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What Might Have Been
Frank Deford
February 07, 2000
It's doubtful that any American athlete who survived World War II was as penalized by the conflict as was Don Budge, who died last week at 84. When the war came, Budge was in his mid-20s, at the height of his powers. In 1938 he had won the Grand Slam, demonstrating a game without weakness, with a backhand that's generally considered as close to perfection as a stroke has ever been. Then he turned pro, whipped the estimable Ellsworth Vines and Fred Perry and, at that point, might well have become the finest player, before or since, to hit a tennis ball.
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February 07, 2000

What Might Have Been

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It's doubtful that any American athlete who survived World War II was as penalized by the conflict as was Don Budge, who died last week at 84. When the war came, Budge was in his mid-20s, at the height of his powers. In 1938 he had won the Grand Slam, demonstrating a game without weakness, with a backhand that's generally considered as close to perfection as a stroke has ever been. Then he turned pro, whipped the estimable Ellsworth Vines and Fred Perry and, at that point, might well have become the finest player, before or since, to hit a tennis ball.

The war all but shut down the sport, and Budge volunteered for the Army. One cool morning, while running an obstacle course, he tore a muscle in his right shoulder. Neither his serve nor his overhead was ever the same. Effectively his career was finished; certainly his majesty was.

The most storied moment in tennis still belongs to Budge, though. In 1937, just before he and Gottfried von Cramm stepped onto the court in the Davis Cup semifinal at Wimbledon (the tie was held at a neutral site), Hitler telephoned Cramm. "Ja, mein F�hrer, "Cramm said repeatedly into the phone. His victory would most likely have handed the Cup to Nazi Germany and kept it there throughout the war, possibly to be lost forever. But with the magnificent match in Cramm's grasp, 4-1 in the fifth set, Budge changed tactics, started taking the ball on the rise and won 6-8, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 8-6.

Budge would have turned pro after that year, but he dreamed up the concept of winning the championships of the four nations that had won the Davis Cup—Australia, England, France and the U.S. Thus did Budge create the Grand Slam. And he positively breezed. I asked him once to describe the highlights. "You know, not a whole lot happened that year," he said, Budge was just too good. In fact, what he remembered most about his Grand Slam was earning a private concert from the great cellist Pablo Casals after winning the French.

What everyone remembers about Budge is what a gentleman he was. Jack Kramer saw him lose his temper only once, in 1954, on Kramer's old pro tour, when Pancho Gonzales, then the world's most formidable player, tried a bit of gamesmanship. Budge was 38 then, an opponent. He gritted his teeth and beat Gonzales—his last victory of any consequence.

There should have been so many more wins for Budge, so much more acclaim. He had the best of everything but timing.

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