Tennis: A time when Wimbledon played to a different tune

The first Grand Slam: In 1938 the American Donald Budge dominated the tennis world in unprecedented fashion
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HIS FATHER played football for Glasgow Rangers... He wrote to Hitler pleading for the release of his rival from a Nazi jail... He enjoyed jazz but was spellbound by Pablo Casals. Such was the remarkable Donald Budge, the first player to win the lawn tennis Grand Slam.

It was 1938, yet it seems like yesterday when in my pounds 12, 1926 Austin Seven two-seater I made my way to Wimbledon. Its roof had long since blown away and was last seen disappearing along Constitution Hill and the radiator leak had been sealed by adding a raw egg to the water. It looked like it might rain, and later it did, but, with my green pork-pie hat jammed on my head, I drove from Streatham Hill, carefully dodging the tramlines, to SE19. It was a short journey but it was a prelude to a love song which was to last a lifetime.

In this pre-soundbite era, winning the Australian, French, Wimbledon and United States Championships in the same year did not have an epithet. That came when a bridge- playing New York sportswriter compared Budge's then unique performance to winning all 13 tricks. Since then the Grand Slam has become the crown of tennis crowns to which only the greatest have aspired.

What a year 1938 was. Howard Hughes had flown around the world in a record three days, 19 hours and 17 minutes; Princess Elizabeth became a Girl Guide and her young sister a Brownie; Bette Davis won an Academy Award for Jezebel, and they gave us gas masks. We knew there was going to be a war, and we danced the days and nights away trying to do all our living before the dying started.

For now the only battles we were interested in were the Test matches against the Australians and the Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon which were the elegant climax to London's summer season. With a rover press pass in my pocket (only the autocrats of Fleet Street were allocated seats), I parked my car in a side road for these were the blissful pre- yellow-line days.

The only protection The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club had from the outside world was a wooden fence in which there was an abundance of knot holes through which the public could get a free one-eyed view. For three shillings (15p), half that after five o'clock, they could have been inside, watching sporting history being made.

If Donald Budge is remembered at all these days, when ill-mannered players often attract the largest crowds and monopolise the headlines, it is only because of his Grand Slam. What an injustice! He was not only one of Wimbledon's finest champions but a great athlete who played his game in the true Corinthian spirit. Even those who were crushed by his power, which had no weakness to exploit, liked him.

That is why hundreds had waited through the chilly and damp night to see him defend his title. Not even the most partisan among them, who longed for a successor to Fred Perry (now barred as a professional), gave his opponent, Bunny Austin, much hope of producing a major upset. Even their support during the match lacked any real fervency. The applause was polite. Budge's play was devastating.

Austin, who was never quite able to step out of the shadows of somebody else's greatness, attempted every form of attack possible. He had seldom played better, yet all he had to show for his noble efforts were four games, three of which were in the third set during which rain stopped play for half an hour. Budge had produced 167 winners and made only one volleying error. He kept his service so low that he recorded 10 net-cord deliveries in the first 13 games.

This was the second successive year that Budge had completely dominated The Championships by successfully defending his Triple Crown. He was the first man to do so and he did not change partners. He was paired with Gene Marko, his boyhood friend, in the men's doubles, and with Alice Marble in the mixed doubles. With her blonde hair flowing from her white jockey cap and short shorts, Alice in her tennis wonderland was pin-up of the year. All three were Californians and, weeks later, they made a clean sweep of the American National Championships on the grass at Forest hills.

Don Budge's Grand Slam finals were proof of his world domination. In Adelaide, he defeated the Australian John Bromwich by 6-4, 6-2, 6-1; in Paris he beat Roderich Menzel of Germany 6-3, 6-2, 6-4; at Wimbledon Austin 6-1, 6-0, 6-3 and Mako 6-3, 6-8, 6-1, 6-1 in New York. But what of the man with the singing racket?

The Americans called him "The Untouchable". He stood at just over six feet and was a lean 12 stones. His hair was flaming red, his pink face was slightly freckled, and his eyes, which never lost sight of the ball during play, were as blue as the heavens. He played in immaculate long white flannels and carefully whitened shoes. In his white Davis Cup blazer he looked like a champion who had stepped out of the pages of The Tatler.

Unlike Fred Perry, there were no casual quips or comments during a match. Even on the rare occasions when the going got rough, he never questioned a call or lifted a ginger eyebrow. He was one of the gentlemen of lawn tennis.

As a boy Budge excelled at sport. American football had endowed him with blind courage and baseball was responsible for producing one of the most devastating backhands ever seen. When at 17 he was persuaded by his father and older brother Lloyd to take up tennis seriously instead of baseball at which he used to bat left-handed, it seemed natural for him to use the same rigid wrist and arm action with a racket. It only needed the slightest adjustments to make it one of the game's classic strokes.

Budge had only been working on his tennis for a few weeks when he was persuaded to enter the Californian Boys' Championships where he met and defeated, Gene Marko, the junior prodigy of the day, in the final. This meeting was to have a profound effect in the development of the future world No 1.

Unlike Budge, Marko was outgoing, sophisticated and fun to have around. After he was beaten, Marko, foreseeing that Budge had the qualities of a champion, suggested that they teamed up as a doubles pair. They were to win both Wimbledon and US Nationals twice.

From the beginning they shared rooms, went to the same University and travelled together, and all the while Marko helped Budge overcome his natural shyness. They both had a love for jazz and were never without their records of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. But on the night that Budge won the French Championship in 1938, it was a different sort of music that captivated them both - the music of the virtuoso cellist Pablo Casals.

For two weeks, the great man had watched Budge master the unfamiliar tortures of the clay courts of Roland Garros, and they often had tea together. After the final, Casals said: "I have had much pleasure in watching you play. Come to my house tonight and I will play for you."

Budge was later to recall: "I accepted with great pleasure, and after dinner 10 of us climbed the stairs to Pablo's studio overlooking Paris at night. We sat on the floor as Pablo, with a spotlight on him, played to rapture us all for some two hours."

So much of today's sport is about sex, drugs and money, but when my old car was cheerfully chugging along on petrol at a shilling a gallon, Budge gave us a story that was as dramatic as any tragedy at the Old Vic. It was of the encounter between himself and the aristocratic and elegant Baron Gottfried Alexander Maxmilian Walter Kurt von Cramm.

Budge had defeated him in the 1937 Wimbledon final and, more importantly, in the Davis Cup just weeks later. While waiting to play the key match, von Cramm was called into the Wimbledon office and was told that Hitler wanted to speak to him on the telephone. All von Cramm was heard to say was "Ja mein Fuhrer" several times. Back in the dressing-room he told Budge that "Hitler wanted to wish me luck".

Instead of being at Wimbledon in 1938, von Cramm was in a Nazi jail having been arrested by the Gestapo. Some said it was because at best he had only paid lip service to Hitler's henchmen, others claimed it was because of his suspected homosexuality.

Budge never asked the reason why. With the support of 25 of the world's best-known sportsmen, he wrote to Hitler pleading for the release of his rival. He never did get a reply. The German who oozed charm like cream spilling from a silver spoon was never seen at Wimbledon again. And 1938 was Budge's last year. After his Grand Slam he accepted a $50,000 offer (then a small fortune) to turn professional. It was the same deal that he had turned down the year before because his country wanted him to stay amateur long enough to win the Davis Cup. He was that sort of man.

In his first pro match at Madison Square Garden in 1939, he beat Ellsworth Vines in three sets, and on tour took his winning total to 21 matches to 18. He defeated Fred Perry 18 times to 11 and Bill Tilden 51-7. Dan Maskell wrote later: "Never once did I see Budge quit on a shot, no matter what the pressure."

And all this from a man whose father played for Glasgow Rangers and, because of lung problems, left his native Scotland to set up home on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. I knew little of this as I made my way home, but it had stopped raining and I had been paid five shillings for a day's freelancing. I had seen one of the all-time greats, and now, 60 years later, I can remember a truly golden yesterday.