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.
Fourteen of the 32 men in the singles draw were on leave and had had little or no tournament experience that season. Ens. Ted Schroeder was denied permission by the Navy to defend his title, and top-seeded Frank Parker, who was a sergeant in the Army Air Corps and was upset in the quarterfinals by Hunt, had flown all the way from Guam.
After the war, in 1946, when the bright young men with rackets had shed their uniforms and returned in force to Forest Hills, Hunt, perhaps the brightest of them all, wasn't among them. Supremely confident—one acquaintance remembers him as "an egomaniac"—Hunt seemed destined for a champion's scepter from the moment he played in his first tournament, in San Francisco, his hometown. He was only five, but he was clearly a fine athlete. In fact, he lettered in football as a junior at the Naval Academy in 1940. The next spring he won the NCAA singles title for Navy.
"Joe was my friend and rival from our childhood days," says Riggs. "He came from a rich family that moved to L.A. when he was a teenager. He was smooth, well-dressed, and all the broads went for him.
"We chased each other around the court, then chased the same girls when we weren't playing. I had the edge on the court. But the son of a gun—when we were Davis Cup teammates in Philadelphia in '39, the final against Australia, he talked my fiancèe into going dancing the night before it started.
"I wasn't much on training, but I didn't want to mess up, and I told her I had to be in bed by 10:30. Darned if she didn't dance the night away with Joe. I won my match, but I was sore for a while. You couldn't stay mad at Joe, though. He was a beautiful person. And he didn't stay out the night before his doubles match."
Reuben Hunt, Joe's father, was a high-powered lawyer who'd been a top player in California. Joe's older sister and brother both ranked No. 20 in the U.S., Marianne in 1934, Charlie in '45. Says Don Budge, "Charlie Hunt was my nemesis for a while."
But it was Joe who wrote one of the more interesting chapters in the annals of American tennis. He remains the only player to have won the national boys' (then 15-and-under), juniors' (18-and-under), collegiate and U.S. men's singles titles. "He was good and knew it," says Pat Henry Yeomans, a onetime neighbor of the Hunts'. "Joe knew what he wanted, and he got it."
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. When Virgil became Mrs. Joe Hunt in 1943, she was still playing well enough to be accepted into the singles at Forest Hills and to play the mixed doubles with her new husband.
The world of tennis is small. The widowed Jacque Virgil Hunt married Winsor Rowley, a former Navy pilot, in 1949. She died in 1975, he in 1991, but her tennis bloodline continues. Two of her grandchildren, Brett and Carrie Rowley, 17 and 12, respectively, are ranked in Florida. Their father, Pike, played for Clemson. Their mother, the former Laurie Fleming, was Chris Evert's biggest girlhood rival in Fort Lauderdale and nationally.
"One of mother's best friends," says Pike, "was Elizabeth Froehling. You may remember her son [Frank Froehling III, who reached the final at Forest Hills in 1963]. But she went away, and nobody seemed to want to talk about it."
Elizabeth's death in 1963 in Los Angeles was ruled a suicide—an overdose of barbiturates. "We were divorced by then," says Frank Froehling Jr., her former husband, "but I was notified, just before young Frank played the national final. I didn't believe it was suicide, because Elizabeth was a Christian Scientist who never took a pill of any kind. The police didn't think so either. Some people suspected her husband, but the police said they didn't have a case. It looked kind of suspicious because her husband later shot himself dead. His family was prominent but had a lot of bad luck."
That it did. The husband who pulled the trigger on himself was Charlie Hunt, who had never flown as high as his kid brother, Joe.
Bud Collins is a sports columnist for The Boston Globe and a tennis commentator for NBC.