REFLECTING on American men's tennis of the first half of the century brings four names to mind: Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Jack Kramer, and Pancho Gonzales. Although Ellsworth Vines was not as renowned or as enduring as that sterling cast of champions, he was nevertheless cut from a very similar cloth. Nearly all of the experts agree that at his zenith, on his most dazzling afternoons, when everything was flowing for him, Vines could play the game as brilliantly as anyone ever has.
Possessing a devastatingly potent first serve, driving his flat forehand with astonishing pace and precision only inches over the net, moving with speed all over the court in his long white trousers, Vines was briefly but overwhelmingly a dominant force in the sport in the early 1930s. He captured the US Championships at Forest Hills in 1931 and 1932, won Wimbledon with almost awesome ease in 1932, when he allowed the revered Englishman Bunny Austin a mere six games in the final, lost an agonising five-set final to Jack Crawford on Centre Court the following year, and was victorious in 13 out of 16 Davis Cup singles assignments for the United States.
While his friends and fellow competitors appreciated his astute sense of humour, Vines chose not to reveal his joviality on the court, playing with unwavering intensity. As the highly esteemed New York Times critic Allison Danzig once wrote: 'It is the extreme youthfulness of Vines's appearance that makes the solemnity of his expression so pronounced, an expression so serious that one might think he carried the burdens of the world on his slim shoulders.'
But his deep desire to win and his unflinching pride clearly did not diminish his sense of fair play. As his great rival Fred Perry once said of Vines, 'Ellsworth behaves like a sportsman after drinking the heady wine of victory or the dregs of defeat. You never hear anyone say a bad word against him, and you can't say that about every tennis player.'
Because Vines was such an uncompromising shotmaker, taking immense risks and giving himself the slimmest possible margin for error, he could have lost to inferior players. But as a professional from 1934 to 1939, he proved his prowess against top-notch opposition as he moved night after night from one arena to another all across the United States. In his debut on that physically demanding professional tour in 1934, he won 47 matches and lost only 26 against a declining yet unmistakably cunning Tilden. In 1937 and 1938, he confronted Perry in a scintillating series of matches and it was Vines who won 80-64. Finally, during his last year of competition, in 1939, Vines was narrowly outplayed by the confident and composed Don Budge, losing that series of hard-fought confrontations 21-18 against the man who had won a Grand Slam the previous season. Nevertheless, even in defeat, Vines's brand of power was admirably on display against Budge as he delivered clusters of aces in their spirited contests.
In 1940, still only 28, Vines put down his tennis racket permanently and reinvented himself as a golfer. By the middle of that decade, Vines was demonstrating extraordinary talent for the second time in an individual sport. A remarkably versatile athlete, who had played basketball for the University of Southern California before his big ascent in tennis, Vines became so skilled on the golf course that he once finished ahead of the great champion Ben Hogan at a Chicago tournament in the late 1940s. 'There is nothing in tennis,' Vines said, 'to compare with the pressure of looking at a four-foot putt and trying to sink it.'
Vines taught golf at country clubs, and reached the semi-finals of the 1951 Professional Golf Association Championship. No tennis player before or since has made such a successful transition to a high level in another sport. He moved on to the administrative side of golf and became Vice-President of Golf Operations at the La Quinta Hotel outside Palm Springs, California, in the 1980s. He had been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1962, returned to Wimbledon for the centenary tournament in 1977 to receive a commemorative medal as a past champion, and went to the US Open in 1981 for similar festivities. But by and large Vines was far removed from the modern world of tennis.
Yet he is remembered fondly by many prominent members of the tennis community, including Sarah Palfrey Danzig, who was the United States champion in 1941 and 1945. Lucidly recollecting a mixed doubles marathon against Vines in the early 1930s, she says, 'I was a great admirer of his. In my mind he was one of the real greats of the game. But what I think of now is how thoughtful he was with me and how courteous he was with the people who knew him. He was someone you always looked forward to seeing.'
Writing in his autobiography of his old friend, rival and business partner, and recalling their travels together on the pro tour, Perry got very much to the heart of Ellsworth Vines. 'Driving from city to city,' Perry writes, 'I had fun, especially with Ellie Vines because we got on so well together. We played each other almost every night and we were on the road once for five and a half months, yet we never got into any arguments or fights. Once a match was over with Vines, that was it, forgotten.'
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