My father wrote this article in 1986 and submitted it to Tennis Magazine, where it appeared later that year.
He was recalling his first tournament win, a junior mixed doubles title in Switzerland, in 1913.
“Didi Vlasto was my partner,” he said. “I was ten, she was nine. She became a great player later on — Lenglen’s favorite doubles partner. And even at nine years old, she already had that simple, sensible forehand. Six feet over the net every time.”
He held his palm in the air, vertically, and pantomimed a smooth firm-wristed stroke above the arm of his chair.
To my father, a consistent forehand return of serve, with just a touch of topspin, was one of the beautiful things in life. Tennis itself was a beautiful thing in life.
But it wasn’t the only thing.
He saw tennis as he saw the world, with calm, clear, judicious eyes. Tennis fascinated him, his whole life long, by its delicate balance between the ego-fulfillment of one’s own skill and performance, and the ego-subordination of giving one’s self to the rhythms and traditions of the sport itself: “how you play the game.” He saw it as a balance between body and mind, child and adult. Between a reasonable sense of one’s own limitations — and the undying dream of the possibility of that perfect day when those limits are transcended.
This memoir is written in honor and memory of that marvelously level-headed view of the world, that sense of realism and proportion that distinguishes the wisest among us. Not necessarily the most successful, or most powerful, or wealthiest, or most worthy of note; merely the wisest.
It was the summer of 1938 when Herr Doktor Bill Fuchs entered his last tournament. I’ve never known the name of the event, or been able to trace it; I only know it was a tournament in Zurich, in which he had played almost every year since the early 1920’s.
We lived in Portugal at the time, refugees from the Nazis. My father had had a respectable tennis career in Germany. I believe his top ranking had been No. 18, a few years before I was born.
He had started playing when he was around seven years old, very early for those days. His father had built one of the first private courts in the respectable bourgeois city of Karlsruhe, on the Rhine river in southwestern Germany; and had also been one of the founders of the Eislauf & Tennis Verein — skating and tennis club — that still exists there, at a streetcar turnaround on the western edge of town.
Little Bill — named Wilhelm, but nicknamed by a visiting American uncle — watched the players on the red clay courts for hours; then went home to his backboard and imitated the strokes he had seen. That’s about all there was to it — there was no army of eager young teaching pros in those days, much less the elaborate junior programs and academies of today.
But Bill Fuchs had good ball sense, fast hands, and indulgent parents. And several idols who were making headlines in German tennis: Otto Froitzheim, Kleinschroth, and the Australians, Windling and Brookes.
Bill became a good junior player, then a fine team player — matches between clubs, between cities, between states and regions were a large part of German tennis. Eventually he became the number one player at Heidelberg University.
That’s a long way from Stanford or UCLA, but it must have amounted to something, because suddenly he was much in demand for serious tournament events.
He faced Bunny Austin, a name still remembered in England, in a Mannheim v. Cambridge team competition. He didn’t win, he told me some time in the years that followed, but he lost “by a decent score.”
He also played against various of the famous “Musketeers” of France. “Someone had to lose to them in the early rounds,” he said with a rueful smile.
But I still have a photograph taken during a match against Henri Cochet at Strasbourg, where the score was 7-5, 6-3 — certainly a respectable result for the unknown young German, just out of Heidelberg.
Might Bill Fuchs have become a champion?
I doubt it. The judiciousness, the sense that tennis was not alone in his life, would probably have prevented him from reaching the required heights in any case. But what really did him in was — Czechoslovakia.
In a tennis frame of reference, that tiny country is a perfectly logical choice as the locale for some series of events — perhaps a crippling injury, a stunning loss, a draining five-setter on red clay — that could have marked a turning point in a tennis player’s career.
Actually, the impact of Czechoslovakia on my father had absolutely nothing to do with tennis. It had to do with a long winter in a logging camp, deep in the thickly-forested Czech mountains, near a town called Stubenbad. That was the German version of the place name; my father proudly remembered the Czech version as well: Vrutky-Rutka Stubnianske Teplicek. He insisted, against all incredulous protests, that this was the actual, precise name. The truth of that is as difficult to trace as the name of that Zurich tournament, but my father all his life claimed for himself the right of embellishment, when it came to making a story interesting.
He had graduated from Heidelberg that spring, in 1923, with a degree in economics and a Ph.D. dissertation of sorts, on the vicissitudes of the lumber industry.
Lumber was the family business. One’s career path was not so much a matter of individual choice in those days as it was a question of family strategy: Bill belonged in the business. And, the family elders announced, if he’s going into the business, he’s going to spend a winter learning it “in the field.” He’s going to Czechoslovakia, to the lumber suppliers, and put his nose to the grindstone in the woods.
Actually, as my father often recounted later, his nose was mostly in the dinner plate. The Czech foresters were not about to see their young German customer blister his hands or freeze his ears out on those bitter cold mountains.
They fed him endless bowls full of steaming Mittel-Europäisch casseroles, overflowing with great chunks of meat and doughy dumplings, accompanied by thick slabs of black pumpernickel bread with sweet fresh butter. They bade him wash it all down with robust Czech beer, or the fiery local Schnapps. They discovered he was an excellent chess player — so the friendly bottle of Schnapps found its way from the dinner table to the chess table, and the glasses were kept filled late into the winter nights.
Three months and thirty-five pounds later, my father emerged from Czechoslovakia as a certified expert in forestry, and forever on the edge of obesity. If the human appetite is indeed regulated by a mysterious inner clock, my father’s was re-set for life, at the logging camp in Vrutky-Rutka Stubnianske Teplicek.
In 1925, Bill’s marriage to the sparkling Marianne only slightly interrupted his gentlemanly shuttling between the solid, sensible environment of the family lumber business and the vaguely decadent meccas of the middle-European tennis scene of the 1920’s: Vienna, Berlin, Baden-Baden, and the like. In fact, when my dear father and mother honeymooned in the Frisian islands near Denmark, it happened by some strange coincidence to be at the place and time of an annual tournament in which Bill had been a semi-finalist the two previous years!
After the Frisian tournament (I don’t know if the new groom, sporting his new expanded waistline, survived the first round) came a more or less idyllic seven or eight years, if the dying years of Germany’s Weimar republic can be called idyllic. Herr Doktor enjoyed an amiable routine of family business and tournament tennis, only briefly, almost embarrassingly, interrupted by the births of his four children.
The tournament at Zurich was on the calendar every year. Doktor Fuchs was a fixture there — not a very shiny one, perhaps; I don’t know how far he ever came in that event. He and my mother long ago disposed of all the engraved bowls and salvers and ashtrays, but I don’t recall seeing anything as impressive as “champion of Switzerland” among them.
That’s not to say he did poorly in his tournament years. In mixed doubles, for one thing, he compiled quite a few impressive titles. Perhaps he had a flair for it; more likely, just an unusual degree of willingness to commit himself to that particular event, which demanded so much of that tolerance and even temperament that were his nature.
The “idyll” came to a crashing end with Adolf Hitler, in 1933.
No invitation to the Rot-Weiss Tennisverein in Berlin. No national championships. No state or regional team competitions.
While Jewish family councils everywhere shook their heads and mouthed the same foolish certainties — “we’ll be at this sawmill long after those gangsters are thrown out of Berlin” — my family, like thousands of others, discovered the rude end of assimilation, the beginning of sudden and complete separateness.
Still, Herr Doktor played his tennis. Jewish clubs sprang up, and Jewish tournaments, and Jewish rankings. In 1934, Bill Fuchs was “Jüdischer Einzelmeister,” Jewish singles champion. You could look it up, as Casey Stengel used to say. Or, as my father used to say, “a heck of a way to move from #20 ranking to #1.”
Abroad, however, he was still welcomed at his old haunts. He played less often, but he still played at Strasbourg, Noordwijk,Lucerne. And Zurich, especially Zurich.
After all — just in case the gangsters in Berlin did outlast the lumber merchants in Karlsruhe — Zurich wasn’t a bad place to have a bank account. Or to put some gilt-edged bonds into a safe deposit box. There was still no one, not even my pessimistic uncle Jacob, with his dire visions of “pogrom” around every corner and behind every headline, who could conceive of what it would all lead to. Even the idea of another world war still seemed remote.
But if you’re European, you’re practical. You take some money to Switzerland.
And, when we arrived in Lisbon, that money was all we had.
Bill Fuchs was 35 years old. He hadn’t shed an ounce of those Czech beer-and-dumpling pounds. But he could still play some elegant tennis! He made it to the nationals in Estoril in the spring of 1938 — in mixed doubles, of course. I still have the press photo from the day of the finals: smiling Bill, his chunky, no-nonsense partner, and the beautiful blonde safari hunter from Angola, with her partner. Much younger than Bill, of course — they all were by now. But he still had his chessplayer’s angles on the court, and he had found himself another partner with “a sensible forehand.” In mixed doubles, in Portugal, those two things could take you a long way.
But as for singles… well, finally, we come to the title of our tale: my father’s last tournament. As far as we children were concerned, it was another business trip. Dad had to go to Switzerland, he’d write every day. And he did: I remember the post cards with the coats-of-arms of the Swiss cantons — the bull of Uri, the bear of Berne — in almost every mail delivery.
Years later, I found out the obvious: he went to get the money, of course! What did I think we lived on, those first few years, until he built himself a new career and a new business?
This time, unlike the Frisian honeymoon, I think it really was coincidental that the trip was scheduled the same week as Bill’s favorite Swiss tournament; at least, he claimed it was. But still — seeing it was the same week, and he did happen to be there — why not give it a shot?
Tournaments were a more casual affair in that genteel amateur era. Sometimes there was a Tilden or Johnston or Fred Perry, or one of the four Frenchmen, or Baron von Cramm. But mostly there were the part-time players, the Count Salms of Vienna, the Rudy Ellinsens of Budapest, or Bill Fuchs.
“Of where?” the Zurich tournament folks asked pleasantly, “still Germany?”
“Absolutely not,” my father said quickly. “I reside in Lisbon, Portugal, and now represent that country.”
“Natürlich, Herr Doktor,” his Swiss friends responded, with genuine sympathy, as they accepted his entry fee.
The morning of the first round, my father left his room at the Schweizerhof in good spirits, cheered by the successful completion of his financial errands, by an ample Swiss breakfast, and by a bright blue autumn sky.
He took a taxi to that forever nameless Zurich tennis club, and climbed out at the main entrance, with his trusty five-racket tennis press under his arm. He looked up into the sparkling sunshine.
And started to laugh.
He laughed loudly, helplessly, then doubled over and gasping for breath. The taxi driver must have thought he was seeing a man lose his mind, in broad daylight, on a cobblestoned street in Zurich.
It was the flags, you see. The neat, colorful, gently flapping flags around the perimeter of the compact little stadium.
“We did our best, Herr Doktor,” one of the tournament officials explained, “but we couldn’t find a Portuguese flag in all of Switzerland. Only at the Portuguese embassy, the only place. This is the embassy’s own flag.”
The Portuguese flag consists of two vertical panels, red and green, with a small gold and white shield at the center.
And this Portuguese flag, the embassy’s pride, was so big — so hugely, shamelessly big — one of the flags flying beside it would not have covered that little center shield, the old royal Portuguese coat of arms. It would have taken a dozen of the other flags to match the sheet square footage of that proud Portuguese banner.
It was big. Gigantic.Humungous.
“And so, Herr Doktor, we had to put it in the center, don’t you see? It was the only way it would look — how should I say — in Ordnung… symmetrical.”
One huge Portuguese flag, surrounded modestly by its lesser attendants, like the Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack, the French tricolor. Portugal against the world, for the first and last time in tennis history. Zurich, 1938.
Representing Portugal: the pleasantly portly and delightful Dr. Bill Fuchs.
Representing the world: some skinny 20-year-old American kid named Don McNeill. A year later, U.S. indoor champion;, ranked number one in America. But for now, just a pawn in that unintentional, never-to-happen-again moment in tennis history: Portugal against the world.
The match lasted 30 minutes. The world defeated Portugal, 6-0, 6-1. At age 35, my father finally admitted that his tournament days were over.
But there’s one question I never asked him. One sneaking little suspicion I’ve harbored all these years.
Was it love-and-one… or love-and-love?
Don McNeill isn’t around to ask any more. And Bill Fuchs — well, he would have insisted on his “right of embellishment” to his dying day.