which recognizes all those who perished while safeguarding the nation.

(Armistice Day had originally been called Remembrance Day. It was first observed in 1919 in the British Commonwealth, recognizing the armistice that concluded World War I on Monday, November 11, 1918, at 11:00 a.m. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is especially significant because it ended what had been thought to be “the war to end all wars”. Sadly, it wasn’t, but the day has been set aside to honor those who helped keep the world safe from tyranny.)

This lengthy narrative has attempted to call attention to a collection of tennis players who risked their lives, and in some cases, lost them in world conflicts. No doubt, there have been a few individuals whose exploits have not been mentioned. This was not due to negligence. It is the result of trying to sort through a massive amount of information relating to tennis players participating in World War I and/or World War II. (Veterans of Korea, Vietnam as well as the other post-World War II hostilities have not been discussed.)

For those who took part in the First and Second World Wars, their combat experiences were defining. In some cases, more so than those that took place on the tennis court. They served and sacrificed more than anyone might be able to imagine. They did it to make the world a better place…and in the end, the gravity of what was accomplished needs to be guarded like a treasure, because it, most certainly, is.

Each of these individuals is a hero and they should never be forgotten…

Title photo of Vivian McGrath by George A. Jackman 

Tennis Players…War Now And In The Past


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