March 31, 2012


Unsinkable (L. JON WERTHEIM, 4/02/12, Sports Illustrated)

The grass courts were green, the collars were white and, at least to the casual observer, the fourth-round match at the Longwood Bowl in Boston on July 18, 1912, was typical of that year's U.S. lawn tennis circuit. Richard Williams, a 21-year-old upstart from Philadelphia, faced Karl Behr, 27, a veteran from New York City. Though a "tennis generation" apart in age, the two men cut similar figures: handsome Ivy Leaguers of East Coast patrician stock. (Behr was a Yale man; Williams would enter Harvard that fall.) Both were at home at the tournament's venue, the Longwood Cricket Club, whose wealthy members often arrived in high style, piloting a new mode of transit: the automobile.

This was top-level tennis 100 summers ago: men in starched polo shirts, long pants, leather shoes and stoic expressions, using wooden rackets strung with beef or sheep gut to bat the ball around for hours in the afternoon sun. They might reconvene afterward in the clubhouse for a brandy, perhaps stopping first to call back to the office. In the era before prize money, many of the male players moonlighted as lawyers or bankers.

From the clubhouse the winners would repair to their rooms to prepare for the next day's matches; the losers would throw on seersucker suits and head for Newport (R.I.) or Merion (Pa.) or Chevy Chase (Md.), whichever moneyed enclave was hosting the next tournament. But in 1912 some of the losers at Longwood might have stayed on for a day to check out a baseball game nearby at newly opened Fenway Park.

The Williams-Behr match was full of precise shotmaking, savvy tactics and gyrating momentum. The lanky, dark-haired Williams brought his aggression and superior athleticism to bear and won the first two sets. Then the sturdier Behr, who wore wire-rimmed glasses and held back his sandy hair with a not-yet-voguish headband, surged and gradually wore down Williams's resistance. Over five gripping sets the veteran beat the newcomer 0--6, 7--9, 6--2, 6--1, 6--4.

It was a classic match by any measure, two future Hall of Famers exploring the limits of their talent. Fans ringing the court applauded lustily, and the other players toasted the two men as they walked off at the end. The following day's New York Times gushed that the match "was declared by old-timers to be one of the hardest fought tennis battles seen during the 22 years of tournaments at Longwood."

Something gave the encounter a deeper texture, however. Few press reports mentioned it, and those that did hardly played it up. Certainly neither Williams nor Behr discussed it openly. Nor did the fans at Longwood seem to be aware of it. But just 12 weeks earlier--and 100 years ago next month--the two players, traveling separately, had survived the most famous maritime disaster in history.
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Posted by at March 31, 2012 5:53 AM

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