Don Budge (born 1915) swept the tennis scene in 1937, when he won the singles, men's doubles, and mixed doubles at Wimbledon, the U.S. national singles and mixed doubles, and the Davis Cup. In 1938, he was the first player ever to win Wimbledon as well as the U.S., French, and Australian national championships-the "Grand Slam" of tennis.
Budge's father was a professional soccer player in Scotland who moved to California in hopes that the warmer climate would help with his respiratory problems. His mother, also of Scottish descent, was born in San Francisco. Budge and his brother Lloyd were both born in Oakland and were natural athletes; although Lloyd played tennis from an early age, Don Budge preferred baseball. When he was 13, Lloyd, who was the top member of the tennis team at the University of California in Berkeley, talked him into giving tennis a try. E. Digby Baltzell wrote, "From the very first, Don's money-stroke was his backhand which grew directly out of his almost-perfect, left-handed batting swing."
Won His First Tournament
Shortly before his fifteenth birthday, Budge entered his first tournament, the California State Fifteen-and-Under Championships. He beat the top contender in the first round and eventually won the tournament. During the match, he met famed coach Perry T. Jones, whose players dominated tennis from 1931 to 1949. After Budge came off the court feeling triumphant, Jones beckoned to him, and Budge went over to him confidently, expecting to receive a compliment. "Instead, with a distinct frown, he looked me up and down," Budge later recalled, according to Baltzell. Jones told him, "Those are the dirtiest tennis shoes I ever saw in my life. Don't you ever-don't you ever-show up again on any court anywhere at any time wearing shoes like that." Deeply embarrassed, Budge slunk off the court, and later said, "I know he made an impression on me, for I've never gone on court since that day with even scuffy shoes."
After winning the tournament, Budge was hooked on tennis and dreamed of winning the National Junior Championships. In 1933 he did just that at the age of 18, beating the top-seeded contender in the fifth set after losing two sets. The player he beat was Gene Mako, and surprisingly, the two became lifelong friends. They played doubles together for the rest of Budge's amateur career, and in 1936, beat Allison and Van Ryn, who had been 1935 U.S. Champions, 14 times before beating them in the Forest Hills final; in 1937 they won the doubles at Wimbledon, and they won both the U.S. and Wimbledon doubles in 1938.
A Player with a Lot to Learn
During his freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley, Budge withdrew from college to play the Emerson Grass Court Circuit as a member of an auxiliary Davis Cup team. He made it to the fourth round at Forest Hills and was ranked among the top ten U.S. players. At the Pacific Coast Championships at Berkeley, he lost to famed player Fred Perry in the finals. Although he could have played through the winter months in South America and on the Riviera, Budge decided to stay home and work on his grip, which Perry had called a "Wild Western" grip, according to Baltzell. He was an admirer of Perry and was thrilled when Perry took time out to coach him. He also worked with his own coach, Tom Stowe, who was the tennis pro at the Claremont Country Club in Oakland. Stowe, who coached Budge for free, focused on changing Budge's grip to an "Eastern" grip and on improving his volley. By the following spring, he was a stronger and more skilled player. As Frank V. Phelps wrote in Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, "Wielding a 16-ounce racket, the 6 foot, 1 inch, 155 pound right-handed Budge exhibited power, consistency, and no weaknesses at his peak. He devastated opponents by serving and smashing with a slight slice, stroke-volleying deep and hard, and driving hard with minor overspin." He was also known for his powerful backhand and his quick return of serves.
Budge first began playing world-level tennis in 1935. He won an unexpected victory over Bunny Adams at Wimbledon, and met famed player Baron Gottfried von Cramm, who became his friend for life despite the fact that in the semifinal, Cramm beat Budge. Cramm, who was a true gentleman on the court, impressed Budge with the high caliber of his moral character as an athlete, and Budge adhered to Cramm's ideals of athletic behavior after their meeting.
In 1937, Budge dominated tennis, but he still had much to learn, and he was eager to learn it. As Alan Trengrove wrote in The Story of the Davis Cup, "Don Budge's greatness was as much the result of his eagerness to learn and to adjust his technique as to his natural talent." He applied that eagerness in January of 1937, while he was umpiring a match between two world-class players. He noticed that player one hit the ball very hard, and the other hit the ball very soon after it bounced, when it was still only a few inches off the court. He reasoned that a player who could hit the ball both hard and early would be unbeatable, and he resolved to be that player. In addition, he and coach Tom Stowe worked on his attitude. According to Baltzell, he later wrote, "I was to think of myself as number one at all times. If I concentrated on that belief, we felt that I would be more likely to play like number one."
Played "Almost to Perfection"
He was right. He played "almost to perfection," according to Baltzell, during the spring and summer of 1937, never losing a match on grass, and not losing any tournament at all until September, when he lost to Henner Henkel in a small tournament outside Chicago. He won the Wimbledon singles, men's doubles, and mixed doubles (playing with Gene Mako and Alice Marble), becoming the first man to accomplish this feat. He beat his friend Gottfried von Cramm in three straight sets at Wimbledon, and beat him again in the Davis Cup Interzone Finals, where he needed to beat Cramm so that the U.S. team would make it to the challenge round. In that competition, Cramm was favored to win, and he was also a favorite of the crowd, since Budge was considered an upstart. Budge lost in the first two sets, but then beat Cramm in the next two. In the fifth set, he won 8-6, letting the U.S. team into the challenge round. As Baltzell noted, he called that game "the greatest match in which I ever played. It was competitive, long, and close. It was fought hard but cleanly by two close friends. It was cast with the ultimate in rivals, the number-one-ranked amateur player in the world against the number two. I never played better and never played anyone as good as Cramm." Budge also remarked on the fact that Queen Mary of England was in attendance, that so many Americans watched the competition that activity on the stock market slowed down, and even German dictator Adolf Hitler listened intently to the broadcast. According to Trengrove, Allison Danzig later wrote in the book Budge on Tennis, "The brilliance of the tennis was almost unbelievable. In game after game [Budge and Cramm] sustained their amazing virtuosity without the slightest deviation or faltering on either side. Gradually, inch by inch, Budge picked up." Baltzell noted that a reporter for the London Times commented, "Certainly I have never seen a match that came nearer the heroic in its courage, as in its strokes, as this." Once Budge had cleared the way, the U.S. team beat England for the first time in the Davis Cup since 1926.
Throughout the Davis Cup competition, Budge displayed the calm temperament he later became famous for. On the night before a particularly important match, he went to sleep at ten at night and woke up at two in the morning. Thirsty, he went out into the hall and headed for the sink, and ran into Texan Wilmer Allison, who was so nervous he couldn't sleep. Allison, who was a much more experienced player than Budge, shook his head in amazement at Budge's calm. "You haven't got any nerves at all," he said, according to Alan Trengrove in The Story of the Davis Cup. "I wish to heaven I could go to sleep before a match."
Won the Grand Slam
Budge beat Cramm again at Forest Hills and the Pacific Southwest. Because of his achievements during that outstanding year, he won the Sullivan Award for the most outstanding amateur athlete, and was named Associated Press Athlete of the Year. As Baltzell wrote, "He became an authentic national hero. The world was at his feet and he could dictate his terms to the professional promoters who now wooed him with lucrative offers." However, Budge didn't want to turn pro just yet. He felt that tennis had given him great opportunities, and he wanted to pay back these gifts to the game and its players. He wanted to win all four of the famed national championships-Wimbledon, the Australian championship, the French championship, and the U.S. championship.
No one could have imagined that in 1938 he would play even better, than he did in 1937, but he did. In that year, he succeeded in his goal and became the first player ever to win the "Grand Slam" of tennis-Wimbledon, and the Australian, U.S., and French national championships. The Associated Press named him Athlete of the Year again in 1938. In his entire Davis Cup career, Budge had a record of 19-2; he only lost in 1935, to Fred Perry and "Bunny" Austin.
In 1939, Budge began playing professionally; during that year, he was 21-18 against Ellsworth Vines and 18-11 against the legendary Fred Perry. Bill Tilden, the flamboyant and formerly great player, also joined the tour in 1941, but by then he was past his peak, and out of 58 matches, Budge won 51. After this, the tour was halted when the United States entered the fighting of World War II, and Budge retired.
In 1941, Budge married Diedre Conselman, and they had two sons, David Bruce and Jeffrey Donald. He and Conselman divorced, and he married Loriel McPherson in June 1967. Budge was briefly a partner in a laundry service, then worked as a tennis pro and as a consultant to sporting goods manufacturers. He wrote two books, Budge on Tennis and Don Budge: A Memoir, and was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1964. Fred V. Phelps summed up his career by noting, "Many experts have called this popular, skilled sportsman the greatest player since [Bill] Tilden, and some have ranked him the greatest ever."
Baltzell, E. Digby, Sporting Gentlemen, The Free Press, 1995.
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, edited by David L. Porter, Greenwood Press, 1988.
Hickok, Ralph, A Who's Who of Sports Champions, Hought on Mifflin, 1995.
Tengrove, Alan, The Story of the Davis Cup, Stanley Paul, 1985.