Don Budge, a lanky, redheaded Californian, called time in the first game of an early round match in the Australian national tennis championship. To the astonishment of 5,000 spectators in mid-January 1938, he started to escort his young and nervous Australian opponent, Everod Ballieu, off the grass court in Adelaide. “What’s the big idea?” Ballieu whispered haltingly, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Don’t look now,” Budge said, “but your fly is open.”
After the youngster ducked under the stands and finished dressing, he returned to face Budge, the reigning British and United States national singles champion. As expected, Budge, 22, the world’s No. 1 ranked amateur player, further buttoned up the young man, as well as those who followed, on his way to winning the Australian title on Jan. 29, 1938, 80 years ago this month. That win was the first step in his goal to win all four major tennis championships that year. He had hatched that plan the previous fall while reading a tennis record book on the front porch of his parents’ home in Oakland, Calif.
Budge discovered that no one had ever won the four big national singles titles in the same year — Australian, French, British and American. Why not be the first, he asked himself. He told no one of his goal except Gene Mako, his doubles partner, and that disclosure later led to the greatest irony during Budge’s Grand Slam.
IT ALL STARTED WITH A DARE
Growing up in Oakland as a teenager in the 1920s, the freckled redhead excelled at multiple sports, especially in baseball as a right-handed player who hit left-handed. His older brother, Lloyd, hit balls with him on a tennis court, but the game didn’t appeal much to Don. That is until Lloyd dared him to enter the 1930 California state boys’ tennis championship. After a week of intense practice, Budge won the first tournament that he had ever entered. That auspicious beginning soon led to his nearly unparalleled dominance of amateur tennis in the late 1930s.
After a teenage growth spurt, Budge was soon a gawky 6-foot-1, 160 pounds, with an angular face and a prominent nose. In 1933, Don won his first national championship, the U.S. Junior. The next year he lost in the finals of the U.S. National Clay Court Championship. That led to an invitation to join the U.S. Davis Cup team in 1935.
The American team traveled to Europe to play Germany in an inter-zone contest in the worldwide competition. Before the German match, however, the American players entered the British national championship at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, England. Budge surprised many by making it to the singles semifinals where he lost to Germany’s Baron Gottfried von Cramm, the scion of two titled families.
(Note: The British tournament has long been called the Wimbledon Championships, or simply Wimbledon, because of the All England club’s location. Similarly, for years the U.S. Nationals were called “Forest Hills,” the New York City neighborhood in Queens where the West Side Tennis Club was located. The club hosted the U.S. Nationals/Open, 1915-1978. Further, the four Grand Slam tournaments were amateur-only until 1968 when professionals were allowed to enter. That marked the beginning the “Open Era” and the use of new championship names — Australian, French and U.S. Opens.)
After Wimbledon concluded, the All England hosted, as a neutral site, the U.S — Germany Davis Cup match. Budge won his two singles matches, one of which was against von Cram. America beat Germany, but then lost 5-0 to defending Davis Cup Champion, Great Britain, in the Davis Cup’s championship match.
In 1936, Budge, 21, continued to impress despite losing to Englishman Fred Perry in the Wimbledon semifinals and again in the finals of the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills, N.Y. 1937 was his breakout year, winning the singles, doubles and mixed doubles — the “triple crown” — at Wimbledon and the singles and mixed at Forest Hills. Additionally, Budge led the charge as the Americans beat Great Britain to win the Davis Cup competition for the first time since 1926.
Along the way, during another inter-zone match with Germany, Budge beat von Cramm in the decisive match, 6-8, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 8-6. It was widely considered the finest Davis Cup match ever played to that point in modern tennis history. Budge ended 1937 as the number one ranked amateur in the world. Also, he won the Sullivan Award given to the best American amateur athlete, marking the first and only time a tennis player has gained that accolade.
“Budge was a court artisan without flaw,” tennis author Will Grimsley wrote in 1971. “A serve like a cannon shot … a powerful forehand … covered the court with grace and ease … his temper was smooth … remarkable concentration. But it was the Budge backhand that was his deadliest weapon.”
He started the swing with a two-fisted grip as he had used hitting left-handed in baseball, released his left hand as the racket met the ball and followed through with his right. In Budge’s 2000 obituary, the Washington Post noted his “whiplash backhand, which still is considered the best ever.”
The first step in Budge’s goal to win all four major national tennis championships in 1938 was onto the gangplank of a steamship at the start of a three-week journey from San Francisco to Australia in the fall of 1937. Upon arrival down under, Budge played a number of exhibition matches, often losing because Budge treated them as practice sessions by working on specific strokes. But in the Victorian Singles Championship in December he played serious tennis and won the title in straight sets over a young Aussie, John Bromwich.
As the No. 1 seed in the Australian national singles, Budge swept through the early rounds. In the quarterfinals, he joined his doubles partner, Gene Mako, von Cramm, Bromwich, and others. The young Aussie beat von Cramm in the semis, and Budge beat Australian Adrian Quist to face Bromwich in the finals.
Budge raced to a 4-0 lead in the first set, but Bromwich battled back to 4-5. The Californian used his powerful serve to win the set, 6-4. An Associated Press reporter at courtside wrote afterward, “Bromwich appeared worried and listless and no longer was able to get his shots under control.
Budge quickly won the next two sets, 6-2, 6-1, and, after only 47 minutes of tennis in the title match, won the Australian title. Budge and Mako also won the men’s doubles.
After returning to the States, Budge practiced on an auxiliary clay court Forest Hills in preparation for the French nationals. One afternoon he told the press of his plan to win all four major tennis singles titles that year. In reporting this, the New York Times referred to four such wins as a “Grand Slam.”
The term had initially showed up in the Times’ tennis reporting in September 1933 when Australian Jack Crawford arrived at Forrest Hills after having won the Australian, French and Wimbledon titles. Two Times writers speculated on Crawford’s chances at winning what they called the Grand Slam. Three years earlier, the phrase, which was drawn, so to speak, from the card game Bridge, entered the non-baseball sports lexicon during amateur Bobby Jones’ 1930 sweep of golf’s four major tournaments in which he could play — British and U.S. Amateur and Open championships.
(Many in today’s news media sloppily refer to each of today’s major tennis tournaments as a “Grand Slam” or “Slam,” both imperfect abbreviations for a “Grand Slam tournament.”)
On the crushed brick, clay courts at Stade Roland Garros in Paris, Budge sailed through to the quarterfinals in which he beat Frenchman Bernard Destremau in straight sets. In the semis, he dispatched Josip Palada, a Yugoslav Croatian, 6-2, 6-2, and 6-3. In the stands for all of Budge’s matches was renowned cellist Pablo Casals.
The Czech Roderich Menzel was the next European to challenge the American star, and Budge won the final match’s first two sets easily. But in the opening game of the third set, Menzel served four aces to win easily. The Czech held on to reach 4-4, but, according to an AP reporter, “Budge stormed the net and put over a series of winners that left Menzel helpless.”
Budge won the last set, 6-4, and the championship. Afterward, the AP reporter described the highlight of the June 11 final: “Menzel did not belong on the same court with Budge today.”
Afterward, according to Budge’s memoir, Casals dedicated a private recital to the winner, whom he described as “my good friend Don Budge.”
At this point, counting Budge’s wins the previous year at Wimbledon and Forrest Hills, he became the first player to hold all four major tennis titles simultaneously — a “non-calendar Slam.”
Less than two weeks after his French victory, Budge began the defense of his British national singles title. Budge easily won his first four matches, each in straight sets. His opponents in the quarters, Czechoslovakia’s Frantisek Cejnar, and Franjo Puncec a Yugoslav Croatian, met similar fates in the semis.
In the final, Budge faced Britain’sBunny Austin, and the two were a distinctly contrasting pair on the grass court. The slight, 132-pound Austin was physically outmatched by the lanky Budge, plus they dressed differently. Budge favored, along with virtually every male tennis amateur of the time, long, white pants, while Austin wore tennis shorts, a stylish variation he introduced to tennis at Forrest Hills in 1933 and Wimbledon the following year.
The long and the short of the match, however, was that Budge won, 6-1, 6-0, 6-3. Budge completed his triple crown at Wimbledon by winning the doubles with Mako and the mixed doubles with Alice Marble.
“Donald was unstoppable that afternoon,” Austin said years later, according to London’s The Guardian. “He was a true great. It was an honor just to be on the same court.”
Three Americans, Budge, unseeded Mako and Sidney Wood, plus Australian John Bromwich had just reached men’s singles semifinals when the Great New England hurricane of 1938 slammed into the Northeast, killing nearly 7,000 people. After a six-day delay in competition, the Budge-Mako doubles team individually played their way into the singles finals. With his buddy standing in the way of Budge’s Grand Slam, reporters’ tongues wagged about a possible Mako tank job. In his 1969 memoir, Budge denied such a possibility.
“Gene was as likely to roll over and play dead for me as peace was to come in our time.” Budge won in four sets and later denied giving Mako the second set, saying that such a move would have been “like a condescending pat on the head.”
Budge’s Grand Slam was remarkable, but so was the total elapsed time he needed to win all four of the Slam’s final matches — just over four hours.
Budge turned pro in 1939 and toured the country and internationally playing exhibition matches and professional tournaments. During that year he reportedly earned $148,000, considerably more that the $35,000 salaries of the two highest-paid MLB players, Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg.
Only one other male player has won the tennis Grand Slam in the same calendar year besides Budge. Australian Rod Laver swept the titles in 1962 as an amateur, and, in 1969, as a pro in the Open Era.
(Michael K. Bohn is the author, among other books, of “Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports.”)
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