83 years ago at the U.S. National Championships – now referred to as the U.S. Open – one of the most prolific rivalries of early-20th-century men’s tennis added another chapter to its story on September 12, 1936. Don Budge of the United States and Fred Perry of Great Britain faced each other for the title at the West Side Club in the Forest Hills neighborhood of New York.
Fred Perry was the dominant player in the amateur ranks at that time – “lording it over the amateurs,” according to Budge – having won the last three Wimbledons (1934-36), the U.S. National Championships twice (1933-34), the Australian Championships in 1934, and Roland Garros in 1935. He had already decided to turn professional after the tournament and even had contracts waiting for him to sign by the time he arrived in New York (more on that later, wait for it).
Budge, for his part, was an impressive up-and-comer who had suffered a couple of important losses against Perry, one in the 1935 Davis Cup. That was a match in which, according to Budge, Perry “slaughtered him.” Budge’s other big loss to Perry came in the semifinals of Wimbledon a few weeks earlier, a close four-setter.
Budge, the 21-year-old American, was playing his first Major final. He would end up losing this one, but win the next six Majors in which he competed (Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships in 1937, followed by the Grand Slam in 1938), before leaving the amateur ranks behind and joining the likes of Perry and Ellsworth Vines in the professional realm.
Aside from the fact that multiple sources think the 1936 U.S. Nationals provided one of the best men’s finals in New York in the history of 20th-century tennis, there was more than just a Major title at stake. Back then, if a player won the U.S. Nationals three times, he would gain permanent possession of the championships cup. Until then, it rotated yearly between the victors. This was Perry’s chance to grab it for good; the American Budge was the last obstacle standing in his way, defending the home-turf trophy.
The match, plagued by intermittent rain, was played in front of 13,000 or 14,000 spectators depending on the source consulted in research. It ended in favor of Perry: 2-6 6-2 8-6 1-6 10-8. We know this because media sources tell us so. Why did I add the last sentence? Because according to the autobiography of one of the two players involved in the duel, it was a different score.
Furthermore, the two have different accounts of developments during the match. And plenty of excuses and innuendos to explain them away!
Some of their claims are correct and valid, some sound absurd, few come across as whining, and others are downright inaccurate.
I used Budge’s autobiography, Don Budge: A Tennis Memoir (1969), and Perry’s Fred Perry: An Autobiography (1984) as sources for their accounts, and archived articles from 1936 published by the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Examiner, Daily Telegraph, Gazette and Daily, and a 1941 article in Esquire magazine, to verify which version represents the truth, or at least, gets the closest to it.
Below is a list of 10 claims, odd discrepancies, or anecdotes by either player or written media that you may find captivating, amusing, or farcical, depending on your view.
According to the legendary Al Danzig of the New York Times, Perry was a “British champion of “firm, skilled hand and masterful divination” and the “red-haired youth” Budge, the “stalwart Californian with the murderous backhand.”
Danzig’s description of Budge does not sound bad considering that he is referred to as “the red-headed, skyscraping Budge” or “the slightly build, elongated American” elsewhere. Perry, for his part, describes Budge as “a great player” who would “steamroller you, given the chance.” He also adds that Budge “used 17-oz rackets and you had to be a dock worker to lift one of those.”
For perspective, rackets sold nowadays weigh anywhere from 8 to 12 ounces, the most popular range being around 10 ounces (source: Jimmy Miller, @racquettechie on Twitter). Some professional players add weight to their rackets, but do not expect them to get anywhere near the 17-oz. mark! Not even close.
Perry recalls the match’s umpire as being Lev Richards and even adds this anecdote with regard to the ten-minute break at the end of the third set:
“As I prepared to start the fourth set the umpire, Lev Richards, announced there would be a ten-minute break. I went storming up to the chair, demanding to know why, since we had already had one stoppage. Poor Richards, who was a public relations man for Spaldings in the United States and a good friend of mine, was embarrassed. All he knew, he told me, was that the championship committee had decided there would be a rest period at the end of the third set, regardless of what had happened earlier.”
In fact, the umpire was not Richards at all, but Benjamin H. Dwight, a renowned umpire, according to the reporters of the day in the media. Heck, Dwight himself penned an article for the Esquire five years later, giving his account of the match and referring to it as one of the “two most difficult matches” of his career (the other being 1927 final between Bill Tilden and René Lacoste), and even quoting something Budge said to him late in the fifth set.
Dwight adds that both players were exhausted when the match ended: “they sat on the steps of my chair for five minutes before they could stumble into the clubhouse.”
In case you are wondering why on the steps of the umpire’s chair, there were no chairs provided back in those days for the players to sit on during changeovers during those times. In Wimbledon, it was not until the early 1970s that chairs for players were added.
That’s right — when Rod Laver defeated John Newcombe in the 1969 Wimbledon final as part of his Grand Slam, the two men never sat down during game changes.
So why was Perry livid about the 10-minute rest period being accorded at the end of the third set? Because the rules also stated, according to him, that the pause would only take place if the match had not been already interrupted for more than 10 minutes prior to the end of the third set, in which case it would be at the end of the fourth.
The match did get interrupted during the second set for 15 minutes (or 30, depending on the source). Wimbledon was the only Major that did not adhere to the 10-minute rule. Could Perry have been confused or did the rule really exist?
My first inclination would be take Perry at his word, but since he is giving a detailed account of his conversation with an imaginary referee down to what “his friend” the referee said back to him about the committee deciding not to apply the ‘prior interruption’ addendum, I am not jumping to conclusions.
Boy, does Perry throw shade on the “Americans” trying everything possible to derail him, all in the name of not letting the trophy permanently go to foreign hands.
He says that Walter Pate, the American Davis Cup captain, came to explain the decision to him during the 10 minutes he was “still seething,” in the “tiny dressing room under the stands.”
He did not want to hear it, he says. He told Pate, “In this match, I am the official representative of the Lawn Tennis Association of Great Britain. You have broken the rules, and my Association is going to hear about it.”
Just for good measure, let me also add that Pate and his wife hosted Don Budge during the tournament at their home in Long Island.
Then, Perry writes, “if upsetting me was what they had in mind, they certainly succeeded. I lost the fourth set 1-6.” – Budge has this in reverse, winning the third set and Perry winning the fourth! He is wrong, of course. More on that below, wait for it!
Perry indeed underlines at the end of the chapter that he conquered the championships cup:
“So I took possession of the American trophy (which is now on display in the Wimbledon Museum along with my other ‘pots’) as the first overseas player to take the title three times.”
Speaking of the weather, almost every article and account talks of a dreadful mixture of heat and tormented skies during the final. Perry calls the final “strange” because of the weather, while Budge describes the day as “ghastly, dark, and drizzly.
The Daily Telegraph writer A. Wallis Myers calls it a “steamy, enervating afternoon.”
According to Benjamin, they began at 2 p.m. and finished at 6 p.m. because of interruptions. Danzig says the match itself lasted two hours and 45 minutes. Myers says Budge won the first set in 15 minutes.
Then, in a couple of sources there are stats that categorize shots under “placements,” “outs,” and “nets.” I will not get into what those mean, but suffice it to say that Budge, the losing player, won the total point count by 187 to 180 according to those numbers.
Before I get to Budge’s blunder about winning the third set and losing the fourth, let me first mention one of the most outré explanations I have ever read in autobiographies by ex-tennis champions in which they attempt to justify a loss or a diminished performance (and it seems that several autobiographies have at least one or more of these, try John McEnroe’s You Cannot Be Serious, for instance).
Budge and another player, Gene Mako, were staying at the Pates, as noted above. Apparently, the two of them went out for milkshakes from the corner drugstore every night around 10:30 p.m., “those extra-thick milkshakes, the ones you have to eat with a spoon.”
One day at practice, “midway through the tournament,” he feels “woozy” and barely makes it to the bathroom. This problem haunted him all the way through the tournament:
“The chocolate, the milk, the rich ice-cream, and all the other sweets that I had refused to deny myself had turned my stomach sour in the September heat. […] My stamina was gone.”
Thus, when the first rain interruption lasts 30 minutes, it’s the beginning of Budge’s troubles. Budge, who describes himself as someone who hated “interruptions of this sort” because he “could never really learn to relax and take the pause in stride,” and turned “edgy and more uncomfortable.” Never mind that the interruption came when Perry halted the American’s momentum and was leading 5-2 in the second set after Budge had won the first 6-2.
He immediately brings up the second break taken at the end of the third set, “which I won 8-6,” Budge says.
He does not stop there. He brings up the second rain interruption that came one game after they began the fourth to emphasize the negative impact the two pauses — that were so close to each other — had on him.
You see, all these interruptions made him so edgy that he found himself “falling into exhaustion,” and thus lose the fourth set 6-1, where he “was no match at all for Fred.” He adds, “I kept my running to a bare minimum once he moved well ahead and tried to conserve what energy I had left for the final set.”
Can I get a wut?
Let me get this straight. The set Perry claims to have lost because of an American conspiracy concocted against him is the same set that Budge claims to have lost because of the rain interruptions worsening his victim-of-thick-milkshake stomach. There is your wut!
Side note: I find it a bit odd that a well-respected, legendary journalist/writer such as Frank Deford, who assisted Budge with his book – the copyright has both their names on it and Budge thanks him before the “Contents” page – did not pick up on a few of these blatant errors.
Next is a fascinating anecdote by Perry, definitely worth your while if you have read thus far.
His choice to turn professional following the U.S. Nationals was not a secret to his friends and the inner circles of tennis. It was a decision made after he won Wimbledon (remember the 77-year-long wait until Andy Murray in 2013? Yes, this was when that nightmare started for the British), but he decided to play the U.S. Nationals, virtually on a whim, just to see if he could capture the cup.
In any case, his lawyers had already contacted people, looking for the best deals possible for him to turn professional. Frank Hunter, an American Davis Cup player during the 1920s who also reached the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals, and his partner Howard Voshell, a less accomplished player turned promoter, were interested.
According to Perry, they had drawn the contract, ready to be signed by Perry, before even he played Budge in the finals. Except that they had two of them! One was less lucrative, in case he lost to Budge; the other more, in case he won and captured the title a third time!
Imagine the pressure! But wait, no don’t. First read the following paragraph, and then, imagine the pressure. Here is what Perry says, following the part where he loses the fourth set 6-1 and the fifth set begins with regard to the two contracts:
“So, there was a lot riding on that final. My friend George Leisure and my other legal advisers were sitting in a courtside box. George had the contracts in his hands, and they were all having a great time as the final seesawed into a fifth set. If I lost a game George would hold up the smaller contract; if I won a game, he would flourish the bigger one. They thought it was a great running gag, but I wasn’t at all sure it was the time and place to be pulling stunts like that.”
Sure enough, Perry came within two points of losing the match twice. Budge broke Perry’s serve twice (no thick-milkshake effect there) in the fifth set, once to go up 4-2, and again to go up 5-3, but could not hold his serve both times. He had deuce at 5-4 on Perry’s serve, and again in the 8-7 game, but Perry held firm. According to all sources, the crowd – referred to as “the gallery” by a few sources – did not leave despite the crummy weather conditions and remained very animated throughout the fifth set.
What better anecdote to finish this list than the one related to the match point? According to Perry, he had a secret tactic that he put to use:
“Before we played the first point [in the last game at 9-8], I put one ball in my pocket and kept it there until I got to 40-15, match point. By this time the ball was a bit hotter than when it went into my pocket – souped up a little.
“I had been serving wide to Budge’s forehand most of the time to get him on the move. But at match point came out the hot ball. I let fly right down the centre-line and he went the wrong way. I don’t know to this day whether he was ready or not when I hit it. I suspect, to be honest, that my serve might have been a bit ‘quick.’ But it was an ace and I was over the net before anybody had the chance to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’”
The footage of that match point exists, and Budge seems to be ready for the serve. He certainly did not go the wrong way either. It was simply a well-placed ace by Perry. The “Britisher” threw his racket in the air and jumped over the net to shake Budge’s hand.
Two years after his Grand Slam exploit, Budge followed Perry into the professional arena, and along with Ellsworth Vines, the three of them toured together playing hundreds of professional matches against each other.
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