After the Glory, the Fall
After the greatest tennis generation came arguably the worst, with only one true standout player in Arthur Ashe who, while being an excellent player, is more historically important as a pioneering black tennis player, still remaining the only black man to win the Australian Open, Wimbledon, or the US Open. After Ashe the pickings become slim, indeed, as we can see here:
Best Players by Birth Year
1939: Wilhelm Bungert (GER), Christian Kuhnke (GER), Nikola Pilic (CRO)
1940: Butch Buchholz (USA), Martin Mulligan (AUS), Bob Hewitt (AUS), Ken Fletcher (AUS), Mike Sangster (UK)
1941: Chuck McKinley (USA, 1 Major), Cliff Drysdale (USA), Marty Riessen (USA), Pierre Barthes (FR), Roger Taylor (UK), Ronald Barnes (BRA)
1942: Frank Froehling (USA), Dennis Ralston (USA)
1943: Arthur Ashe (USA, 3 Majors), William Bowrey (AUS, 1 Major), Clark Graebner (USA), Owen Davidson (AUS)
That’s 5 total Majors, or 6.6% of the previous generation’s total (!). Of the eleven Open Era generations with Slam counts, it is the lowest total – just a bit more than half that of the second lowest (1974-78, with nine Slams). Every other generation other than those two has 14 or more.
At the risk of belaboring the point, Gen 2 is almost certainly the weakest generation of the Open Era, at least until we get to Gen 12 (1989-93). In truth, this is one generation that is less of a generation and more of a transitional phase from the great 1934-38 generation, which in a way was the last of the pre-Open Era, to the 1944-48 generation which was, in a similar sense, the true first generation of the Open Era. If we were able to nudge Arthur Ashe’s 1943 birth year into that latter generation, we’d have a four year transitional period of 1939-42, which saw no great or even near-greats, and only one Slam winner in Chuck McKinley.
This is also the only generation – aside from the current youngest two – that never saw a year-end No. 1 player (although Harry Hopman ranked Ashe as the No. 1 player in 1968, but this didn’t include professionals). Laver is generally considered No. 1 overall in 1968-69, and then it skipped a generation to Newcombe, Smith, and Nastase from 1970-73, before Connors took over in 1974.
As with other poor generations, this one’s lack of combination is not only because of weak talent, it is also because of nearby great talent – namely, the previous generation. Consider that Gen 2 started entering its prime in the early 1960s when Rod Laver was at the peak of his powers, Ken Rosewall was still an elite player, and Roy Emerson was dominating the amateur tour. This didn’t change, with Gen 1 not really showing signs of decline until around 1970, when Gen 2 was turning 27-31. The point being, by the time Gen 1 was declining, Gen 2 was also showing signs of age. We are possibly going to see a similar phenomena with the current Gen 11 (1984-88) and Gen 12 (1989-93).
As far as Ashe goes, his career spans over two decades from his first appearance at the US Open in 1959 to his retirement in 1979. He drew greater public attention in the late 60s, especially after winning the 1968 US Open, upsetting Tom Okker. He won the Australian Open a couple years later, and then had his perhaps most memorable victory in 1975 at the tender age of 32 when he surprised the tennis world at Wimbledon by beating Bjorn Borg, Tony Roche, and then the world No. 1 Jimmy Connors in the final.
It is difficult to find comparable players to Ashe in terms of achievements. He belongs among the “lesser greats” like Jim Courier, Guillermo Vilas, and Andy Murray – although unlike the latter two he reached No. 1 in the world, but unlike Courier he did so only in brief moments without Courier’s dominance of a couple years. Regardless, Ashe was an excellent player whose legacy is perhaps most important as both a pioneering black player but also the work he did off-court as an activism for social issues, AIDS, and apartheid.
Underachievers and Forgotten Players
We’ll just say the entire generation, except for Ashe. While it is difficult to pinpoint an underachiever, we can call the generation—again, aside from Ashe—as a forgotten one.
That said, if I were to pick out one player as an underachiever it would be Chuck McKinley, who was one of the best amateurs of the early 1960s, including a 48-2 record from 1960-63. He made the 1961 Wimbledon final as a college sophomore in the strong tennis program at Trinity University. He was soundly defeated in straight sets by a 22-year-old Australian by the name of Rod Laver. A couple years later in 1963 he won Wimbledon, defeating Fred Stolle in the final.
That was pretty much it for McKinley. After graduating from Trinity in 1963, he opted to become a stockbroker, playing tennis only sparingly. All told, he played only 67 matches on the circuit, with a 52-15 record including one Wimbledon title (1963), several US Open semifinal appearances (1962-64), and two US Men’s Clay Court Championships (1962-1963), as well as three doubles titles at the US Open (1961, 1963, 1964). He died young at age 45 in 1986 from a brain tumor.
Did You Know?: Arthur Ashe retired from tennis in 1979 after having a heart attack. After undergoing a quadruple bypass surgery that year, he had a second bypass in 1983. Then, in 1988, he had emergency brain surgery after experiencing paralysis in his right arm. A biopsy revealed that he had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion given to him in the second bypass in 1983. Ashe would die of AIDS five years later in 1993.
Top Players of the Generation
1. Arthur Ashe
2. Chuck McKinley
3. William Bowrey
4. Martin Mulligan
Honorable Mentions: Butch Buchholz, Wilhelm Bungert, Cliff Drysdale, Frank Froehling, Clark Graebner, Bob Hewitt, Nikola Pilic, Dennis Ralston, Marty Riessen, Roger Taylor.
Aside from Ashe, this is an almost impossible generation to rank. It is the last generation for which there aren’t good records and really once you get to No. 4 or No. 5, they blur together in historical hindsight. Consider that only Ashe, McKinley, and Bowrey won Slams, and only Ashe and McKinley were ranked No. 1 – and the latter only as an amateur. None of the other players won Slams or were ever ranked higher than No. 4. Martin Mulligan had the highest titles with 16, so slips away from the crowd a bit. At least I tried to narrow down the honorable mentions to all players that are possible considerations for being among the ten best of the generation, but how they exactly rank would just be too difficult to determine.
Cover Photo (Creative Commons License): Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo