–Recently on Google I discovered Ray Bowers and his in-progress book: Forgotten Victories: A History of the Pro Tennis Wars 1926-1945.
–Here are chapters I found:
1. First Pro Tour in 1926
2. Emergence of Karel Kozeluh and Vinnie Richards
3. Tilden’s Year of Triumph, 1931
4. Of Tilden and Nusslein, 1932-1933
5. The Early Ascendency of Vines
6. Vines’s Second Year, 1935
7. Awaiting Perry, 1936
8. Perry and Vines, 1937
9. Readying for Budge, 1938
10. Budge’s Great Pro Year, 1939
–Bowers is now in his 80’s, saw them all, and himself has won some national U.S. Seniors tennis championships. He’s a journalist, columnist, and writes well. He has spent considerable research time in the Smithsonian, in library searches of magazine articles, and has done interviews as well as called on his own memory to speak to him in pulling together this priceless chronicle.
–Without Forgotten Victories a major and glorious part of tennis history would be lost (indeed, “forgotten”).
–If you love tennis, you should find time in your busy life to read this saving account Bowers has given us. It’s poignant and spellbinding.
–Meantime, let me compose a few notes that I hope will give a small sense of Bowers’s gift to the tennis world and that will encourage you to read his history.
–In essence, that gift comes as two rescue packages: (1) A very sharp vision of how those long-gone tennis wonders actually played–their styles, strengths, etc.; and (2) How they matched up in what must be the truest (and unfortunately discarded in our day) competitive test–the barnstorming pro tennis tours in which the best players battled one another head-to-head in long series of matches. A sub-division of Item 2 is the chance to see fading stars taking on the upcoming stars and to try to get a sense of Who’s Who short of a tennis heaven where everyone from all wooden racket eras would play a masters tournament on an even playing field (uhm, court) as to age, prime/peak play, etc.; and we’d see once and for all. In the Open era we still have head-to-head matches between the sublimes, but it’s less concentrated even though it has its own wonders and I’m not a nostalgic and wouldn’t want to go backwards but am happy to move on with today’s great power tennis with the high-tech rackets. Then it was finesse and power; now it is power and finesse. (And concerning competitive measures and as an aside, I’ve always thought that comparing the greats in either or both eras as to how many majors they won is a meaningless exercise given many obvious changes in conditions in the eras down the history of tennis as well as personal imperatives of various greats, especially prior to our present Open era.) Bowers calls his overall tennis commentary, “Between the Lines.” He emphasizes head-to-head competitive series–that’s what finally counts. Of course, he’s right.
–Styles of Play. As a prelude to recounting the results of the competition, I’ll start with impressions of the playing styles of the great players Bowers writes about. I myself had not gotten a sharp vision here, because with Budge, Vines, Tilden, Perry and the others, you weren’t around then and you never see any extended video footage. Bowers is strong here in his account. He makes you see the nearly forgotten wonders out there on those U.S. and European courts on those long-ago intense tours. He’s a player and he knows what to tell us. And he’s trying to preserve the great old moments. So here are a few summaries, starting with Budge and working backwards.
–Don Budge: Often portrayed as one of those big Californians with a power game who blew people off the court, Budge actually played in something like the style of Agassi. Budge had punishing ground strokes, especially a marvelous backhand, and what he essentially did was develop a game where he hit forceful, well-placed drives and was extraordinarily consistent and steady. His forehands and backhands, sometimes flat but usually with topspin, jerked opponents around the court, and his foes had to play extraordinarily great power tennis, or resort to real subtleties, to beat him. Otherwise, he’d outlast them because his controlled great power and comparative lack of unforced errors would win out in the long run. He had a big serve and a very good net game, but largely he beat you on back court drives with enough net-rushing when he had set-ups to end points. He used a heavy racket and it lent him power. Reportedly he had a 29-inch waist and his right arm was approximately the size of Rocky Marciano’s. He had great stamina.
–Ellsworth Vines. Vines typically hit all out. His serve was clocked at 150 mph, and many think it may have been the hardest to deal with in the entire wooden racket era (i.e., tougher than those of Tilden, Kramer and Gonzales). His forehand skimmed over the net almost flat or with a little side spin and skidded fast on the bounce. His stroke had little margin for error in ball-striking. Ditto his backhand–he crunched it; but because of subtle mechanics in his stroke the racket face opened up only briefly and again he had little margin for error. Budge said that when Vines was on, no one could beat him. (Gonzales later said virtually the same about Hoad.) But no question, Vines was a great player with spells of erratic play.
–Fred Perry. Perry had great hand-eye coordination, a devastating running forehand, and tremendous aggression of attack. His was an all-court game, superb in all aspects. He had excellent foot speed. But his game showed more finesse than power, though he could rifle the ball. His hand-eye coordination gave him strokes that were unique; no one else, it is said, has played in his style.
–Bill Tilden. Tilden was master of every shot. He could play several styles of tennis. Probably he was the brainiest match player ever. He possessed a huge cannonball serve (also 150 mph). He is generally acknowledged to have had the best forehand of the wooden racket era. He showed tremendous foot speed. In short, he was a physical prodigy. (See below for more on him.)
–Hans Nusslein. Who on earth was Nusslein? A fabulous German player who very early turned pro and lost amateur standing in the age of “shamateurism”; and so while he could beat anyone on a given night, he never got the international publicity his game merited. He featured a steady, controlled back court game, a tough serve, and great matchplay temperament. He was probably closest to Perry in style (though without that Perry running forehand).
–Karel Kozeluh. Kozeluh, a superb athlete, was a Czech tennis genius who mastered the “Continental” style: a controlled, steady all-court game with superb shot placement. He could readily handle an opponent’s power. His style was definitely more finesse than power, but he was a smart tactician and jerked opponents around because the directionality of his drives was hard to anticipate. He had many wins over every prominent player of his era. Kozeluh turned pro early in the “shamateur” times and didn’t get his deserved publicity. (Karel’s younger brother, Jan Kozeluh, who remained an amateur in his playing days, was ranked in the top ten amateur players in the world in the 1920s.)
–Henri Cochet. Cochet was maybe even faster afoot than Tilden. He was a wooden-racket-era prototype of Michael Chang. He had great anticipation, a famous half-volley and excellent placement. He was very hard to get the ball past and especially tough at net. And he was a tough competitor.
–The Match-ups. Budge won more often than not and during his ’39 pro stint had winning records against everyone. He was the youngest on the tours and had just won the Grand Slam before turning pro in ’39. He beat Vines 22-17 in head-to-head matches on one tour that year. When Vines won against Budge, it was usually pretty decisive because he was “on.” But more often than not, Budge wore down Vines when Budge won: less unforced errors against a Vines erratic that night. Some have said that Vines, independently wealthy and now in love with golf, didn’t care that much in this period. (This gives you an idea of what Vines’s best playing outings must have been like. Scary.) Vines beat Tilden by a ratio of about 3-2 over about 60 matches. In their head-to-head tour, Tilden got out to an early lead. In the opener, played before the biggest crowd up to then in Madison Square Garden, Tilden won 8-6, 6-3, 6-1. Tilden faded toward the end of the tour, but often won the first set. Tilden was 41 years old, Vines mid-twenties. Vines beat Perry by a modest margin. Too much power versus finesse.
–Match-ups Involving Tilden. In his forties in these wars, Tilden was never ranked lower than 4th in the world, and was Number 1 in ’31 and ’32. He was the biggest drawing card through the whole period because of the sheer beauty and artistry of his game. Vladimir Nabokov calls Tilden’s play “the divine delicacy of absolute power.” He regularly beat Cochet, against whom he had a losing record in the amateurs–his only losing record in the amateurs. He more than held his own against Perry; he had Perry’s number. People were astonished that he could play so well in his forties. Tilden was like the ageless boxing champions, Archie Moore, George Foreman and Bernard Hopkins, greats to their fifties. Eventually, in the late 30’s, the format became round robin–Budge, Tilden, Vines, Perry, Nusslein, and Kozeluh the most prominent. The aging Tilden held his own. (No amateurs of the day, except Cramm, could play with these marvels.) Budge won five straight matches against Tilden, who was 19 years Budge’s senior. These were the matches the crowds wanted because the two were titans of successive decades.
–But here’s the quintessential Tilden story. In 1939, when the Nazi invasions had started in Europe and Kozeluh’s wife got trapped in Prague, Tilden and Budge squared off in England with the war casting a shadow over the tennis tours. The British crowd was eager for the match. With Tilden’s age, 46, and though they’d had some close matches, the then 27-year-old Budge’s power game had proved tough, especially with Tilden being like the older George Foreman–“I knew when to throw the left but I could no longer make myself throw it,” the same being true for Tilden’s backhand which he now had to slice because often he could no longer pull the trigger to hit out flat or with topspin on his backhand return of Budge’s strong drives. This particular match in Britain might have seemed one of the last times the two titans would play in a serious competition (though it wasn’t). So Tilden, who was alone among the tennis giants of his day in having a complete repertoire, reverted to a slice game. Unlike most players, he was master of several very different styles. He had in his arsenal a powerful Rosewall-like backhand, an especially lethal shot he rendered with underspin. Ditto a slice (“chop”) forehand. The ball tended to bounce low and skim. Budge liked balls that bounced higher, so he could lean into his drives and come over them with topspin. Result: Budge was put off because atypically he had to lift his shots off the low skimming Tilden shots. This made Budge’s returns “sit-up” a bit. Tilden still had the reflexes to pulverize that kind of ball into the corners and come in. He beat Budge in that match in straight sets. Tilden was behind 1-3 in the 2nd set and 1-4 in the 3rd. He raised his game to win. Budge called Tilden’s “the finest tennis I have ever seen.”
–Cochet. The formidable French star prevailed in more than a few professional matches, but it is generally held that he played his peak tennis during his years as an amateur in the 1920s.
–Nusslein. The German great gave Budge fits in several matches, winning (I think) one. Nusslein beat the others in this stellar group several times.
–Read Bowers’s history: it is far more engrossing than my notes.
–British Pathe video of Tilden-Kozeluh 1931: