Don Budge: Tennis's Grand Slam Trailblazer

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Don Budge: Tennis's Grand Slam Trailblazer

There are some names so ingrained in the story of tennis that they are like old friends. Such a one is Don Budge, whose record-setting career spanned the amateur and the professional ages.

He was born in the First World War and hit his peak just as the Second World War was fermenting.

He played against icons of tennis such as Fred Perry and Bill Tilden, and against modern greats such as Pancho Gonzalez.

In 1973, aged 58, he won the Veteran's Doubles title at Wimbledon, so would have shared the locker room with men’s seeds such as Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg.

He lived—just—into the 21st century, yet to modern fans, he is little more than a name. So, prompted by Rafael Nadal’s recent success in becoming only the seventh man ever to win a career Grand Slam, now seems an appropriate time to put that right.

For Budge was the first person in tennis ever to win a calendar Grand Slam.

Budge was born in California in 1915, but came from Scottish stock. His father, who had played reserve for Rangers football team, upped sticks at the turn of the 20th century to head for a healthier life in the warm climate of west coast America.

Budge was both bright—he went to the University of California—and an athletic 6’1” tall. He tried, and was good at, many sports, especially baseball, and it was his tennis-playing elder brother, Lloyd, who finally persuaded Don to apply his fearsome bat-swinging prowess to a tennis racket.

He learned his trade quickly on the local public courts and at 18 he won the National Junior Championships. At 19, he was picked for the Davis Cup auxiliary team and decided to walk away from university to devote himself to tennis.

That Perfect Package

Budge had a classic all-round game founded on a powerful serve, strong and accurate ground strokes, and an effective volley. His graceful backhand, in particular, was regarded by most contemporaries as the best in tennis.

A few rare fragments of film show him to have a tall, fluid elegance, with great timing and ease of movement.

Yet in a cover feature for Time magazine he was described as “a phlegmatic, gentle youth…likeable but undistinguished off a tennis court” and “so homely that even his mother smiled when a friend said that, if not the best tennis player in the world, her son was certainly the ugliest.”

The quality that completed the all-round Budge package was a quiet yet confident application to improving his game, an attitude that proved key in making his breakthrough to the very top level.

In 1935, Budge had beaten the heavy favorite, Bunny Adams, at Wimbledon before losing in the semifinals to the renowned Baron Gottfried von Cramm.

The following year, Budge lost at Wimbledon again, to Fred Perry, the No. 1 amateur at the time, and then to von Cramm in the U.S. Nationals, 10-8 in the fifth set.

So Budge took five months off over the winter to change his game. Alan Transgrove, in The Story of the Davis Cup, explained how:

“Don Budge’s greatness was as much the result of his eagerness to learn and adjust his technique as to his natural talent…while umpiring a match between two world-class players, he observed that one of them hit the ball quite hard while his opponent hit very early while the ball was just inches off the ground. The unbeatable combination, Budge mused, would be a player that could hit the ball both hard and early.”

So Budge worked with his coach to put his theory into practice.

 

1937: A Year Of Change

In 1937, things finally fell into place. At 22, arriving at Wimbledon with a stronger, rebuilt game, Budge was the man to beat.

He became the first to win the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles in the same year (and repeated the feat the next year). Along the way, he beat his friend and rival von Cramm in straight sets.

A couple of weeks later, he and von Cramm were back at Wimbledon for a Davis Cup tie played in front of Queen Mary and with Adolph Hitler listening to the radio broadcast.

Budge had already won his singles and doubles rubbers, and the tie was all square at 2-2 by the time he walked onto Centre Court for the decider. Von Cramm went ahead by two sets and was up 4-1 in the third, but Budge fought back to take the match in the final set, 8-6.

It sealed the match and the tie for the United States.

Allison Danzig wrote afterwards: “The brilliance of the tennis was almost unbelievable. In game after game they sustained their amazing virtuosity without the slightest deviation or faltering on either side.”

The Challenge round against England the next week, again at Wimbledon, once more saw Budge win all three of his matches and thus the Davis Cup for the U.S. for the first time since 1926. He rounded off the year with another defeat of von Cramm in the finals of the U.S. Championships.

 

1938: A Landmark Year

Budge’s rivalry with von Cramm continued into the beginning of what would become a year for the record books. Budge twice lost to his friend in warm-up events for the Australian Nationals but went on to win the Australian title for the loss of just one set.

The rivalry between Budge and von Cramm then came to an abrupt end when the German was imprisoned for his anti-Nazi stance and suggestions of homosexuality.

An outraged Budge was quick to act, and wrote a letter, supported by signatures from other objectors, to Hitler.

Von Cramm was released after six months but his return to tennis was thwarted by the rising political tension in 1939. By the time the German returned to amateur tennis after the war, Budge was a star of the professional tour. They never competed together again.

Budge, though, dominated amateur tennis for the whole of 1938. He beat Roderick Menzel in the French Open and then Bunny Austin at Wimbledon without losing a set. Finally, he took the U.S. Open, for the loss of just one set, and won a never-before-achieved prize—the calendar Grand Slam.

Equally impressive, he remains the only man ever to win six back-to-back Majors—a 92 match-winning streak.

 

The Dominant Pro

At the time of Budge’s record-breaking run, two of the best players in the world, Perry and Ellsworth Vines were on the professional tour. But after his 1938 success, Budge also turned professional, and asserted his dominance over the pros as well.

He made his debut at Madison Square Garden in 1939 and, in front of a crowd of almost 17,000, defeated Vines in straight sets. Budge topped an outstanding 1939 with titles at the French Pro Championships, beating Vines again, and at the Wembley Pro Championships, beating the title-holder Hans Nüsslein.

During 1940, Budge continued to dominate, winning four of the seven principal tournaments, including the U.S. Pro Championship against Perry. It prompted Tilden to write that Budge’s standard of play “lifted all of us with him.”

The tennis of Budge and his contemporaries enthused audiences across Europe, and the professional tour played to capacity crowds.

This led to calls to combine the amateur and professional tours. The Daily Telegraph, for example, contrasted the empty seats at the 1939 Wimbledon final with the size of the crowds watching the power tennis on the pro tours.

But world events drove a scaled-down tour back to the U.S., and it would be another three decades before the Open dream was realised. 

 

The War Watershed

The demand for the big stars of the day—Budge, Tilden, Perry, and Bobby Riggs on the men’s side, and the hugely popular Alice Marble on the women’s—continued to draw big crowds and raise money for war charities.

With the termination of the pro tour in the States in 1942, however, Budge joined the U.S. Army Air Force for the remainder of the war. But on exercises in 1943, he underwent surgery on a shoulder injury, and that seemed permanently to affect his tennis.

Towards the end of the war, he played some exhibitions for the troops: the U.S. Army vs. the U.S. Navy, and Riggs beat Budge for the first time. It was a change in fortunes that continued into peacetime, with Riggs defeating Budge in the U.S. Pro Championships in the 1946, 1947, and 1949 finals.

Budge did reach the U.S. finals again—in 1953, aged 38—but this time he lost out to the new top man in tennis, the 25-year-old Gonzalez.

Budge was afforded one more triumphant moment, appropriately enough through the arrival of the Open era. At the age of 58, he returned to Wimbledon and won the Veterans’ Doubles with Sedgman. 

 

The Man

Hardly a piece is written about Budge that doesn’t mention his popularity, his affability and his gentlemanly manner. He seemed to be a man of intelligence, of courage and of integrity, who gained friends easily and, more difficult, managed to keep them.

Take Gene Mako, who he played alongside in that victorious Davis Cup squad of 1937. The two men went on to contest seven Grand Slam finals, Budge winning four, and they remained life-long friends.

Take von Cramm. Each had nothing but praise for the other man’s tennis and character. Despite vividly different backgrounds, they were alike in the essentials: courteous, sporting, and generous. After their emotional Davis Cup match, von Cramm said: “Don, this was absolutely the finest match I have ever played in my life. I’m very happy that I could have played it against you, whom I like so much.”

Budge also won many friends and fans by postponing his departure from amateur tennis so that he could help defend the Davis Cup title, and the U.S. did indeed win it again in 1938.

He also had many friends in the world of jazz—a life-long passion. In 1939, Tommy Dorsey promised Budge he could play drums with his band if he defeated Vines in his first match as a professional.

He did, and that night, Dorsey sat him at the drums in the New Yorker Hotel ballroom, saying: “My band is your band.”

 

The Reputation

On paper, the Budge tally of Majors is not earth shattering: six singles, four doubles, and four mixed doubles. He won only four professional championships. But context is everything.

Budge won his first three professional majors, the French, the U.S. and Wembley, back-to-back, in 1939-40. But from then until the end of the 1940s, these events were suspended in Paris and London (and in the U.S. in 1944). So at the peak of his career, the door to more titles was slammed shut.

It is necessary, therefore, to listen to those who played him and those who saw him, and then the Budge reputation makes the earth shake with more conviction.

Tilden on Budge: “The finest player 365 days a year that ever lived.”

Kramer on Budge: “He was the best of all. He owned the most perfect set of mechanics and he was the most consistent.”

E. Digby Baltzell in Sporting Gentlemen: “[Budge and Laver] have usually been rated at the top of any all-time World Champions list, Budge having a slight edge.”

Tony Trabert (a winner of Wimbledon, the French, and the United States Nationals) on Budge: “He stands tall in the record books…His backhand was what we called a concluder, the sort of shot people will still be talking about a 100 years later.”

Budge died, following a car accident, in the first month of 2000, aged 84. He left behind his second wife, two sons, and an indelible mark on tennis.

He remains one of only two men ever to win a calendar Slam and, at 22, is the youngest of the seven who have won a career Slam.

Budge marked out the great Helen Wills Moody as an important influence in his youth, and he would go to watch her play at every opportunity. He would also, eventually, have the chance to play doubles with his heroine during the mid-30s. He said of her: “I thought that if ever I became a champion, I’d want to behave just like her.”

He did just that. 

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