Nobody knows for certain what went wrong when Lieut. Joe Hunt sent his Navy fighter plane into its last dive. Pilot error? Equipment failure? There were rumors of both, but the Atlantic swallowed forever all evidence of the Grumman Hellcat—along with Hunt.
If American tennis ever had a golden boy, it was the handsome, flaxen-haired Hunt, who won the U.S. singles championship a half century ago at Forest Hills in the last match of his life. He couldn't know that, of course, as he shook the hand of his good friend Jack Kramer at the bizarre conclusion of a four-set triumph. You might say that the 24-year-old Hunt won the title lying down, because he collapsed with leg cramps after Kramer knocked the ball out of court to lose a grueling struggle on a humid, 90� afternoon 6-3, 6-8, 10-8, 6-0.
"If I could have lasted a point more, I might have been champ on a default," says Kramer now, with a laugh. "But I was pretty far gone myself. I'd had my chances, but by the fourth set I could hardly hit a ball."
Kramer, the favorite despite being severely weakened by food poisoning—he had lost 19 pounds during his preceding four matches—was able to make his way to the stricken winner on the far baseline. Seating himself on the grass beside Hunt, he offered his hand in congratulation.
There wasn't much time to celebrate. While Kramer, who was the No. 3 seed, was granted additional leave by the Coast Guard so that he could play a tournament in Los Angeles, the seventh-seeded Hunt had to return immediately to a Navy destroyer. Seventeen months later, on Feb. 2, 1945, two weeks before his 26th birthday, he was killed during flight training off Daytona Beach, Fla. World War II was in its final months by then, and Hunt had survived two years of duty at sea before he requested reassignment to train as a fighter pilot. In fact, the demands of his new assignment had made it impossible for him to defend his title in 1944.
Pancho Segura, who had lost an arduous semifinal match to Kramer in the '43 championship, remembers Hunt as "a player a lot like John Newcombe—husky, six-foot-one, about 180 pounds. He was a big serve-and-volleyer, with a strong forehand. He took to grass like the other Southern California guys off the concrete."
Says Bobby Riggs, the feisty U.S. champion of 1939 and '41, " Kramer got a lot of postwar publicity as the founder of the so-called big game—constant serve and volley—but Hunt was there before Jack."
For a while it was uncertain whether the U.S. championships would be held at all in 1943. Virtually all the leading American male players were in the military by then. Travel was difficult because gasoline rationing had become stringent. Tennis equipment was scarce and often substandard. Because of the rationing of rubber, balls were used for so long that they seemed as bald as General Eisenhower.
Despite some opposition within its ranks, the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) went ahead with the nationals (then an amateurs-only tournament; it would become the U.S. Open in 1968). USLTA president Holcombe Ward, who had been assured that Washington approved of holding the championships, issued this statement: "As long as the government releases moderate amounts of reclaimed rubber for the manufacture of balls, the USLTA plans to carry on."
Still, Forest Hills, the only one of the four Grand Slam events held during the war, was drastically compressed so that those players who could get precious leave time wouldn't have to use too much of it. Just six days were allotted for the completion of the usual five events—men's singles and doubles, women's singles and doubles, and mixed doubles—with draws of only 32 players in singles and 16 in doubles. The men played best-of-three sets until the semifinals.