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Recalling Joe Hunt, a tennis golden boy, cut down in his prime

Joseph Hunt, training in Florida, where he later died in a crash. This photo was the cover of the March 1945 issue of American Lawn Tennis.

U.S. NAVY PHOTOGRAPH-COURTESY OF HUNT FAMILY

By RICK MAESE | The Washington Post | Published: September 3, 2018

When the battle had finished, Jack Kramer had to cross the court to congratulate his foe. Joe Hunt was behind the far baseline, writhing in pain, unable to stand. It's uncertain whether Hunt, stricken by leg cramps, would have been able to continue playing. But it didn't matter; Kramer's final shot had sailed long, and Hunt had just won the U.S. championship in dramatic fashion, crumpling to the ground on the final point.

Seventy-five years later, the emotion- and pain-filled finish to the 1943 U.S. national championships in Forest Hills, New York (which took on the U.S. Open name a quarter-century later), stands as one of the most remarkable in the 138-year history of the country's premier tennis tournament. It also would mark the final major tournament for Hunt. He was given temporary leave from the Navy to compete in 1943 but was unable to defend his title the following year. Then, in 1945, his fighter plane crashed into the ocean off the Florida coast. Hunt was 25, his life and career bright, brilliant and cut short.

"A champion gives his life," read the cover of American Lawn Tennis magazine, with a picture of Hunt wearing his helmet and goggles splashed across the cover. Though he was well regarded at the time, his life and legacy largely have been obscured by the tangled vines of the sport's rich history. Forgotten is his decision to essentially abandon a promising tennis career to enroll in the U.S. Naval Academy on the cusp of World War II; his continued standing as the only player to win the U.S. boys' championship, the junior championship, an intercollegiate championship and also the U.S. Open men's title; the extraordinary scene at a U.S. championship in which Hunt protested by taking a seat on the court, allowing his foe's serves to whiz by; and the aura of invincibility he carried onto every court, commanding attention and respect from both foes and spectators.

The New York Times said he "represented the finest in young manhood. Physically he was an Apollo, magnificently proportioned and strikingly handsome in a masculine way, with the jaw of a fighter."

"If American tennis ever had a golden boy, it was the handsome, flaxen-haired Hunt," Bud Collins once wrote in Sports Illustrated.

Hunt represents an oft-overlooked piece of the game's past, his future lost in the ocean and his legacy faded by time.

"The sad lingering mystery is what might he have been?" said Steve Flink, a veteran tennis journalist and historian. "That was a nice win in '43, but I think he would've gotten better. We'll never know how far he might've climbed and what he might've become."

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Hunt grew up in California, the youngest of three children who all took up their father's favorite sport at a young age. Reuben Hunt had been a successful bankruptcy attorney and an accomplished player in his own right. His youngest son started swinging a racket at age 5 and won his first big tournament at 10.

"Tennis was an important thing for the entire family," said Joseph Hunt, great nephew of the former tennis champion. "It was taken seriously and played regularly."

Hunt was ranked among the top 10 in the country before his 17th birthday and seemed destined for a promising career. He enrolled at the University of Southern California and won an intercollegiate doubles title as an underclassman, but something started tugging at him. The world was inching toward war, and Hunt began exploring a military career.

He left USC and surprised even his family by enlisting in the U.S. Naval Academy in 1938. He was ranked fifth in the world at the time, and the tennis world felt he was effectively abandoning his athletic aspirations.

Certainly, Hunt's family seemed to know what was at stake. Years later, his older sister, Marianne, wrote in a family history: "He left California and one evening I found my father sitting in the old arm chair in Joe's room. It was dark 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."

Hunt was able to remain active in Annapolis, though. He played halfback for the football team, fighting his way onto the varsity squad and eventually earning the game ball from the 1941 Army-Navy game. He also joined the school's tennis team, competing both collegiately and in amateur tournaments.

At 20 years old, he represented the United States in the Davis Cup and competed in the 1939 national championships. And one year later, he played a starring role in one of the most bizarre scenes the U.S. Open has ever seen.

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By the middle of 1940, war had broken out across Europe, and both Wimbledon and the French Open were canceled. The U.S. national championships, open only to amateurs at the time, were still slated for Forest Hills, and Hunt, on a break from Navy, entered as the No. 5 seed.

News reports from the time say that anywhere from 9,000 to 12,000 spectators were on hand for Hunt's quarterfinal match against Frank Kovacs, who was known as much for his theatrics as his tennis game. (He once famously tossed three balls in the air on a serve, crushing the middle one over the net for a match-winning ace.)

"Joe, for the most part, comported himself admirably under great provocation," American Lawn Tennis reported. "The play was good in the first set, which Joe won; and in the second period Kovacs was not in the running, due chiefly to his clowning. His antics continued in the third set and early in it there was a pretty how-de-do."

An Associated Press account of the day said, "Kovacs clowned all over the place and had himself a bushel of fun. Hunt, gradually got a neck-full of things as the match proceeded and when the third game of the third set around he suddenly popped."

After the umpire ignored his plea to help stifle the crowd's giggles, Hunt took a seat at the baseline, bringing play to a halt. Not to be outdone, Kovacs also sat down on the opposite end of the court, and for about five minutes, neither player budged.

Kovacs eventually rose, firing serves toward Hunt, who remained seated. The match resumed, and Hunt won in straight sets. (He bowed out of the tournament in the semis, where he lost to Bobby Riggs.)

"Joe was alternately praised and criticized for this handling of a difficult situation," American Lawn Tennis once reported.

Hunt's confidence on and off the court was oft-noted in news accounts at the time, chiefly because he had won on every level at which he competed and was such a striking presence with a racket in his hand.

"He had it all," said Fred McNair IV, a former pro player whose family's Navy roots stretch five generations. "He had the head, the presence, the carriage. He exuded championship qualities that he used like a weapon."

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In Annapolis, Hunt's class was due to graduate in the spring of 1942, but the Navy moved up graduation, and Hunt was called to active duty just two weeks after the Pearl Harbor bombing in December 1941. He spent the next couple of years serving on a destroyer warship, the USS Rathburne.

He was granted leave in 1943 and had little time to prepare for the U.S. championships. He managed to squeeze in two tournaments, barely enough time to shake off the rust and condition his sea legs.

He had a classic game that was built for grass, part of a generation that popularized the serve-and-volley style, eager to charge the net and attack at first opportunity.

"He was light on his feet. He had a balletic grace," McNair said. "But he'd push you back. It was like being jabbed by Ali."

Thirty-two players entered the men's tournament in 1943. Hunt breezed through the field, winning 10 of 11 sets and disposing of formidable foes Frank Parker in the quarterfinals and Bill Talbert in the semis.

Kramer was waiting in the final. Only 22 and a few years before his prime, Kramer also was on military leave, from the Coast Guard. Hunt won two of the first three sets and had a commanding 5-0 lead in the fourth, setting up a match point.

That's when Kramer's ball sailed long, and Hunt fell to the ground in pain.

"If I could have lasted a point more, I might been champ on a default," Kramer told Sports Illustrated in 1993.

Hunt rose to No. 1 in the rankings and was honored by Bob Hope at a ceremony in Los Angeles a couple of weeks later. He seemed destined for bigger things: Grand Slam tournaments, Davis Cup appearances, maybe a professional career.

"It was an important win and evidence that he was on his way to becoming a great player," said Flink, the historian. "How great? We'll never know. That's the legacy. It's sad. It should have been the start of something."

The win at Forest Hills was the last major tournament Hunt would play. He wasn't granted leave the following year to defend his title. He requested a new assignment to train as a fighter pilot and was eventually assigned to the Naval Air Station in Daytona Beach, Fla.

On Feb. 2, 1945, Hunt was doing a training mission aboard an Grumman Hellcat fighter plane. He was about 19 miles off the coast and 10,000 feet above the Atlantic when his plane started spinning. The radio crackled with orders for him to pull out, but neither Hunt nor his plane responded. The plane crashed into the ocean and sank. The exact reason for the crash was never explained.

"It just seems like he blacked out," his great nephew said. "The instructor was telling him to pull out of his dive, and there was no response. He spiraled down."

Hunt was two weeks shy of his 26th birthday, with a young wife, no children and a promising tennis career in front of him. His abbreviated career still earned him entry into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1966, and Navy hosts an annual tournament in his honor each September, the Joe Hunt Invitational.

His unique legacy is filled with unanswered questions, while that one dramatic week in 1943 remains unlike anything the U.S. Open has seen before or since.

"No finer specimen of an athlete has been seen in the Forest Hills Stadium, nor a straighter living one. ... He was fine all the way through," Allison Danzig, the Hall of Fame tennis journalist, wrote in the Times after Hunt's death. "Tennis isn't going to be the same without him."

Joe Hunt played football and tennis for the Naval Academy.
U.S. NAVAL ACADEMY-COURTESY OF HUNT FAMILY

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