by Chris Foss
Ali. Summitt. Palmer. Sager. McKnight & Smith. The sports world lost a lot of big names this year, many before their time. One famous name who recently passed away that you probably did not hear about, however, was former tennis star Gardnar Mulloy, who died November 14, just shy of his 103rd birthday. One of the last remaining Americans of note who came of age during the Great Depression and whose adulthood was forged by battle in World War II, Mulloy was an exemplar of NBC anchor/author Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”. Here I consider what the modern sports fan might learn from considering a life that seems Paleozoic by today’s “me first” standards, where getting the big contract appears to be all that matters anymore.
Mulloy died near the end of a year of extremism, hype, fear, and debased discourse in the world of sports, just as in essentially every other realm of life. Even if you lived in a cave all year where the only media you had access to was ESPN, this was probably a year in which the only truly good news was the Cubs’ meteoric World Series run. You’ve probably tired of controversies about shoddy refereeing in all sports, DeMarcus Cousins’s latest run-in, the “is Kevin Durant a villain for going to Golden State” intrigue, and pretty much anything related to Ryan Lochte or Hope Solo. Mulloy stands out in the wreckage of 2016, by contrast, as a quietly unexamined life.
Born in 1913, Mulloy remembered growing up that tennis was considered a sport for “sissies”, very different from its modern place of respect among the sporting pantheon. His father built him a tennis court, however, and the two won the U.S. “Father & Sons” title three times. Although Mulloy was a multi-sport star, earning a football scholarship to the University of Miami while also diving and boxing, he stayed true to his favorite sport and ultimately founded Miami’s tennis team in 1935. In an era in which tennis was not lucrative financially, Mulloy also earned a law degree in 1938, launching a legal career while managing the Miami tennis squad and playing the amateur circuit.
Mulloy’s career could well have ended with the outbreak of World War II, which reached the United States by the time he was 28. Yearning to get into the Air Force, Mulloy ended up in the Navy as a lieutenant and commanding officer of a landing ship tank, ultimately leading a crew of 13 officers and 154 men in the Mediterranean. Mulloy took his ship into action in Italy, southern France and northern Africa, earning the U.S. Navy Medal of Commendation along the way. At one point, while transporting a British general and his chief of staff to a port in Italy, the British officers repeatedly made disparaging comments about Americans. Mulloy warned the general that if his men didn’t cut it out, he would confine them to quarters. The British officers refused to stop, and Mulloy stood his ground, ordering them locked in their cabins.
In early 1945, the Navy posted Mulloy on a tour of Eastern seaboard hospitals, where he started to organize tennis exhibitions and launched a comeback. Major tournaments were then restricted to amateur players, so he juggled playing and coaching tennis with his naval and legal careers. Mulloy won five Grand Slam championships in men’s doubles, including four with longtime playing partner Bill Talbert at what is now the U.S. Open. Mulloy and Talbert won the U.S. Nationals men’s doubles title in 1942, 1945-46, and 1948, as well as the clinching point in the U.S.’s Davis Cup final victory over Australia in 1948. Mulloy also played on Davis Cup-winning teams in 1946 and 1949.
At 43 and nicknamed “The Grand Old Man Of Tennis,” Mulloy capped off his career by winning the 1957 Wimbledon doubles title alongside the memorably-named Budge Patty. Mulloy teamed with Patty in an unseeded duo that stunned top-seeded Australians Lew Hoad and Neale Fraser, both 20-plus years younger than Mulloy, in four sets. The Mulloy-Patty victory came the same day that Mulloy’s former mixed doubles partner, Althea Gibson, defeated Darlene Hard in the women’s singles to become the first black player to capture a Wimbledon championship. Mulloy was far from done: he competed in tournaments into his 90s, winding up with over 120 national championships. In 1972, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, but he kept on playing. Mulloy was a strong advocate for expanding senior tennis up to age brackets extending to 90 and higher. The Gardnar Mulloy Cup is awarded annually to the winner of a men’s 80-and-over international event in his honor.
While his story is in some ways inspiring, one sees the shadow of the modern primadonna in a closer examination of Mulloy’s life. He regularly went after officials for bad calls, on one occasion hurling his racket at a linesman. Once he colorfully protested playing in twilight at Wimbledon, arriving to the court wearing a miner’s helmet with a lamp. Another time, he appeared at a Wimbledon gathering wearing a jacket inscribed “If You Can’t Beat Me You Need Lessons.” Sports columnist Red Smith observed that “Gardnar has no special gift for silence.” A British sports writer dubbed Mulloy the “Miami Mouthpiece” and harshly said he “should throw his racquet over a cliff and forget to let go.” Mulloy retaliated with a libel suit, but later withdrew the claim.
Mulloy was a curmudgeon both in his prime and in retirement. In a 2013 interview cited in the ATP World Tour’s obituary of Mulloy, he noted that compared to the sport’s modern millionaires, “we played for peanuts.” He called the notion that modern players were better than his generation “nonsense”, crediting modern technology with making players look better. “If former generations […] competed with the same equipment against the likes of [Rafael] Nadal, [Novak] Djokovic, [Andy] Murray and [Roger] Federer, they would still dominate at every tournament,” Mulloy contended. He also did not let small things go. In 2003, he received a $250 check from the United States Tennis Association, making good on a 57-year old Davis Cup debt. “That was for 1946, when we went to Australia to regain the cup,” Mulloy told The Boston Globe. “We were supposed to get 12 bucks a day for meals and some other incidentals. I submitted a bill for $250 and never got it. I kept submitting it--and this year it came through.”
Despite his cantankerous temperament, Mulloy was sought after by celebrities throughout his career from Queen Elizabeth to President Bill Clinton, and he was highly regarded for his longevity, physical fitness, and even his temperance. Longtime friend Tony Trabert recalled that Mulloy was “very fit and the strongest thing he ever drank was milk.” Indeed, Mulloy did not drink or smoke, and he mostly ate vegetables, fruit, and milk. His mother, said to be a descendant of one of George Washington’s generals, instilled in her son a healthy lifestyle from the beginning. “People come to me and say, ‘What fun do you have?’” Mulloy told The New York Times in 2005. “I say: ‘I have a lot of fun. I don’t have any hangovers. My fun is clean living and enjoying the sunset and sunrise.”
Although not without his flaws, Mulloy was, arguably, admirable because he was a progressive, common-sense kind of guy. In some ways, he was the hero we need now, in an era in which if we are “post-truth”, we might also be “post-hero” as well. I don’t aspire to be as curmudgeonly as Mulloy, and his primadonna attitude has surprising parallels to the bad behavior of today’s stars—imagine Serena Williams chucking her racket at an official! Reading and researching about Mulloy’s life inspired me, however, to appreciate the simple things at the end of a year that was not so simple in life or in sports. We hope you find value in it too, as we look forward to 2017.