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THE BEST EVER? : Strong Case Made for Don Budge, Who Won Tennis Grand Slam 50 Years Ago

Times Staff Writer

The ferry is gone, but the town is still on the map. Honest. And this is where you’ll find the tall, trim tennis player who ranks as perhaps the best of all time.

Going on 73, he lives quietly these days up the hill from the embankment where Andrew Dingman used to bring in his ferry after crossing the Delaware River from New Jersey.

That was long ago, and today, Don Budge lives a long way from nowhere.

Best of all time, you say?

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Well, some folks don’t think so, of course, but a lot do, and there are some compelling reasons to take Budge in his prime over Bill Tilden or Rod Laver or Pancho Gonzalez, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl or anyone else who has played tennis.

Jack Kramer, a former world champion himself who still rates in the top four or five, was asked for an analysis.

“If everybody is 25 years old today, I can’t see anybody beating Budge,” said Kramer, who has made a closer study of his sport than probably any athlete. “Whenever you played him . . . he made us all change our game.

“The great tennis champions have been alike in many ways. They all had speed, heart and stamina under pressure. The difference is simply that Budge had the most equipment--the most complete offense, the most complete defense.”

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Ellsworth Vines, also a former champion, is one who leans toward Tilden, whom Vines lists with Budge in his top two. But Gene Mako, Budge’s former Davis Cup doubles partner, is among the many who pick Budge in what will always be a futile if stimulating exercise--comparing champions of different eras.

They have been doing it again lately because 1988 is the 50th anniversary year of a landmark tennis achievement--Budge’s Grand Slam. In 1938, the squire of Dingmans Ferry became the first tennis player to win the national championships of England, France, Australia and the United States in a single calendar year.

Few athletes have ever dominated any sport the way Budge ruled tennis a half-century ago, when, in the last two years before World War II, he:

--Won six consecutive major tournaments, the only six he entered in 1937-38 while competing on three continents.

--Won all 12 of the Davis Cup matches he played, leading the U.S. team that brought the Cup home after an 11-year lapse, then leading it to victory again in 1938, after which he gave up the amateurs for pro tennis.

A few months later war was breaking out, and instantly, Budge’s luck changed. At 23 he was sitting squarely on top of the world just as it collapsed. Although he made $148,000 as a pro in 1939--more than Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams ever made in one year in that era--and although he was tennis’ ranking pro until 1946, few noticed.

The people of his world were watching a war instead. During most of Budge’s peak years as an athlete, he wore Army khaki, not tennis whites.

What’s more, he was the most conspicuous victim of the nature of the tennis of his day, before and after the war, when amateurs were segregated from pros.

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Strange as it sounds now, there were no open tournaments, anywhere, until Budge was 53, at which time Wimbledon finally overruled the amateur game’s die-hard reactionaries. That was in 1968.

In Budge’s day:

--Admission to all the big tournaments from Wimbledon to Forest Hills was limited to men and women who were, ostensibly, amateurs.

--Players had to turn pro and go on tour to make an honest dollar out of the sport in which they excelled.

The upshot is that Borg, for example, as a post-1968 open champion, has a current net worth of $40 million, and Budge lives in Dingmans Ferry.

Any photo of the immensely gifted Budge playing amateur tennis is incomplete without a footnote that should read something like this: “He was blind-sided in his prime.”

Considering four things--his tournament skills, his Grand Slam performance, the war that began when he was No. 1, and the fortune that didn’t materialize while he lived on expense money in the infamous age of the shamateurs--Budge wasn’t merely the finest but the unluckiest of the tennis champions.

But never, then or now, the unhappiest.

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RED STRING BEAN

Tennis people who call on Budge in Dingmans Ferry agree that he seems happier with his present lot than, say, John McEnroe, who has made up to $4 million a year. In any case, Budge looks happier.

He remains as jovial as he was 50 years ago, when he was one of the most readily identifiable world-class athletes--a red string bean in long white flannels. As the 1930s king of tennis, he always preferred pants to shorts. Ruddy-faced, freckled, with a full head of bright red hair, Budge weighed only 155 pounds then, although he stood almost 6 feet 2 inches.

He has filled out to 170 in recent years, and what’s left of the red hair is now a pinkish white. He is in excellent health.

Budge was born in Oakland the second son and third red-haired child of two Linotype operators--one of them red-haired, both of Scottish descent--who worked side-by-side at a Bay Area newspaper, the San Francisco Call.

Today, Budge is about to become a grandfather for the first time. He has two married sons. His second wife, Lori, a minister’s daughter who became a New York model, also has a son.

Don and Lori and the family’s three other couples are sometimes together for Christmas at Dingmans Ferry, which has a 50-cent toll bridge--one of the world’s few privately owned toll bridges--plus a post office, and not much else. But when it’s snowing, it would be hard to find a more idyllic holiday site.

Their place is in a cluster of summer cottages on a lake. Dingmans Ferry is a Pennsylvania resort area in the Pocono Mountains, and the 2-acre Budge estate, known as Firethorn for its abundant wild roses, is on a hill with a stately forest behind and the shimmering lake in front. This is Lake Sylvandale, which is 1,000 feet above sea level.

The surrounding cottages are all shuttered and uninhabited during the winter except for the Budges’, which is actually a wooden mansion with many rooms, though it began as a log cabin. After Don and Lori bought it from her parents 20 years ago, they added some touches of civilization, including eight telephones and a king-sized master bedroom with picture windows on all four walls, each with its own electrically powered drape.

“There may not be a room like it in the L.A. area, even Bel-Air,” said Budge, who once lived in Bel-Air. In those years, Deirdre, his late first wife, was a Los Angeles writer and editor. They moved East in the ‘60s when she accepted a job with Look magazine in New York.

“The climate is better in L.A. than it is here,” Budge said. “But not the scenery.”

In both respects, this was most noticeable the first time that Don and Lori were snowbound at Firethorn. That year, early in their residency, trying to escape the nuisance of phones, they didn’t have even one. Instead they kept a log fire going all day for several days, hoping to attract someone’s attention with the spiraling smoke.

When that failed, they put on snow shoes one morning and mushed out to their mail box, which is about a block in front of the house. There, they left a note for the mailman, who, they knew, would be sleighing by eventually: “Help! Come plow us out.”

Just in time, Budge said, someone did.

Budge is a hands-on hobbyist with a well-equipped workroom in his next-door guest house, and he built much of Firethorn’s furniture himself. He also built the long, curving flagstone walls that line three of the four patios, which offer views either down at the lake or up into the mountain-top forest.

You can do almost anything at Firethorn but play tennis. The nearest tennis court, which Budge seldom visits, is 5 miles away. He still plays the game much of the year, though, when on the road. His traveling schedule includes speaking engagements--his fee is $1,000 plus expenses--and pro-celebrity tournaments, among other functions. One year he and Lori were home only six weeks.

By car, Dingmans Ferry is 90 minutes northwest of the New York airports, where the Budges take off for either Down Under or Over There. In the States, they usually drive, even to California, in a nicely maintained 1976 Cadillac that has already seen 227,000 miles.

Budge’s license plate is G SLAM, which is particularly fitting in this 50th anniversary year of his grand slam. He has been, or will be, the guest of honor at all four slam stadiums, starting in Australia last January and continuing last week in France. Next month, Wimbledon.

Andrew Dingman never had it so good.

FOUR-HOUR SLAM

When the Davis Cup matches had all been played in 1937 and the trophy was safely back where, in the view of the U.S. team, it belonged, Don Budge headed for Oakland and a six-week vacation at home. Between tournaments in those days, Budge, a Cal tennis dropout, lived with his parents.

Today, a Davis Cup champion would be more likely to visit the Riviera or West Indies, where he could stretch out for a day or two and count his money. During Budge’s tennis years, champions earned not millions, nor even thousands, but train tickets home. So they went home.

There one afternoon in the fall of 1937, swinging lazily on the front porch with his nose in a book--a record book--Budge noticed that Tilden had never won the championship of France. Reading on, he discovered that more than one Wimbledon champion had failed to win in Australia. And some American champions, he knew, had never won anywhere else.

As Budge swung on and read on, a light went on. Nobody had ever won all four majors the same year, he marveled. Why not be the first?

That night he dreamed about it and decided to invade Australia immediately, and the next day he talked Gene Mako into going along.

And so while Cal was getting ready to beat Alabama in the 1938 Rose Bowl, Budge was sailing toward another kind of destiny on the high seas.

Fifty years later when Budge and his wife left for Australia this winter, they went in a jet, getting there in hours. In the ‘30s it was three weeks on a boat.

Of his re-visit, he said: “It was nostalgia time.”

Asked what he had remembered most vividly about 1938 when he was back in Australia this year, Budge said: “Playing the most nervous tennis player I ever saw, (an Australian) named Everod Ballieu.”

For an early round match against Wimbledon champion Budge at 2 p.m., Ballieu had been fully dressed and on the court at 10 a.m., when his friends managed to get him back into street clothes. At noon Ballieu came trotting out in tennis whites again, and was again persuaded to put on his street clothes.

Finally, as Budge peered across at Ballieu at 2 o’clock, everything seemed to be ready at last but wasn’t. As Budge tells it, he called time, and led his opponent off the court before a perplexed crowd of 5,000 Australians, making sure Ballieu kept closely behind.

“What’s the big idea?” Ballieu whispered nervously.

“Don’t look now,” said Budge, “but your fly is open.”

The strangest thing about Budge’s Grand Slam is that he won the championships of four countries in an elapsed time of scarcely four hours.

In 1938, in order, he:

--Won the Australian final in January at Adelaide in 47 minutes, defeating John Bromwich of Australia, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2.

--Became the first American to take the French title, beating Czechoslovakia’s Roderich Menzel in 58 minutes at Roland Garros in June. The scores were 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.

--Turned a hat trick at Wimbledon in July, winning the men’s doubles title with Mako and the mixed doubles with Alice Marble. In well under an hour of actual tennis in a rain-marred singles final, Budge knocked out Briton Bunny Austin, 6-1, 6-0, 6-3.

--Managed another hat trick with the same partners in September at Forest Hills. In the singles final, after losing a set, Budge raced through Mako in the end, 6-3, 6-8, 6-2, 6-1. The first unseeded player to reach the last round at Forest Hills, Mako, like Budge, played the best tennis of his career as an amateur champion in 1938.

Only one other man has won tennis’ four majors in one year--Rod Laver, who did it as an amateur in 1962 and repeated as an open champion in 1969. In spite of that, Budge’s Grand Slam is sometimes minimized. Some say that Budge didn’t have much to beat in 1938.

During a question-and-answer period after a speech by Budge the other day, a man about age 25 asked: “Come, now, Mr. Budge, admit it. Wasn’t it easier to win the Grand Slam in your day?”

Mildly, smiling, Budge replied: “If it was so all-fired easy in the ‘30s and ‘40s, how come no one else ever did it?”

Good question. One answer, Budge said later, is that nobody else ever thought of it, apparently. “I didn’t just win the Grand Slam,” he said. “I invented it.”

Another answer is that in the ‘30s and ‘40s, not to mention the ‘50s and early ‘60s, few good players could afford to stick around, winning amateur loving cups year after year. They had to get into pro tennis to make a living.

Champions Fred Perry and Vines, to name two who had turned pro earlier in the ‘30s, might have given Budge some problems in 1938 amateur--or open--tennis.

It is in the records, however, that a year later, when all three toured as pros, Budge beat both. First, in a series of 39 cross-country matches, Budge beat Vines, 22-17. Then in 36 matches with Perry, also in 1939, Budge won, 28-8.

It is also in the records that in 1940, when Budge was 25 and still in the form that made him famous, there wasn’t a tennis player in the world who could give him a game. The 1940 tour was canceled because of lack of opponents. That was 40 years before a 25-year-old athlete with Budge’s talent could have expected to easily make $4 million or $5 million--in open tennis purses and endorsements alone--in a 12-month period.

As 1941 dawned, Budge at 26 still outclassed the world but had only two options. He could sit around the house in Oakland or he could tour the country with Tilden--who was 48 that year. He took Tilden.

KEY: EARLY RISING

In the opinion of some tennis people, Budge’s great achievement wasn’t the Grand Slam but winning over Vines and then Perry as a pro rookie in 1939, his first season on tour. By contrast, most amateur champions have begun their pro careers as losers, as Gonzalez and Perry did, and as Riggs, Rosewall, Hoad and Laver did, among others.

Kramer, Vines and Tilden didn’t. Those three and Budge were all immediate winners in pro tennis, but Laver, for instance, coming off his first Grand Slam, lost his first 10 or 12 pro matches to Gonzalez.

On a day early in the 1937 tour, when asked to umpire a Vines-Perry match, Budge got the lesson that shaped the rest of his career.

Vines, who had won at Forest Hills at 19, was the hardest hitter in tennis. He was also several years younger than Perry, who most of the time, nevertheless, matched Vines shot for shot.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Budge recalls. “I had thought Vines would kill him. Then I looked at where they were standing, and Vines was 5 feet behind the base line, Perry only one foot. That was the equalizer.”

That was the year before Budge’s Grand Slam.

“I decided to change my game,” he said. “My goal after umpiring that match was to hit as hard as Vines, and take the ball as early as Perry.”

The key was taking it early, on the rise.

This remains, in fact, the key to Budge’s dominant position in the history of tennis--his ability to hit a rising ball squarely with either backhand or forehand, and, putting topspin on the return from either side, smashing it low into the backcourt. The requirements for this are uncanny quickness, near-perfect strokes and the nerve to stand inside the base line.

“People talk about Budge’s backhand,” said Kramer, who ran the pro tour for many years before the arrival of open tennis. “And it’s true that he had the best-ever backhand.

“But the thing that made him so hard to beat was his return of serve--first or second serve--from either side. He stood inside the base line--even against Vines--and intimidated you with that return.”

How could anyone intimidate Vines or Kramer with a backhand return of first serve from inside the base line?

“I was born ambidextrous,” said Budge, who as a boy in Oakland had preferred baseball and football, largely ignoring tennis until he was 15.

He remembers that when he was 9, he discovered one afternoon that he was most productive when he threw right and batted left.

He threw a kid out that first day, throwing right-handed, and got a hit left-handed. And when his pals applauded, he slipped into a permanent lefty-righty groove.

“I play tennis right-handed, of course,” Budge said. “But my backhand is based on my left-handed stance as a (baseball) hitter. Backhanded, what I did was hit the (tennis ball) the way I batted--except I took my left hand off the racket before I hit it.”

He argues against the two-handed backhand.

“I feel sorry for the kids who are stuck with it,” he said. “They just can’t cover enough ground.”

PROBLEM SOLVER

Tommy Dorsey’s big swing band, with Frank Sinatra as the young vocalist, was on the bandstand of the New Yorker Hotel the night that Budge, a sellout at Madison Square Garden, began his pro tennis career with a win over Vines.

It was the first night of what was to be a celebrated tour, and Budge celebrated early. As he arrived at the New Yorker’s Madhattan Room at midnight, Dorsey, a good friend, turned the band over to him; and Budge, an amateur drummer since age 12, led it the rest of the night.

“When a girl danced up and asked for ‘Body and Soul,’ Tommy shrugged and told her: ‘Ask Budge--it’s his band,’ ” Budge said.

The swing era is gone but not forgotten by the squire of Dingmans Ferry, whose era it was. He hobnobbed with Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, the Dorseys and other prominent band leaders, and once when Shaw was a hospital patient in New York, Budge, then in Los Angeles, sent him a get-well present--a word puzzle.

As Budge tells it, Shaw phoned frantically a night or two later from his hospital room.

“I can’t get one word, and it’s driving me crazy,” Shaw said. “It says: ‘Make one word out of new door .’ How the hell do I do that?”

“You don’t want me to tell you the answer,” Budge said.

“Yes, I want you to tell me the answer,” Shaw yelled.

“This is very disappointing,” Budge said. “The answer is one word .”

Like most good athletes, Budge is a problem solver. He attacks opponents and puzzles the same way, trying for quick solutions. It follows that one of his favorite games is backgammon, which he plays almost every afternoon in his game room over the garage.

The backgammon table, which he made himself, is permanently set up next to a big window overlooking Lake Sylvandale, and he plays Lori for $1 a game.

“We settle up at the end of the month,” he said, adding bitterly: “Last month I had to pay her.”

He refused to say how much.

Of the two chairs at the backgammon table, one is better placed than the other for listening to the jazz that is always coming out of the loudspeakers in Budge’s house--and that’s where Budge sits.

Downstairs as well, no matter how many guests he’s entertaining, he sits in the same place--squarely in the middle of the biggest sofa. After getting up to show off his flagstone walls, or, say, the dining room table he built, he invariably returns to the same seat.

It has taken perceptive visitors as long as half a day to discover that in Budge’s sprawling living room, that’s where the jazz sounds best.

The loudspeakers are high on one of his densely packed trophy shelves--each speaker in a place of honor next to his two well-polished Wimbledon championship trophies.

On the wall underneath, there is a gallery of 1940s sports photos, with Joe DiMaggio in a couple of them, reminding guests that Budge was a contemporary of some of the greatest American athletes--DiMaggio, Williams and Bob Feller in baseball, Joe Louis in boxing, Hank Luisetti in basketball, and Sammy Baugh and Bob Waterfield in football, among others.

On tennis courts, Budge said, Tilden was a problem solver like DiMaggio, whereas Vines was like Williams.

“Vines was the best hitter we’ve ever had,” Budge said. “But if his serve was missing by 4 inches, he’d keep blasting away anyhow.

“Tilden was different. Tilden would do anything to beat you.”

And so would Budge.

‘MIXING IT UP’

Tilden and Budge. Probably the all-time top two. Who’s third?

Only one other player of the last 50 years, McEnroe, could play them even, Budge said. McEnroe could, that is, Budge emphasized, if he had been born with more desire for tennis, and if he were in better condition.

Budge won some of his biggest matches as a well-conditioned fifth-set aggressor against tiring opponents.

Who would have won if Tilden and Budge had met at the same age?

“Budge would have beaten Tilden at the net,” said Kramer, who was the game’s top player for eight years, in 1946-47 as an amateur and 1948-53 as a pro.

“Tilden liked to win from the backcourt, moving you around from back there. That was his game. But Budge could play that game, too. He could play Tilden’s game without Tilden being able to hurt him.

“Then, the first shot that landed short, Budge would be on it and coming in. That would be the difference. Tilden played his game beautifully. Budge played several games beautifully.”

Budge, in other words, was a versatile tennis player. In his prime, Kramer said, Budge would have beaten anyone because he could put up an effective defense against any kind of tennis, and because few could cope with his attacking offense.

“He had the equipment to control the play against either a great defensive player or a great aggressive player,” Kramer said. "(Even in his late 30s), you couldn’t serve and come in on Budge because of the depth he got on his return--from either side.

“And when he was serving, his game was so sound that he could either beat you from the backcourt or serve and come in.”

Budge, reminiscing, said that he perfected all this by taking three months off every year to practice whatever strokes and moves were weakening him as a competitor.

“My game was to mix things up,” he said. “For instance, no matter who I played, I went in some and stayed back some. I’ve always thought that mixing it up is the secret to success in every sport, except, I guess, golf and billiards, and maybe horseshoes.

"(In tennis,) it takes hours and months of practice to work out your weaknesses and get an all-around game. But there are so many tournaments today that nobody practices anymore.

“Of course, you can’t really blame (today’s players) for playing too often and practicing too little. There’s all that money to be had.”

As Kramer said, this leaves only one thing for Budge: He’s still No. 1.

Times researcher Doug Conner contributed to this story.


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