To understand the circumstances which led up to Satoh's death, one must know something of the strange times in which he lived and played. In the '30s, tennis was booming in Japan—new clubs were springing up all over the country, professional tours drawing record crowds. Yet, less than a generation before, most Japanese had never seen a standard tennis ball; they only knew the type known as "spaldeens" to American kids, balls of soft, uncovered rubber which needed to be hit hard and with exceptional spin to be controlled. As a result, Japan's tennis players developed an exaggerated Western grip and a looping lifted drive; even such champions as Shimizu and Takeichi Harada were influenced by their boyhood use of the plain rubber ball. But Satoh belonged to the new school, whose technique was properly based on methods practiced abroad.
In 1931, on his first invasion of Europe, he reached the semifinals of the French championships, surrendering only after five hard sets to the eventual champion, Borotra. At his first Wimbledon he reached the quarterfinals before losing to the Bounding Basque again, and subsequently he created a record by winning a dozen lesser English tournaments in one season.
The unseeded young Japanese was the only man in the 1932 Wimbledon to progress to the quarterfinals without losing a set. In a fascinating clash of Japanese guile and American aggression, he then achieved a sensational four-set victory over the reigning champion. Sidney Wood. Satoh slumped badly in his semifinal against Austin, but two months later he avenged that defeat in the U.S. Pacific Southwest Championships by conquering Californian Ellsworth Vines, whose 128-mph cannonball service was being hailed as the most terrifying weapon in tennis history.
Satoh had won worldwide respect for Japanese tennis and made its Davis Cup team a force to be feared just as Japan was becoming recognized as a great military power. National prestige was never more fondly cherished, and men like Satoh, equipped to conquer in sport abroad, were never allowed to forget their enormous responsibility to the Emperor.
Satoh was essentially a sportsman, caring nothing for the political ambitions of the warlords, but he loved Japan with a deep-felt devotion, and in 1933 he tried again to make his country the world's leading tennis power. He abandoned his studies, and left on a world tour for the third year in succession. He beat Perry in the French championships, and again reached the Wimbledon "last four." The subsequent enthusiasm in Japan reflected the intensity and strangeness of the times there: Japan was promised a national holiday if Jiro Satoh became Wimbledon champion. That seemed to be probable even outside Japan. Each year he had grown stronger. He was now ranked third in the world, and no one in the game could be confident of surviving against him.
One person, however, was wholly pessimistic in the midst of all this hysterical optimism, and that was Satoh himself. At Forest Hills the year before he had been off form, losing in the fourth round to the American, Gregory Mangin. Then, after his exhausting world tour, he tried to rest from tennis in 1934. He wanted an interlude of private life, to concentrate on his economics studies, and spend more time with his fianc�e and his family. But the Japanese Lawn Tennis Association told him that his first duty was to his country and the Davis Cup team. Moreover, his bride-to-be was persuaded to support their firm attitude; she agreed that tennis should take priority.
So, with extreme reluctance, Satoh sailed on the Hakone Maru to Europe. On the way to Singapore the sea was calm, but it rained incessantly and the atmosphere was oppressive. Jiro Satoh had no appetite, complained of stomach pains and kept to his cabin—unsociable behavior for a Davis Cup captain who was also the ranking celebrity aboard. As the ship neared Singapore he was adamant that he could not go on. His teammates tried to dissuade him, but he insisted that if he did continue he would never be fit to play. It was best, he reasoned, that he should rest in Singapore and then follow in a second ship if his health improved.
Ashore, Satoh had a medical examination. The doctor certified that he could find no evidence of organic disorder and diagnosed the trouble as stomach cramps of purely nervous origin. Meanwhile, his colleagues played a friendly match and Satoh joined them at a reception afterwards. There the Japanese consul, backed up by prominent Japanese residents of Singapore, pressed him to remain with the cup squad. That same day a cable arrived from the Japanese Lawn Tennis Association insisting he complete the voyage as scheduled. Next morning the ship sailed for Penang with Satoh on board. Before midnight he was dead.
Why did Satoh commit suicide? The official view was that he was overcome by nervous depression through concern at his loss of form. Inevitably, however, the tragedy laid the Japanese Lawn Tennis Association itself wide open to charges of unreasonably pressuring their star player.
Satoh's fianc�e Sanaye Okada was interviewed, and said that Satoh hoped not to go on after the Singapore stay. She was quoted as saying: "I believe Jiro committed suicide solely from a sense of responsibility after he had acceded to the tennis association's urgings to proceed to Europe, even when he wanted to return from Singapore. To the end of my life I shall regret that it was the order of the Japanese Lawn Tennis Association that resulted in his death. Jiro was a man of honor and he played every time for the honor of Japan...."