Improbable Journey - Titanic to Newport

by Jim McCready


American Tennis Greats (L-R) Maurice McLaughlin, Dick Williams, Karl Behr and Tom Bundy

of which Williams & Behr were among the very fortunate that survived that fateful night. Now on a quest to emotionally move themselves forward as friends and combatants on the big stages of Championship tennis.

This is a mighty, but solemn tale. Promising to tell one of the countless life lessons that tennis provides. This one follows that timeless ancient motto…the staunch Semper Anticus (always forward). Or for us laymen…it’s the value of short-term memory in life’s (and tennis’) struggles.


Somehow the simplicity of whacking a ball back and forth has intrinsic rewards for us humans. Challenging our fears, successes, caution, optimism, self-reliance, ethics. The list goes on and is really why we all love this game so dearly.


For a century and a half, all of the greats who have challenged and changed the game, both for themselves, and for the masses, have taken stock in forgetting about bad stuff and moving on. Billie Jean, Arthur, Althea, Rod, Andre, Venus and Serena… Oh my goodness, the list never ends! And, going back in time there are moments much the same. Often forgotten because of the decades that have passed us by.


This story begins April 1912 late on a starry night in the north Atlantic, where both beauty and the beast will shape the lives of many. In that instant of Titanic’s fateful collision, the lives of Richard Williams and Karl Behr, two of America’s top tennis talents, were dumped into the sea. Both were part of the newly emerging 20th century world of sport. Their future now linked together in a life and death struggle to become whole again.


“Look, there’s Karl Behr”, young Dick Williams would say when he noticed him across the parlor that first day aboard the ill-fated liner. Karl was an established tennis star at 26 and had been to Europe before and played important matches in 1907 for the US Davis Cup team and at Wimbledon. Never walking off with the top prize, he delivering world-class opposition and occasional headlines, especially the last bunch of years in the United States on the eastern grass court circuit.


Dick Williams was 21 and had been living abroad as an American, now returning from Switzerland and enrolled at Harvard to live in the states. He was a junior standout about to test his athleticism next to players like Karl in a blossoming tennis scene of ever more important tourneys around the world.


He lost his father in the sinking as they both leapt from the railing just before it went down. Dick managed to fight his way through the freezing, chaotic scene to a compromised lifeboat and cling on with others till dawn. Doctors aboard the rescue ship were discussing amputation of his still numb and half frozen legs. But, the boy refused, and spent the next 4 days endlessly striding the decks to regain his circulation.


Dick would be terrorized by moments of silence all his life after that endless dark night. Hearing the sounds of the Titanic’s agonizing plunge below the horizon and the cries of the many that did not survive. He dreaded silence, and to avoid it, he became a gregarious lover of life. He sought out jovial conversation with anyone to quell his fears. Developing into a fearless shot-maker through out his playing days, he could beat all the established greats when he was tuned in to a raucous gallery on their feet.


Karl had been fortunate enough to get in a lifeboat with Helen, the girl he was going to ask to marry him during the voyage. It hadn’t happened yet. After their harrowing dash to safety, and a press eager for “feel good” stories, their night in the lifeboat together became a symphony of joy and a testament to an Edwardian romance in the face of despair.


Karl had sought out Dick when he learned he was recovering on board the crowded Carpathia, and the two became friendly. Karl was an unscathed member of the 705 men, women and children that had survived, so he insisted on playing an important support role over the four-day survivor’s journey back to New York. Many thanking him for years to come.


Months after a tumultuous homecoming, the miracle kid was winning matches and amazingly, tournaments! He was that good and aiming for the lines. Karl had settled down with his wife and family, not playing for many long months. Was he ever to play again? He was a changed man. Both their lives had a new rhythm to it.


Sport on the other hand was continuing its meteoric growth. Safe steamship travel across the pond had indeed become mainstream as the world was taming the planet. The Wright brothers had recently taught the world to fly. Science, medicine, industry, communication and now some leisure time, were becoming common place for more and more. Following one's favorite sport on the front pages was the new direction in which the world could harmonize.


The US National Tennis Championships had been played in Newport, RI since its inception in 1881. The crowds and the talent rich draws were ever expanding. In 1913, the Kid had continued to amaze by putting aside most of his doubts, hitting flat and reaching the National (now US Open) final. He would face a big crowd favorite, and true tennis star, Maurice McLoughlin, the California Comet. Maurice stood for more than just a new breed of public park champions that were coming out of the still distant western cities of America. He represented what tennis could be, a tougher, more athletic expression of new world values. Much like Dick, he had an electric serve and a “charge the net” American style of play that the fans and the press revered.


But, coming up short in the final, haunted the young challenger. Had he really climbed out of his internal grief after the tragedy? Only a year had passed. Might he be affected in any way physically? He wanted to compete at the top, but winning the nationals was agonizingly just out of his reach. What, if anything was holding him back?


Karl missed tennis. Helen enjoyed watching him play and missed the inner workings of the behind the scenes VIP access. His whole family loved seeing him succeed. He finally decided to play again in 1914 and, I think, the stage was set for one of the most remarkable matches ever played. Not just for the two pals, but for the game itself.


The Newport Casino was hosting the Nationals as usual for the 34th time with greater enthusiasm than ever from the locals and perennial “hi-brow” visitors. Defending champ McLoughlin was in fine form, and the improved stadium court had been enlarged and readied for high drama.


Oddly enough during the week prior, both Karl and Dick were on the USNLTA executive committee hosting discussions for the need to move the Nationals to a bigger venue. After days of vehement debate, it had been decided that indeed they would be moving the Nationals to the larger West Side Tennis Club just outside of New York City. Always forward! Karl was in favor of the move to NY. Dick was pleading the traditionalist’s case for remaining rooted in Newport. As the established veteran, Karl won this round.


And! As it happened, Behr was now in the same quarter of the draw as the higher ranked Williams for this year’s championship. It was August 27th, 1914 and the day was a buzz with match after match on adjacent courts, with galleries squeezed together much as we imagine the old Wimbledon days. The streets outside the grounds were packed with touring cars and even the horse-drawn carriages of the many Newporters in attendance.



The cover on this issue of ALTM was the Williams/Behr quarterfinal match.



Before the match, which was scheduled for the overflowing stadium court, Dick was alone in the locker room, and it was silent. The rumbles and muffled cheers outside began to sound like the audible anguish of hundreds off in the distance. He grew restless. It was only a quarter-final, but against Karl… and the memories of 2 years prior couldn’t be closer. Bang, the silence was broken as the locker room door slammed open. With three freshly strung Slazengers under his arm, Karl strode in and the two, alone, had their moment. It was warm and cordial. It delivered Dick from himself; it kept Karl on track for his comeback.


Dick succeeded in jumping out and winning the first two sets in his typical style and Karl made a match of it in the 3rd. But, the grass court bounces favored the youngster this time. Even though losing, Karl had played his role, and his family was there to see him happy and close again to what he loved. The capacity crowd, on their feet was reverent and cheered them on. Everyone was finally far away from that awful night. Few matches, if any, in Newport’s last year of hosting of the US Championships would be more storied.


Dick was on the cusp of greatness. He went on to beat McLaughlin in the final for his first US title and would repeat at Forest Hills in 1916. Over the years, he would win an Olympic gold medal, captain 6 Davis Cup winning teams with Bill Tilden on them, reached #4 in the world in 1923 and be voted into Newport’s International Tennis Hall of Fame. Not to mention, being a decorated WW I hero. Karl and he remained the closest of friends for their entire lives.


Karl Behr too would be inducted into the ITHF. Ranked in the US top ten 7 times before WW I, he was a Davis Cupper with several upset wins at both Newport and Wimbledon over his career. In the year that he lost the quarterfinal to Dick, he ended up ranked 3rd nationally and his best ever. Dick, as it turned out that year, was just one spot ahead, ranked number 2.


After that match as they walked off together, you might only imagine what the two friends were saying. The many on their feet, shoulder to shoulder, maybe with a tear or two, probably knew. They had each gained a new respect and both indeed had moved on as survivors of unspoken doubt and desperation on the high seas. And just maybe, our marvelous game might have helped them move forward on their terms. Semper Anticus



Notes;


Reference;American Lawn Tennis Magazine, Vol. VIII, No. 8

Starboard at Midnight by Helen Behr Sanford

Titanic, the Tennis Story by Lindsay Gibbs

Bud Collins Tennis Encyclopedia by Bud Collins & Zander Hollander