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THE BEST EVER? : Strong Case Made for Don Budge, Who Won Tennis Grand Slam 50 Years Ago

May 29, 1988|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

DINGMANS FERRY, Pa. — The ferry is gone, but the town is still on the map. Honest. And this is where you'll find the tall, trim tennis player who ranks as perhaps the best of all time.

Going on 73, he lives quietly these days up the hill from the embankment where Andrew Dingman used to bring in his ferry after crossing the Delaware River from New Jersey.

That was long ago, and today, Don Budge lives a long way from nowhere.

Best of all time, you say?

Well, some folks don't think so, of course, but a lot do, and there are some compelling reasons to take Budge in his prime over Bill Tilden or Rod Laver or Pancho Gonzalez, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl or anyone else who has played tennis.

Jack Kramer, a former world champion himself who still rates in the top four or five, was asked for an analysis.

"If everybody is 25 years old today, I can't see anybody beating Budge," said Kramer, who has made a closer study of his sport than probably any athlete. "Whenever you played him . . . he made us all change our game.

"The great tennis champions have been alike in many ways. They all had speed, heart and stamina under pressure. The difference is simply that Budge had the most equipment--the most complete offense, the most complete defense."

Ellsworth Vines, also a former champion, is one who leans toward Tilden, whom Vines lists with Budge in his top two. But Gene Mako, Budge's former Davis Cup doubles partner, is among the many who pick Budge in what will always be a futile if stimulating exercise--comparing champions of different eras.

They have been doing it again lately because 1988 is the 50th anniversary year of a landmark tennis achievement--Budge's Grand Slam. In 1938, the squire of Dingmans Ferry became the first tennis player to win the national championships of England, France, Australia and the United States in a single calendar year.

Few athletes have ever dominated any sport the way Budge ruled tennis a half-century ago, when, in the last two years before World War II, he:

--Won six consecutive major tournaments, the only six he entered in 1937-38 while competing on three continents.

--Won all 12 of the Davis Cup matches he played, leading the U.S. team that brought the Cup home after an 11-year lapse, then leading it to victory again in 1938, after which he gave up the amateurs for pro tennis.

A few months later war was breaking out, and instantly, Budge's luck changed. At 23 he was sitting squarely on top of the world just as it collapsed. Although he made $148,000 as a pro in 1939--more than Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams ever made in one year in that era--and although he was tennis' ranking pro until 1946, few noticed.

The people of his world were watching a war instead. During most of Budge's peak years as an athlete, he wore Army khaki, not tennis whites.

What's more, he was the most conspicuous victim of the nature of the tennis of his day, before and after the war, when amateurs were segregated from pros.

Strange as it sounds now, there were no open tournaments, anywhere, until Budge was 53, at which time Wimbledon finally overruled the amateur game's die-hard reactionaries. That was in 1968.

In Budge's day:

--Admission to all the big tournaments from Wimbledon to Forest Hills was limited to men and women who were, ostensibly, amateurs.

--Players had to turn pro and go on tour to make an honest dollar out of the sport in which they excelled.

The upshot is that Borg, for example, as a post-1968 open champion, has a current net worth of $40 million, and Budge lives in Dingmans Ferry.

Any photo of the immensely gifted Budge playing amateur tennis is incomplete without a footnote that should read something like this: "He was blind-sided in his prime."

Considering four things--his tournament skills, his Grand Slam performance, the war that began when he was No. 1, and the fortune that didn't materialize while he lived on expense money in the infamous age of the shamateurs--Budge wasn't merely the finest but the unluckiest of the tennis champions.

But never, then or now, the unhappiest.

RED STRING BEAN

Tennis people who call on Budge in Dingmans Ferry agree that he seems happier with his present lot than, say, John McEnroe, who has made up to $4 million a year. In any case, Budge looks happier.

He remains as jovial as he was 50 years ago, when he was one of the most readily identifiable world-class athletes--a red string bean in long white flannels. As the 1930s king of tennis, he always preferred pants to shorts. Ruddy-faced, freckled, with a full head of bright red hair, Budge weighed only 155 pounds then, although he stood almost 6 feet 2 inches.

He has filled out to 170 in recent years, and what's left of the red hair is now a pinkish white. He is in excellent health.

Budge was born in Oakland the second son and third red-haired child of two Linotype operators--one of them red-haired, both of Scottish descent--who worked side-by-side at a Bay Area newspaper, the San Francisco Call.

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