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Joe Hunt Shares His Speech From The Tennis Collectors Society Gathering And 10sBalls • TennisBalls • Should Be Movie

October 5, 2019

I cannot tell you what a pleasure it is to be here. I want to thank you for asking me to attend and, more importantly, to speak about my great uncle, joe hunt. It is truly an honor for me, and I do hope you find this interesting.

Also, I have never been to New Orleans and I have always wanted to see this beautiful city.

I hope you will grant me leniency to explain this later, which i intend to do, but I have certain mixed feelings about being here in this city and at this historic tennis club. Standing here gives me chills, but yet, at the same time, there is a sadness.

I have played tennis and been involved in tennis as a teaching pro and volunteer virtually all my life. And yet I have never heard of this group called “TCA.” It was not until one of your distinguished members, adam ross, contacted me about 5 years ago, that I first was introduced to the TCA. It seemed kind of like a secret society, like the Illuminati of tennis.

Now I hope you take this in the spirit with which it is intended. When adam told me about the existence of the TCA, this thought came to mind. “there is actually something called the Tennis Collectors of America? Well, this is absolute proof that there is literally something for everybody.” I say that with the best of intentions. Thank goodness, there truly is something for everybody. I am very grateful for it, that somewhere along the line, people assembled together with passion to protect and nurture the history of our beloved sport.

Who has heard of Joe?

I’m going to start at the end, and then go back to the beginning.

But let me first start with a few questions. Go back 10 years if you can. How many of you, by a show of hands had heard of Joe Hunt? How many of you knew that Joe Hunt had won the 1943 us national championships?

Throughout my life, I experienced that very few people, even ardent tennis fans and players, knew about my great uncle. If I mentioned my uncle’s name, the words would generally pass over the conversation like a vapor. If I mentioned that joe won the national tennis championships, I would receive a stare like I was speaking gibberish. As the years went by this happened more and more. Joe seemed to me simply unknown.

This all changed late one night in December 2013, in Los Angeles, Ca. A woman by the name of Lovey Jergens, who publishes www.10sballs.com, a woman whose love for tennis knows no bounds, was up late at night unable to sleep. She logged on to her computer

And began shopping for something tennis, she didn’t know what. She logged on to ebay. She plugged in some search terms, and up popped this.

Now, this may look to you like a silver salsa bowl, but it’s not. This is a tennis trophy from the year 1938. And I think it is the most magical trophy that ever was won. It’s a simple silver bowl, the size of two cupped hands, but then it has these 4 elegant and ornate feet upon which it stands.

I believe this cup spoke to Lovey. She read the inscription: “Ojai Valley Tennis Club Won by”

Men’s Intercollegiate Singles 1938

And then the inscription stopped. “won by . . . ” who? There was no name engraved. Lovey placed a bid and won the auction for about

$60. While lovey had no idea who won the cup, she knew of the Ojai Valley tennis championships, as it was one of the most prestigious collegiate tournaments in the country.

Lovey also happened to know the Ojai communications director and she called him up. She told him he would know what to do with this, and she gave it away.

This communications director knew a research project when it stared him in the face. First he looked up who won the 1938 singles.

That was easy. The records were kept in an Ojai history book. The winner? Joe hunt of USC. But who was Joe Hunt? Was he alive? If so, he would be in his mid 90’s. He could still be alive.

Next came the hard part . . . Finding this Joe Hunt. Here is what would happen in this search if he turned to google. The search term, “Joe Hunt” brought up web page after web page on the notorious murderer, Joe Hunt, founder of the billionaire boys club.

Once he got past two pages of links to murderer Joe Hunt, he got Joe Hunt the Chesapeake Bay realtor.

Then Joe Hunt the psychedelic folk poet from St. Paul Minnesota.

There were even Joe Hunt auto parts.

There were a lot of joe hunts out there but none who played tennis. So of course the search had to include the word “tennis.” Up came the ATP tour website and there was a joseph hunt on it he was identified as an “inactive American player born in 1919.” He had a 23-5 record. Pretty good record, but obviously not a long career. What tournaments did he play? The site showed only one match. One match. Who did he play? . . . Jack Kramer? Now that’s . . . A . . . Tennis . . . Name. He read further. The experience might have gone something like this.

In what tournament did he play Kramer? U.S. National Championships? Are you kidding?

What round did they play in? What? The finals? No way!

Who won? Hunt? Oh my god. This guy won the US Open over Jack Kramer!

He felt he had stumbled onto something big. He had an unmarked Ojai trophy that had been won by a US Open champion who had beaten none other than one of the greatest legends of the sport. But still, he knew nothing about this Hunt, but he hoped he was still alive.

He finally found a September 1993 sports illustrated article, written by Bud Collins. It was titled, “He was no ordinary Joe.” He gazed at the photo.

there he was . . . . . .

Joe Hunt, standing next to the legend Kramer himself. He began reading the article. Two sentences in, his heart sank. A WWII plane crash – a Navy fighter plane. Joe did not survive it. He lost his life in the war. He was 25 years old – a kid.

This was no longer a rescue mission. It was a recovery mission. Toward the end of the article he read a quote by a guy named Pike Rowley, who Bud Collins had interviewed. Pike, a tennis player himself, was from Fort Lauderdale, and he was married to Chris Evert’s junior rival, Laurie Fleming. He was also the son of Jacque Virgil. The Ojai communications director found Pike’s phone number and called him up. Pike said he thought there was a lawyer Joe Hunt, in the pacific northwest, maybe Portland, who might be related to the tennis champion.

Steve found no Joe Hunt attorney in Portland, but he did find one in Seattle. He called that Joe Hunt and left a voice mail.

It was March 2014, and I picked up that voice mail, and when I listened, it sounded very much like telephone spam. I was about to hang up when I heard the word, “Ojai.” I called the man back and he asked me if I had a relative who was a famous tennis player. “Yes, my great uncle, Joe Hunt!” He asked, “Do you know if your great uncle ever won the Ojai Championships?” I said, “Yes, I’m sure he did, in 1938. I have on my living room mantle the doubles trophy from the very same tournament. He told me about the trophy he found for the singles. I thought he was calling to sell it to me, and I am an attorney, and so hardcore negotiation being my superpower, I immediately blurted out, “I’ll buy it, how much do you want?”

It was not about that. He wanted the family to come to the Ojai tournament in April and be presented the cup on a center court ceremony. We went to Ojai. The trophy became a story. USA Today put it on the front page of its sports section.

The USTA board took notice. Within one hour of the USA Today hitting the stands, I got a call from Pat Galbraith.  The rest is history.

In September 2014, the US Open honored Joe with a video tribute in Arthur Ashe Stadium. In 2017, the tennis channel aired a tennis story piece narrated by Jim Courier. There have been many articles written online and in print, including in the LA Times and Washington Post. Finally, just one month ago, the US Open permanently renamed its annual military appreciation day, the “Lt. Joe Hunt Military Appreciation Day.”

And this is why I have a magic trophy.

That’s the end of the story. Now, the beginning.

Background

I hope you will find Joe’s life a unique and compelling story in the world of tennis. In 2017 the tennis channel aired a piece on joe and in the lead-in to the broadcast, Bret Haber stated Joe’s story was “Like no other in the history of our sport.”

Aaron Bascom Hunt

Joe was born into a family of some renown. His parents were Reuben and Terese, and Joe was the youngest of five. The first two children, sons, died before Joe was born.

Reuben’s father was named Aaron Bascom Hunt. He and his wife Alice emigrated by wagon train from New York to California in the mid-1800s. They settled in Alameda. Aaron was a judge. As a young man, he became a member of the California legislature. He was appointed to a special committee to establish an “agricultural, mining and mechanical art college in Sonoma county.” Two years later, the college changed its name and became known as the University of California. At the turn of the century, Aaron gave an address on “the life and times of Abraham Lincoln,” which was considered of enough historical significance to be published, and is now available for purchase on Amazon.

It is quite an interesting read.

Aaron and Alice’s son, Reuben was somehow introduced to tennis. He was described as “tall, slight and agile, full of nervous energy, quick in action and boyish in appearance.”

By sixteen he was one of the best players in Alameda. After high school, he would play college tennis for the University of California. Eventually, Reuben would become California state champion. Then he went east where the game was bigger.

Mixed Emotions #1 – Gulf States Championships

And this is where I want to reveal the first of my mixed emotions. This is the best, purely joyful. Reuben went east in 1901 to play as many tournaments across the country as he could. Those were the major state championships. One such tournament was called the Gulf States Championships, played at a place called the New Orleans lawn tennis club. It just so happens 1901 was the inaugural tournament. I confirmed this on the club’s website. The trophy was called the Stauffer Cup, named after one of the club’s early members, W.E. Stauffer. Well, guess what? Who was the champion of the inaugural Gulf States Championship in 1901? . . . Reuben G. Hunt.

Reuben came back and won it the next year too, to take the Stauffer Cup. What a wonderful connection between my family and this club. It was meant to be!

Reuben won some forty-five tournaments, and was also runner up of the Canadian National Championships in 1904. He was one of the first players to travel from California to play the National Championships in Newport, R.I. Reuben was a champion. And when he had children, he was determined to raise a champion even greater than he was.

Joe’s early years

And now we must finally turn to Joe. He entered the world on February 17, 1919.

The children learned the game in San Francisco as youngsters. Reuben sent them off to summer tennis camps to a resort with one tennis court in San Rafael. They were early American tennis parents. After the summer, the kids took lessons and practiced every day after school at the Golden Gate Park.

Little joe picked up the racket when it was way too big for him.

He started at four, too small to do anything but run to the net and hit the ball on the fly. He was a net rusher from the get go. Marian and Charles were already very good players, and little Joe would chase them around on the tennis courts begging to hit the ball. Marian and Charles would take him to the courts on the promise of playing with him but that was just a trick to get him to shag tennis balls for them. He was tricked over and over again, but never got discouraged.

And here is where I want to tell you a little about the Hunt childrens’ personalities. Marian and Charles were molded after their father . . . Dutiful, serious, determined, stern, and bit short-tempered. Little Joe was a different animal altogether. B.U. wrote in his baby book that Joey was “known for his smile from two weeks old.”

That smile was his trademark. He was at his core a happy child – joyful, disarming, and fun-loving. No one could ever get mad at little Joe, no matter what he might do. From an early age, because of his unusual tennis skills, he attracted attention, and he seemed totally comfortable with it. He was put on display early and handled it with ease. Failure was not part of his consciousness.

Here is one story from the newspapers:

“Mr. Reuben hunt is most interested in tennis and anxious to see all his children succeed in the game……………………………………. all are coaching Under Howard Kinsey (California tennis club) and have a great admiration for the former doubles champion. This is particularly true of Joe. Joe is aged 9 years, height about 4 feet, 5 inches and weight 70 lbs. He packs a mighty wallop for so small a boy. Howard loves to show off Joe to admiring Onlookers. ‘let’s see your service,” called Howard to Joe one day before a particularly interested and important audience. Joe settled himself in position ready for a mighty effort. Suddenly he paused, lowered his racket and turned to Kinsey, “Shall I use me American twist or me cannon-ball?” He inquired.”

Joe played his very first tennis tournament at 8 years old. Reuben and B.U. took the family down from San Francisco to a big southern California tournament in La Jolla. Reuben, Charlie, and Marian all played multiple events. Marian records the following:

“There was no event for Joey, but he and another little boy, Billy Bundy, decided to not be left out of the play. A local jeweler decided to put up a trophy and the boys 12’s tourney was under way. Joey won his first two matches and met Billy in the semis. The match was tense, surrounded by relatives, other onlookers, and a lot of commentary. A young girl called the score and somehow awarded a game to the wrong player causing an uproar. The crowd got so tied up playing every point along with the two boys that when a senior men’s match was called to start and the boys were to be moved to another court, there was such an outcry that the seniors had to go to another court to allow the boys to finish. Billy won in a breathtaking finish with much applause for both contestants. Such was Joey’s entrance into the tennis world.” From that moment on, while Charlie and Marian were terrific players, and would continue winning tournaments for many years, Reuben could see that it was Joe who had the qualities to become the champion he had dreamt about.

The family moved to los angeles when joe was going into the 10th grade. They moved into a brick tutor close enough to the la tennis club that joe could walk to the club every day to play with the best players in the area.

Friends and Rivals

“Robert L. Riggs and Joe Hunt of Los Angeles, the finest pair of young prospects to come out of California simultaneously in years advanced without the loss of a set.” New York Times, Allison Danzig. July 23, 1936

At this time Joe and Bobby Riggs could not help but meet. They were the two best juniors in So Cal. They became friends and they became intense rivals. One story passed down through the family is that Bobby would come over to the house on Plymouth blvd and B.U. would give him tennis rackets when he needed them.

Joe’s junior tennis accomplishments soared, and so did Bobby’s. Joe won the National Junior Boys 15’s in 1934 without losing a set. And then he won the doubles. He was tall early, and it seemed everyone took notice, including the head of Southern California Tennis, Perry Jones.

However, by far the most important person to notice Joe was another top Southern California player on the junior circuit, a strikingly beautiful brunette, named Jacque Virgil. It was love at first sight. Jacque was two years older. Joe was innocent and inexperienced in matters of love, and Jacque was his first (we think!). For obvious reasons the parents weren’t too keen on these two youngsters falling in love, but Joe and Jacque were inseparable from that moment on.

Joe’s march toward greatness continued, and so did Bobby’s. They were far and away the two young, big guns from California. The nation had been served notice. Tennis was putting its hopes on these two men to be the next American champions.

In 1935, joe was 16 and Bobby was 17. They met in the finals of the national Jr. Men’s championships and Bobby won it, 6-4 in the 5th set. Together they won the doubles over Robert Underwood and a young man named Lawrence Nelson, two other rising stars out of Southern California. “Lawrence Nelson“ is a name to remember in Joe’s story.

Bobby and Joe could not be more contrasting.

Joe was tall, muscular, and athletic. Bobby was rather small, and didn’t look like a great athlete. Joe was an aggressive net rusher, attacking constantly. Bobby was a strategic retriever and defender. You knew what you got with Joe. He was an honest broker and totally transparent with no hidden agenda. Bobby . . . Not so much. Bobby was a hustler, always looking for an edge, an angle to exploit a situation to his advantage. You can almost see it in this photo. Joe is watching bobby spin the racket before a match. You can see Bobby, with a glint in his eye and a half-smile looking like he is just about to pull something over on Joe. Joe is watching as if thinking, “ok, I’m on to you dude, but I really don’t know exactly what you’re trying to pull over on me right now.”

Once I spoke to an eyewitness to Joe and Bobby’s Jr. Men’s 18 National singles final. His name was Dick Rosemurgy. He played the event and watched Joe and Bobby play the final. Now, Bobby was a human backboard. He simply did not make errors. They walked onto the court and began their warm-up, but suddenly for no apparent reason, Bobby could not hit a ball in the court. He literally missed just about every single ball. He kept apologizing with every miss in the net, wide or way long. “Sorry Joe. Geez, Joe I just can’t get my timing down. I’m just not feeling it today.” Joe got no warm-up and according to dick, he was absolutely fuming before the match even started.

Joe seemed to break through against bobby in 1936. He beat Bobby in the finals of the Bel-Air Country Club tournament, and then beat him in the doubles too.

Tennis writer John Risso wrote an article titled “Hunt breaks the jinx,” he stated of Joe and Bobby, “These young lads are head and shoulders above all other youngsters of their age in the world today. Both are destined to reach lofty heights in a few years.”

A few months later, Joe beat Bobby in the final of the Southern Cal Junior Championships and was the top junior in California. This might have been his coming-out party.

In June, Joe was once again in the finals of both the National Junior Men’s singles and doubles. But he lost again in five sets to his doubles partner, Julius Heldman. Then he and Julius won the doubles.

In August, Joe was asked to play an exhibition singles match at the Longwood cricket club against the great Fred Perry. Then Joe played his first Forest Hills. He won two matches and lost to don budge who was in his prime. But Joe reached the top 10 in the US at 17 years old, the 5th youngest to do so.

One year later, in 1937 Joe finally won the Junior Men’s 18 national singles over Frank Kovacs from San Francisco. Joe also won his third consecutive Jr. Men’s doubles title. So, after this match, Joe had been in the finals of both the national singles and doubles for four consecutive years. He won all 4 doubles and 2 of the 4 singles. No one had done better than that.

The rivalry between Joe and Bobby was to some extent contrived by men in power, and in that manner was unfair to both players. According to Bobby, Joe was a beautiful person who you could not get mad at and could not stay mad at, even if he were to “dance with your girl at the party.” The leaders of the sport, primarily Perry Jones and Walter Pate were anxious for the successor to Don Budge, and they believed it was going to be Joe or Bobby. But they wanted Joe. Bobby broke the rules. He gambled. He was hustler. He was disrespectful of authority. They didn’t like his game. They didn’t like his antics. They didn’t like his attitude or his behavior. Joe followed the rules and was respectful. So, they pushed for Joe even when Bobby was winning the majority of the time. And with every win by Bobby, the pressure on Joe to meet the expectations of others was greater. This was unfair to both of them really.

USC

Joe entered USC at 17 years old in 1936. Freshmen were not allowed to play sports, so there was no college tennis. In the spring of 1937 Perry Jones sent Joe and Bobby to two tournaments in the south. The first was the Atlanta Invitational Tennis Championships and the second was the River Oaks Championships in Houston, TX.

They went as a doubles team and they were expected to sweep both tournaments. The trip was a disappointment and Joe lost to a very good southerner you may know, Bitsty Grant. Bitsy Grant’s father, Bryan Grant, himself one of the best southern players from the prior generation, wrote a personal letter to Joe’s father, Reuben, dated April 5, 1937:

“Dear Mr. Hunt, I am enclosing herewith some newspaper clippings about the match Joe and Bryan played Saturday. Your son put up a wonderful game and deserved to win. It would not surprise me to see him succeed Budge in the future. I hope to have the pleasure of seeing him play again. Yours very truly, B. M. Grant.”

The same day, reuben received a letter from the southern lawn tennis association, which read in part:

“Dear Mr. Hunt, I just want to drop you a line to tell you what a nice impression Joe has made on his visit to Atlanta. His game has impressed everyone tremendously. He put up one of the smartest exhibitions against Bitsy Grant on Saturday that I have ever seen and he really should have won. Anybody but Bitsy himself would have looked like thirty cents against Joe’s game and nothing but Bitsy’s bulldog tenacity kept him in the match after the first two sets.

“in addition to his tennis ability however, Joe demonstrated a sportsmanship which was splendid and on all sides I heard most favourable comments. Frankly this sort of sportsmanship is all too rare and I wanted you to have a statement of my impressions.”

Later that year, at 18 years old, Joe was selected to the Davis Cup team to play with veterans, Don Budge, Gene Mako and Frank Parker. Riggs however was dropped. Joe did well in Davis cup practice matches, beating Budge 2 of 3 matches. On they played. Riggs beat Joe in the finals of both the southern amateur in Tennessee and the National Clay Court Championships in Chicago. Joe then beat Bobby in the finals of the Utah Open.

Forest Hills 1937

“He had a code and he lived up to it without any thought of being a beau sabreur. He did the right and fair thing instinctively.” Allison Danzig, “Blow From the Sky of War,” New York Times, March 4, 1945.

Leading up to the 1937 Forest Hills, geopolitical conflict was breaking out on the other side of the world. The Empire of Japan was pursuing military dominance in the east, and at the peak of Japanese aggression, Emperor Hirohito invaded China in July 1937. The second Sino-Japanese war was underway and America was squarely opposing Japan.

There was one great Japanese player in the Forest Hills draw that was from Japan. His name was Jiro Yamagashi, and he was in the US to play the 1937 Davis Cup for Japan. He was ranked #9 in the world. And seeded 5th of the foreign players in the draw.                                                                                                                       

Yamagishi and joe both won their first three rounds and met in the 4th round on center court.

Joe was playing his second national championship and was just 18. They played in front of a packed anti-japanese stadium crowd.

I can imagine the treatment Yamagishi might have received it would not be untypical in those days for racial slurs to emanate from the stands. That is why I think the remarkable thing that happened in that match tells a great story about Joe. Yamagishi, as was expected won the first set, 6-3. But midway through the second set Joe stopped play to argue a line call.

Here is the photo however, the argument was not what you might expect.

Joe actually disputed a call that went in his favor and against Yamagishi. Joe did not think it just that Yamagishi should suffer the result of an incorrect call, and he approached the umpire to plead the case for Yamagishi to be awarded the point.

Sugar Bowl – New Orleans (1937)

Joe went back to USC for his second year and could now play for the team. He was considered the top college player in the nation went through the regular season undefeated.

And now is where I get to the second of my mixed emotions. Over the 1937 Christmas break, Joe traveled right down here to New Orleans to play the Sugar Bowl. The tournament was held at the New Orleans country club. Joe did well, reaching the finals of both singles and doubles, losing again to Riggs. But it is who Joe met at that tournament that would change the course of his life. Joe was introduced to a young man named Joseph Miller. He was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval academy and manager of the Navy tennis team. They had a substantive talk about the academy. At that point something clicked in Joe that he wanted to serve his country. He wanted part of something bigger than tennis – bigger than even himself. Joe was invited to go visit the academy.

The reason for the mixed emotions is that it was here that the seed was planted to leave USC and transfer to the naval academy. And so I am proud and grateful that Joe would be compelled right here in New Orleans to serve his country, but I cannot help but also be sad that this chance encounter would start Joe on a path that would ultimately put him in the cockpit of a Grumman Hellcat seven years later.

1938

But now I must get to later happenings. Joe and Jacque were still deeply in love. Their relationship was solid and it was heading toward marriage. In may 1938 Joe beat Jack Kramer in the finals to win the Southern California Championships and then went on to win the intercollegiate doubles for USC that year. Joe improved at the 1938 US Nationals, reaching the quarterfinals, but losing to the great Australian, John Bromwich in 4 sets.

While back east, he fit in a one-day visit to the Naval Academy, and that sealed the deal. If anyone here has been to the US Naval Academy, you will probably identify with what Joe felt. He made the decision to go and he obtained a congressional appointment. There was only one problem. He had completely failed to tell anyone, not even his parents, and not even Jacque.

Naval Academy

Joe left for Annapolis in September 1938.

The decision reverberated throughout the tennis world, which considered this the end of a championship tennis career. It affected the family too. Remember I told you to remember the name “Lawrence Nelson,” who Joe beat in the finals of the 1935 Jr. Men’s doubles? Lawrence became a teammate of Joe’s at USC. Well, Jacque wasn’t too happy about losing Joe to the Naval Academy.  Spurned by his departure, Jacque quickly married Lawrence Nelson.

Reuben had mixed emotions too. As recorded by Joe’s sister Marian in her diary:

“While Joe was still at USC he was appointed to Annapolis. He left California and one evening I found my father sitting in the old arm chair in Joe’s room. It was dusk but the lights were not on. The look of loss and sadness on my father’s face stays with me. I tried to console him and he told me he knew Joe was right to enter the service of his country but that the great tennis hopes he had for Joe were over.”

Plebe Year

“At Annapolis he was the most famous tennis player ever to matriculate in the academy, but the upperclassmen never found it necessary to make him forget it.” Allison Danzig, “Blow From the Sky of War,” New York Times, March 4, 1945.

I want to imagine with you what it was like for Joe and the Naval Academy when Joe showed up a plebe in September 1938. First, think about the fact that Joe finished two years of college at USC, and then abandoned every class credit he earned over two years.

Not one credit transferred to the academy.

Freshmen are called plebes. Plebes are the sludge at the bottom of the barrel. Plebes have no privileges, no comforts, and no rights. Plebes are subordinate, the lowest ranking creature in a fiercely hierarchical environment. They have to stand and salute literally everyone in a uniform.

Civilian life for Joe was over. From now on, the first and last words out of his mouth would be “Sir.”

But on the other hand, joe entered the academy as a star athlete, with a level of fame in the world of sports like no other plebe in history. He was the 5th ranked tennis player in the United States, and on the US Davis cup team. So it is not difficult to imagine what the upperclassmen put Joe through to make sure he knew his place. He left his life of stardom for a life of subjugation as a lowly plebe. Joe was fine with it.

There is no evidence of Joe trying to capitalize on his fame or use it to avoid responsibility or gain an advantage. He did what everyone else did, and he was respected by his shipmates for it.

Yet everyone at the academy would soon learn what they had in Joe. As a plebe, he could not play on the Navy Tennis team so he played Davis Cup for the United States instead. Walter Pate, U.S. Davis Cup Captain, wanted Joe on the team, and he wanted Joe to have practice. So he arranged to send players to Joe. I have photographs of Don Budge on the Naval Academy courts with Joe.

In May 1939, the entire Davis Cup team was sent to Annapolis for challenge matches. They were at that time, Elwood Cooke, Wayne Sabin and Bobby Riggs. The featured match was between Joe and Riggs and, low and behold, Joe won in 4 sets. The Navy coaches tell me of a photo of the large court surrounded 4 or 5 deep with midshipman in uniform who gathered to watch the match.

Wimbledon

Why didn’t joe ever play Wimbledon?

The easy answer is that WWII caused Wimbledon to be cancelled from 1940 – 1945. But there is more to the story. In the early spring of 1939, while war was breaking out in Europe, a multi-party letter writing campaign was breaking out between Walter Pate for the United States Lawn Tennis Association, rear Admiral Wilson Brown, superintendent of the Naval Academy, the All England Club in Wimbledon, Lieutenant Commander Roy Graham of the US Navy, and Samuel Hardy of Spalding athletic equipment.

Every summer after the plebe year, the entire class is sent to sea on the midshipman practice cruise. The cruise was typically to Europe and that summer the itinerary included a stop in Antwerp, Belgium, just before Wimbledon. Walter pate got news of this and a formal request was made. Could midshipman Hunt be granted leave in Antwerp and taken down to London for the All England Championships?

This was not an easy ask. High-level Navy meetings were conducted and the matter was discussed at length. The Naval Academy agreed to grant Joe temporary leave to play Wimbledon, but only if the Navy’s #2 player David Marks (who no one had heard of) could accompany Joe and also play. That forced Walter Pate to make a special request to the All England Club to allow David Marks in the draw. The Naval Academy wanted Hunt and Marks to play doubles. The USLTA wanted Hunt and Riggs to play doubles and offered to help find a suitable partner for Marks. The All England Club granted the request for Marks’ entry, and that was what the superintendent of the Naval Academy needed to formally request approval from the Navy.  Finally, the bureau of Navy personnel granted leave for both midshipmen to disembark the cruise at Antwerp to play Wimbledon. It was set. The USLTA was paying for Joe’s expenses but not Marks’.

However, during these negotiations, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Britain was now preparing its military for a conquest by Germany into Poland. The pending war required the entire cruise to Europe to be cancelled. Instead, the ships would go up the eastern seaboard up to Canada. Lost was Joe’s only opportunity to play Wimbledon. Riggs breezed through the draw and then beat Elwood Cooke in a 5 set final.

1939 Davis Cup

The United States was defending the Davis Cup in September 1939. Australia was challenging. They had two of the best players in the world, John Bromwich and Adrian Quist, and the two of them were considered the best doubles team in the world. Don Budge had turned pro, so captain Walter Pate spent considerable time figuring out who would be named to the team. Joe was on the midshipman cruise in Canada. Captain Pate asked for Joe to be granted leave from the ship to attend Davis Cup tryouts in Philadelphia in late August.  Pate’s request was granted and Joe joined the squad.

With the experience of John Bromwich and Adrian Quist, Australia was the clear favorite to win the cup. Frank Parker, Bobby Riggs and Joe Hunt were seen as the likely cup players for the U.S. all were much younger and less experienced than the Aussie tandem. Parker was the veteran at 23. Riggs was 21, and Joe 20. Parker and Riggs would play singles and Joe would play doubles. The big question was who was going to play doubles with Joe. “Who will be the fourth man? Will it be the veteran, Gene Mako? Will it be one of the two 18-year-old California sensations – Jack Kramer or Welby Van Horn?” Captain, Walter Pate and Holcombe Ward, U.S. Lawn Tennis Association President, ultimately chose Kramer, and impressed with how Hunt and Kramer played together in practice, selected them to team up to battle one of the greatest all-time doubles teams, Bromwich and Quist. The team was set.

On the second day of the matches, held at the Merion Cricket Club, near Philadelphia, Great Britain declared war on Germany, and Australia, was actually at war when the Joe and Jack went on the court for the doubles match on Sunday.

Although heavy underdogs, Joe and Jack put up what was considered a valiant fight. But they ultimately fell to the Aussies in 4 sets. The next day both Riggs and Parker lost their singles matches and the cup was relinquished to Australia, where it would stay throughout the remainder of the war.

Football

One story few know about is that at nearly the peak of his tennis career, Joe decided to try out for Navy football. The tennis world was once again left shaking their heads. What tennis player could possibly think he had any business playing major college football? His arms and legs were under the strict control of the Davis Cup team, and they couldn’t be put to risk on the football field. But Joe wanted to be in the game.

This wasn’t for show. He started at the bottom of the pack on the “b” squad – the junior varsity. And he knew he would spend a lot of time on the bench on game days. It was written that Joe “took his lumps on the practice field,” and that the upperclassmen on the team wanted to make sure he knew his place. They knocked him down in the mud, but Joe kept getting back up. He never quit.

Joe slowly worked his way onto the varsity as a running back. It was now the summer of 1941. Joe, he had just reached his second straight semi-finals of Forest Hills and he had just won the National Intercollegiate Tennis title for Navy. He was ready to finally win it, and he would have been one of the favorites. But war was imminent and the Navy needed more men out on the ships. So they made Joe’s class of ’42 go through a full summer of training to graduate them 6 months early and send them out to war. The academy denied multiple requests from the biggest eastern circuit tournament for Joe to be granted temporary leave to play, and likewise, Joe was not able to play the 1941 US Nationals.

However, the Navy football team was down in Annapolis getting ready for the season, and Joe was allowed to be there and he wanted to be there. So instead of playing Forest Hills, joe practiced with his football teammates.

By the time the season began, Joe was playing in the varsity games, and his persistence and dedication he had shown, he had earned the full respect of his team. His last game was the 1941 Army-Navy game, which Navy won 14-6. After the game, the team gave Joe the game ball, and every player signed it for Joe.

1940 Forest Hills – Sit Down Strike

Back to the 1940 US Nationals. Joe had to know his opportunities were dwindling. He was more than half way through the academy and then he would certainly be off to war. Joe was seeded 5th, behind Riggs, Don McNeil, who had just defeated Joe in the finals of the intercollegiate singles championships; Frank Kovacs, and Frank Parker.

Joe worked his way through the draw to a center court quarter final matchup with Frank Kovacs. Now when you think of Frank Kovacs, think of Ilie Nastase. Think of Nick Kyrgios. Kovacs was an immensely talented player, thought by many to be the greatest player to never win a major. Tall, slender and athletic, Kovacs was the class clown of the sport. He disrupted most every match with endless chatter, banter, antics and crowd engagement. He was a stand-up comic with a tennis racket. He would walk around with a tennis ball in his mouth. He is reported to have during a match toss three balls and then while all three were in the air, he would decide which one to hit.

This match between Joe and Kovacs was billed as a “can’t miss” contest. The stadium was packed. Joe went out in front early, winning the first set 6-4. It did not take long for Frank to start in with his antics. In between points, he ran around the court pretending to be a soaring airplane. At other times he slid about the court like an adagio dancer. Then he pretended his racket was a sword and he would act like he was fencing. He bantered with the crowd, made audible wisecracks to the linesmen, and generally clowned his way through the first two sets. The crowd went crazy. The match turned into a circus, the umpire lost control and could not or would not restore order. Joe protested to no avail.

Suddenly, when Kovacs started to serve the 4th game of the second set, and with the crowd in a full uproar, Joe quietly sat down on the baseline with his back to the net.

Not to be outdone, Frank sat on his baseline with his back to the net too. And there the two sat on their respective baselines in Center court of the big stadium, in what was written as tennis’ first-ever “sit down strike.”

After about 10 minutes of confusion and chaos, Joe finally got up, and play resumed. Joe finished Kovacs off in straight sets. One of the many articles the next day in the papers stated, it was “The most amazing exhibition of ‘horse play’ ever seen in the 59 year history of the Men’s National Singles Championships.”

Next up in the semis was once again Bobby Riggs. If joe ever wanted to win a match, this one I believe he wanted more desperately than any other. The match went the full five sets. They split the first two and then Joe pulled out the third, 7-5. However, it was just not to be. Riggs took the 4th 6-3, and then prevailed 6-4 in the 5th. Joe was devastated. He must have wondered if he would ever get this close again.

Naval Academy Graduation – USS Rathburne

Joe played football in the fall of 1941, but before that, in the spring he finally won the Intercollegiate Singles Championships. He had now won 3 of 4 prized National Championships – the boy’s 15’s, junior men’s 18’s, and Intercollegiates. The men’s was the fourth and no one had won all four.

Pearl harbor struck and the academy went into immediate lock down. Joe’s class graduated 12 days later and off to war they went. Joe was immediately assigned to the USS Rathburne, a destroyer stationed in San Diego.

Anytime the ship returned to port in San Diego for a few days, and if there was a tournament, Joe would jump off ship and play the tournament. Well, the first tournament he played must be mentioned. Joe had been at sea for a month and a half. He got off the ship and played the La Jolla Beach and tennis club invitational. Surprisingly, with no practice, Joe made it to the finals where he lost to a fine player, William Reedy. But during the tournament, there was a dance at the famous Coronado Inn. Joe wasn’t the type to miss a dance, especially after 6 weeks at sea. He saw someone at that dance. It was a strikingly beautiful brunette. Her name was Mrs. Lawrence Nelson . . . Formerly Jacque Virgil, the love of joe’s life. Six months later, Jacque was divorced from Lawrence Nelson, and the very next day she became Mrs. Jacque Virgil Hunt.

Winning at Wartime

After Joe and Jacque got married, Joe went back to sea on the USS Rathburne. Over time, it is believed that joe desired to become more engaged in active combat.

In 1943 he began requesting to be transferred to the Naval Aviation training program. In August 1943 Joe was determined “physically qualified and temperamentally adapted for control of aircraft.” He was going into flight training after another tour of duty at sea in the Atlantic. Because of these changes in assignment, Joe was granted leave for a short window of about one month. He had just enough time to play two eastern grasscourt tournaments and then . . . Forest Hills. Of course, Joe was going to play.

Expectations were low. Joe lost in the finals of the two warm-up tournaments he played, to Pancho Segura.

He was not playing his best. He entered as the 7th seed. Those above him were:

Frank Parker, Pancho Segura, Jack Kramer, Bill Talbert, Seymore Greenburg, Sidney Wood.

Joe struggled, but he got to the quarters and then he found his game. He defeated Frank Parker in straight sets and then in the semi-finals he beat Bill Talbert in 4 sets.

Kramer took care of Segura in the other semifinal, and Joe and Jack, would play for the championship.

It was a very hot and humid labor day.

Joe and Jack were very evenly matched. My records show they had played 4 times and split them at 2 each. Yet, Jack was still favored to win. They split the first two sets, Joe wining the first 6-3 and Jack edging out the second 8-6. The pivotal 3rd set was a back and forth battle. Neither player got up by more than a game. It went into extra innings. Joe got up 9-8, but Kramer was serving. Jack hit a second serve at 30-40, and joe’s return hit the net and dribbled over for the set. By this point both players were exhausted. They took their rest period and came back out for the fourth set. Joe was energized and got up quickly while Jack was showing fatigue. But then Joe started cramping and limping between points. He had a history of cramping and must have worried, “not now, not while I am up 2 sets to 1 in the finals of the national championship.” But he kept attacking, even as he was cramping, and he started to run away with it. He was up 5-0 and then got up 40-15 on Jack’s serve. No one was prepared for the way in which the championship ended.

Joe returned Jack’s serve and moved quickly to the center of the court. Jack returned the next ball very deep towards Joe’s backhand corner, and Joe scrambled to his left to retrieve the ball. But as he did so, he was immediately seized with a cramp. Joe grabbed his left leg, collapsed in the turf and rolled on the ground just as Jack’s approach lifted barely long. Kramer jogged to the net, gingerly climbed over and sat down with joe on the ground to shake his hand.

They spent several minutes together before Kramer assisted Joe up and the two walked together at the net for the awards ceremony.

Afterglow

Some have written that the 1943 championship match against Jack Kramer was the last match of his life. It actually was not. Joe completed his tour of duty on the USS Kearny and then Joe and Jacque returned home to LA for Christmas. Joe entered the mid-winter Southern California invitational, and he won it, defeating Bob Falkenberg in the finals. It was here at the Los Angeles tennis club in that final that perhaps the most iconic action shot of Joe was taken.

LA Times Sports Award of Merit

Just before the tournament, Joe received a letter that he had been nominated for the LA Times Sports Award of Merit. He was asked to attend the event for the final selection at the Biltmore Hotel on December 27.

Joe was awarded the SAM for male athlete of the year.

Pensacola

Bayview Park Championships

In the summer of 1944, Joe was stationed in Pensacola. Remarkably, also stationed there was the 1942 National Champion, Ted Schroeder. Both Joe and Ted wanted to play the 1944 U.S. Nationals, but the Navy would not grant them leave. Well, unbelievably, it just so happened that a little, local tournament was being held in Pensacola at the same time as Forest Hills. It was called the Bayview Park Championships. Joe and Ted figured if they couldn’t play Forest Hills, they might as well play the Bayview Park. Of course they reached the finals, and while Frank Parker was winning the National Championships at Forest Hills, the 1942 and 1943 National Champions were playing the Bayview Park, and this was the last tournament match of Joe’s life, and he won it.

February 2, 1945

Joe was nearing the end of his flight training. He had only about two months left. He and Jacque had moved to Port Orange, Florida, to live in Navy housing near the Daytona Beach airfield. On the morning of February 2, 1945, arrived to the airfield to ready his plane for a training mission. The plane was the newly developed and mass-produced Grumman Hellcat F6F. This plane was all engine and was made for precise aerial maneuvers which would give our men an advantage against the Japanese zeros in air combat. Joe lifted off the tarmac with his squadron of 6 other pilots in their own Hellcats. Joe was last they flew over the ocean to an altitude of 10,000 feet. There were two other planes in the air, one the squadron leader who would radio out the instructions, and the other a runner who pulled a target behind his plane. The runner flew below the others. One by one, the squadron leader instructed each pilot to make a run at the target. They turned their noses down and made 4,000-foot dives, shooting their machine guns into the target. Then they would pull out of the dive, and join the team. Finally it was Joe’s turn. He made his dive and shot through the target. But then he did not pull out. The leader radioed Joe to pull out, but instead the nose went down and his plane went into a spiral and plummeted into the sea. The plane crashed and sank almost immediately. Recovery boats arrived and gathered up a few small bits and pieces of the plane and some very small pieces of flesh, and that was all. It was over. At 25 years old, he was gone.

The crash was investigated and determined that it was not due to any misconduct, and Joe was posthumously awarded the American defense service medal and the WWII victory medal. In 1966 joe was posthumously enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. To my knowledge no family member knew about his induction and thus, no family member attended the ceremony at the Newport Casino. We have nothing commemorating his induction.