JOE HUNT’S NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN MATCH BY MARK WINTERS

Written by: on 10th September 2017
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JOE HUNT'S NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN MATCH BY MARK WINTERS  |

Editors Note – We here at 10sBalls have a great admiration of Joe Hunt. Mark wrote a great story here about a great guy whose life was cut short.

 

Many US Open men’s singles finals have been storied. (After all, in some form or other, the Open has been the penultimate destination for tennis champions since 1881 when it was known as the US National Championships.) The highlight reel worthy set of matches provide a foundation for the most cherished memories of players and fans alike. Each recollection features a unique set of circumstances and individuals who make a “look-back” even more captivating.

 

That was never truer than the 1943 contest between Joe Hunt and Jack Kramer. The world was a different place with World War II occupying much of the public’s attention. Both contestants, Hunt from the Naval Academy and Kramer from the US Coast Guard, were able to participate because they were on military leave. Open Tennis didn’t begin until 1968, so the tournament was sanctioned by the United States Lawn Tennis Association. What’s more, the event, played at the Westside Tennis Club, Forest Hills, New York, was the only Grand Slam tournament to be contested that year.

 

On a brutally hot and humid day, Hunt wasn’t the last man standing after he defeated Kramer, 6-3, 6-8, 10-8, 6-0. On the final point, the winner ended up sitting on his own baseline, unable to stand because of leg cramps – but he was able to watch his opponent’s last shot go out. Kramer, who suffered from food poisoning during the tournament, admitted that he wasn’t in the best shape himself. But, all he could do, after missing, was walk to the other side of the court, sit down and offer his good friend a “shake hands” congratulations.

The tournament, held September 1st – 6th, was played over six days because so many of the participants were unable to extend their time away from the war effort. Still, a vivid impression remains not only because the singles featured draws of 32, while the doubles involved 16 teams, (for both the men and women’s events), but also because it was the last competitive match Hunt would ever play.

 

On February 2, 1945, a training flight was on the agenda. Hunt’s F6F Grumman Hellcat went into a spin at 10,000 feet off Daytona Beach, Florida and crashed. The plane and his body were never recovered.

 

It is next to impossible to find a “right out of the movies” story better than Hunt’s. He was born in San Francisco to a tennis playing family that lived in Berkeley. When he was in his teens, the Hunts relocated to Southern California, (ending up near the Los Angeles Tennis Club), where Joe’s father, Rueben had moved his legal practice. (He was a noted bankruptcy lawyer and an acknowledged tennis player.)

 

Joe Hunt’s serve and volley game was formidable, matching his striking good looks and his personable self-confidence. He stood out, actually, he stood alone. He won his first national title in 1934, becoming the Boys’ 15 National singles champ. He also teamed with Arthur Nielson, Jr. for doubles honors. He won the National Junior Doubles, with Bobby Riggs in 1935; with Julius Heldman, in 1936; and with John Moreno, in 1937, the year he also captured the Boys’ 18 singles. He began college at USC in 1938 and as the team’s top player, he never lost a singles or doubles match that season. (The same year, he was the NCAA doubles winner with Lewis Wetherell, and captured the National Clay Court Doubles.)

 

In 1940, his diverse athletic talent became even more apparent while he was playing halfback in the Army-Navy contest. His performance that day earned him a game ball. A year later, he became the only Midshipman [ever] to win an NCAA singles title.

 

The late Pat Henry Yeomans, who in her junior tennis days was a neighbor of the Hunts in Hancock Park, wrote in her seminal book “Southern California Tennis Champions Centennial 1887-1987”, “He was good and knew it. Joe knew what he wanted, and he got it.”

 

She added, “One of the objects of his desire was another neighbor, noted for her knockout looks and punch on the tennis court. In 1935, Jacque Virgil was the No. 1 junior girl in Southern California. He had a terrific crush on her when he was only 16. (His family had helped him get an appointment to the Naval Academy, partly to break up the romance.) But, it was true love and Joe married Jacque in 1942 after winning the NCAA singles during the spring of 1941.”

 

In an “it shouldn’t happen like this…” instant, Joe Hunt’s charmed life came to an abrupt and tragic end, just fifteen days shy of his 26th birthday in February 1945. Even now, merely a year away from the Diamond Anniversary of his unforgettable triumph, he will be remembered as the only US men’s champion to sit on the court and receive congratulations from the similarly weary player that he had just defeated.

 

It was definitely a US final for the record books.

 

Mark Winters played the game on the intercollegiate and professional levels, and served as a USTA Boys’ National Team and college coach. He has written about the game for close to 50 years. During that period, he has been a staff writer for Florida Tennis, Sun Tennis, Inside Tennis, Tennis Magazine and Tennis Week. His freelance articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News, USA Today, along with various USTA national championships and ATP and WTA tournament programs. In addition, he has also contributed to AP, Tennis USTA, Tennis West and several United Kingdom publications, as well as outlets in the Middle East and Russia. Over time, he has provided items for Core Tennis, Tennis Life. Ubitennis and 10sBalls.com

 

For over four decades, Winters was involved with the Southern California Tennis Association. As the Director of Communications, he launched the SCTA News and Senior News magazines, and prepared the organization’s annual Year In Review. His diverse tennis background enabled him to establish the first College & University Scholarship Program in the US, and annually offer seminars in the spring and fall for over 35 years.

 

Thank you to Mark Winters and 10sBalls.com.

For nearly 70 years, the memory of Joe’s life and legacy was forgotten by all but his family and the most ardent tennis followers and historians. Here was an American tennis champion who gave his life for the country, yet whose story was largely unknown. Then one day in early 2014, a mysterious little tennis trophy was found at a garage sale, dusted off, and put up on eBay. Way back in 1938, this silver cup was won by the Ojai Intercollegiate Men’s Singles champion, but no one knew who that was. The right person discovered it and gave it to Steve , the Ojai Marketing Director. That moment changed everything. Joe was discovered again, his life remembered and honored by tennis keepers and journalists, like Lovey Jergens, Mark Winters, Doug USA Today), Kurt Streeter (LA Times) and other media members. The Ojai presented the cup to Joe’s family on center court at that year’s championships. The story seemed bigger than sports, as the tragic loss of a champion’s life, snuffed out before its prime, leaving behind so much potential and a grieving bride, was like tennis’ own John and Jackie Kennedy story. As soon as USTA Board Members, Pat Galbraith and Katrina Adams learned about Joe, they quickly advanced a ceremony to formally honor Joe in Arthur Ashe stadium at the 2014 US Open. One year later, the U.S. Naval Academy remembered Joe by naming a special court in his honor and creating the annual “Joe Hunt Invitational” intercollegiate tournament. The little Ojai “trophy that could” in many ways became the symbol of Joe’s life itself . . . hidden, lost and forgotten . . . but thankfully never discarded . . . just waiting to be found.

 





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