Budge, (John) Donald ("Don")

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BUDGE, (John) Donald ("Don")

(b. 13 June 1915 in Oakland, California; d. 26 January 2000 in Scranton, Pennsylvania), tennis champion best known for winning the first Grand Slam in tennis history: the Australian, French, Wimbledon, and U.S. championships in the same calendar year.

Budge was the son of John Budge, a Scots-Irishman who managed a laundry and had been a member of the Glasgow Rangers soccer team, and Pearl Kincaid. Budge's father's respiratory problems had brought the family to California, where Budge and his brother grew up competing in as many sports as possible. Budge, who graduated from University High School in Oakland, did not like tennis at first; he preferred baseball, football, and basketball. But in June 1930, as he approached his fifteenth birthday, his older brother jokingly suggested that he enter the California state boys' tennis tournament. Everyone in the room laughed, except for Budge. He practiced for the next two weeks, then proceeded to win the tournament, the first he had ever entered.

After this promising beginning, Budge began to concentrate on tennis exclusively. Budge was a serious, methodical player. Never content with his strokes or his game, he was constantly improving and developed into a steady backcourt player. Not known for his finesse, he drilled his opponents with a strong forehand and a backhand that became like a ferocious weapon.

Budge went East in 1934, where he made his debut at the Seabright Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club in New Jersey. Because he had been raised on the hard courts of California, he took some time getting used to playing on grass. Once he made the adjustment, however, his experience with hard-court tennis became a distinct asset.

Budge had the good fortune to watch Ellsworth Vines, the best American player of that time, on the court and to receive special tutoring and encouragement from British tennis great Fred Perry. Watching these two play convinced Budge of the importance of a net game; beginning in 1936, he became increasingly an attack player. At the same time, Budge developed a reputation for seriousness on the court, mixed with the manners of a complete and thorough gentleman; he never complained about line calls and was known for humor and sociability off court.

An opportunity to shine came in 1937 at the Davis Cup tournament. Fred Perry had turned professional, leaving the amateur tennis field less crowded than before, and Budge became known as the new American hope. The Davis Cup had been taken by French players in the 1920s and had remained elusive for more than a decade. Now Budge became the centerpiece of the American team, and he played his most memorable match.

The 1937 Davis Cup was played on the grounds of the All England club at Wimbledon. Germany and the United States faced each other in the finals. Budge went up against Gottfried von Cramm in the fifth round. The German was probably the more elegant player; his shotmaking was terrific, and he kept Budge at arm's length during the first half of the match, winning the first two sets, 8–6, 7–5. Budge possessed a relentless competitive instinct, however. He came roaring back to win the next three sets and the match: 6–4, 6–2, 8–6. Those who witnessed the game declared it one of the most intense and hard-fought that they had ever seen. Von Cramm, who had come within one point of winning, was sent to prison on a morals charge when he returned to Germany. He had let down the Nazi cause by losing the tournament and was punished, just as Hitler punished other athletes who failed to win at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Budge's most stellar year was 1938. He won, in succession, the Australian Championships (on grass), the French Championships (on clay), Wimbledon (on grass), and the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills, New York (on grass). No one, not even "Big" Bill Tilden, had ever won all four championships in the same year, and no one would do it again until Rod Laver in 1962. Equally impressive, Budge won Wimbledon without the loss of a single set, and he took the U.S. Championships with the loss of only one.

By this time Budge's game was completely developed. His serve was strong, his volleys crisp, and he reached the net behind many approach shots. Two things made him stand out, however. His backhand was a tremendous weapon; he won many points with outright winners. Second, his height and immaculate appearance gave him the impression of command and control, even if the facts did not always warrant it. Remarkably fit, Budge simply never seemed tired; he went on hitting shot after shot and drove opponents into the ground.

Budge turned professional on 10 November 1938. This decision was a loss to amateur tennis, but his reputation was so great, and he was so well-liked, that the United States Lawn Tennis Association wished him well in his new endeavors. The same generous attitude was not accorded most players who made the move from amateur to professional.

He made his professional debut at Madison Square Garden on 3 January 1939. He was up against Ellsworth Vines, the greatest player between 1930 and 1934, but made a swift adaptation to the indoor play, winning handsomely. He went on to defeat Fred Perry in March and was soon number one on the professional tour.

A new decade dawned, a decade that saw World War II and many societal changes. The new era was not kind to Budge. He spent three years in the Army Air Forces, and when he returned to active tennis play, his formidable game was never the same; some attribute this to a shoulder injury he suffered while in the service. Though he competed gamely, Budge lost the professional match-up of 1946 to Bobby Riggs, a younger American player who had not spent years in the service. It seemed extraordinary that Budge, with his great physique, strength, and attitude, could lose to the much shorter, slighter man, but Riggs was a master of his art.

From that time on, Budge was a dwindling draw on the tennis tour. He continued to compete sporadically, but never again approached his play of the late 1930s, when he had left an indelible imprint on tennis. His decline, while visible, did not matter to his unswerving fans, however. Many of those who saw him at his finest are convinced that Budge was the best tennis player, day in and day out, that the world has ever seen. Even the appearance of notables such as Rod Laver in the 1960s and Pete Sampras in the 1990s could not persuade them otherwise. To his fans, Budge was always "Mister Tennis."

Budge died in Scranton, Pennsylvania, after an automobile accident. He was survived by his second wife, Loriel, and by two sons.

Useful references include Jack Kramer, with Frank Deford, The Game: My Forty Years in Tennis (1979); Will Grimsley, Tennis: Its History, People, and Events (1971); and Budge's own Budge on Tennis (1939), with an introduction by Walter L. Pate and a biography by Allison Danzig. An obituary is in the New York Times (27 Jan. 2000).

Samuel Willard Crompton