Vines, Henry Ellsworth, Jr. ("Elly")

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VINES, Henry Ellsworth, Jr. ("Elly")

(b. 28 September 1911 in Pasadena, California; d. 17 March 1994 in La Quinta, California), tennis player and golfer who was known as the hardest hitter in tennis history.

Vines grew up playing tennis on the hard courts that were a staple in California. His tennis heroes were "Big Bill" Tilden and "Little Bill" Johnston. Vines was lucky enough to have as his coach Mercer Beasley, one of the best in the sport. Beasley saw the talent and power of the fifteen-year-old, and he brought out Vines's best by having him aim for specific points on the court. Years of this type of practice helped Vines to develop shots that were more like rifle fire than tennis strokes. By the time he was eighteen, Vines had the game of a champion.

He burst onto the tennis scene in 1930. On his first trip to the East Coast, in his first play on grass courts, he beat Frank Hunter and Frank Shields. At once commentators began to describe him as the eventual successor to Big Bill Tilden. Not yet ready to concede his spot, Tilden came out and smothered Vines in their first match. Vines began to think of himself as a two-week wonder, a flash in the pan. However, he did win the U.S. Championship in 1931.

He further confirmed his status in 1932. The All-England Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon were full of expectation that year; observers wanted to see a native son of England win the title. They were overjoyed when Henry "Bunny" Austin reached the finals, and took his place across the net from Vines. The match that followed was later described as one of the most devastating displays of power tennis ever witnessed; Vines crushed Austin 6–4, 6–2, 6–0. Austin later admitted he did not know whether Vines's last ace, the one that ended the match, went past on his left or right as it was too fast for him to see it.

Vines's 1932 win over Austin was all the more remarkable because it was the first Wimbledon of his career. Only Tilden and Gerald Patterson had accomplished the same feat, and no one would do it again until Boris Becker in 1985. The New York Times correspondent remarked, "No medieval torturer ever applied pressure upon a victim more unrelentingly than did this tall Californian youth, ranging the court like a terror and slyly throttling his opponent's game." He followed up his Wimbledon win in 1932 by winning his second straight U.S. Championship.

Vines had a sunny disposition, on court and off. Rather than dispute line calls with judges, he would either adjust his cap or turn slowly and grin at the linesman. These manners made Vines the most beloved man in lawn tennis. The crowds' affection could not keep Vines at the top of his form, however. While 1932 had been a year of stunning demonstrations and mastery for Vines, he was already slowing down by 1933. He lost that year's Wimbledon final to the Australian Jack Crawford, 4–6, 11–9, 6–2, 2–6, 6–4. Vines had been 9–1 in Davis Cup play in 1932, but fell to both Austin and Fred Perry in 1933. These comedowns were disappointing to tennis fans and very hard on Vines, who soon turned professional and joined Tilden's troupe.

Vines lost his opening match as a professional at Madison Square Garden to Tilden, 8–6, 6–3, 6–2, an amazing upset considering the difference in their ages (Tilden was then forty). Vines came back, however, and won the tour forty-seven matches to twenty-six. Together Vines and Tilden won the World Professional Champion Doubles in 1934 and 1935. Vines also won the Wembley World Pro title over Tilden in 1935, and over Hans Nusslein in 1936 and 1937.

Vines also defeated Lester Stoeffen in a U.S. tour in 1936. The following year he tied at thirty-seven matches apiece with Britain's Perry, a three-time Wimbledon champion who was considered a good bet to beat Vines. The American defeated him 49–35 in the Emblematic World Professional Title series in 1938. At his best in these years, Vines brought back the "rifle" shots that had been so convincing in 1932.

Vines remained the number-one professional on the tour until 1937, when his interest in tennis waned. During the last part of the decade, Vines was more important as a coach and inspiration than a player. His occasional work-outs and practice play with the young Jack Kramer inspired Kramer to make his own game a combination of Vines's and Don Budge's styles. Years later, Kramer wrote, "Hell, when Elly was on, you'd be lucky to get your racket on the ball once you served it."

Keen for a new challenge, Vines took up professional golf, perhaps reasoning that his power and accuracy might be better served hitting on the tee. Vines never made a sensation in golf, but he was a solid player, reaching the semifinals of the Professional Golf Association Championship in 1951. He died in March 1994 at age eighty-two.

Vines is remembered as a hard-hitting tennis player who had a brief but spectacular career. Even the rise of "big hitters" like Boris Becker, Andre Agassi, and Pete Sampras did not dissuade those who had seen him play. At his peak, they maintained, he was simply the hardest hitter who ever stroked a tennis ball. Occasionally journalists would ask Vines whether he wished he had tempered his shots more and prolonged his tennis career. His answer invariably was, "If I had played it differently, it wouldn't have been my game." Vines was honored with other tennis champions at the Wimbledon Centenary in 1977.

Vines wrote four books on tennis. Three were solo efforts: Tennis Simplified for Everybody, by Ellsworth Vines, Jr.: Basic Principles of the Game Explained in an Illustrated Series of Questions and Answers (1933); How to Play Better Tennis (1938); and Ellsworth Vines' Quick Way to Better Tennis: A Practical Book on Tennis for Men and Women (1939). He also wrote, with Gene Vier, Tennis: Myth and Method (1978). Jack Kramer records his comments on Vines in his autobiography, written with Frank Deford, The Game (1979). A profile of Vines is in the New York Times (3 July 1932). An obituary is in the New York Times (20 Mar. 1994).

Samuel Willard Crompton