Tennis is abuzz with talk of the Grand Slam. It's a fitting year for it. Mats Wilander and Steffi Graf have won two of the four major singles championships in 1988, the Australian and French Opens. Now it's on to Wimbledon next week, with the US Open completing the slam roster in September.
Fifty years ago this season, Don Budge became the first player to win the Grand Slam, capturing the game's four most important titles in the same year.
Now 73, Budge still plays social tennis two or three times a week and enjoys thoroughly his place in posterity. The Pennsylvania license tag on his large old car unabashedly reads ``G SLAM.''
Only three other players could qualify for that catchy automotive accessory. The late Maureen Connolly won all four titles in 1953; Rod Laver, the only two-time Grand Slammer, accomplished the feat in 1962 and again in 1969; and Margaret Court Smith stands as the last player to do it, in 1970.
But it was the rangy redhead from Oakland, Calif., J. Donald Budge, who broke through the psychological barrier in 1938. The golden anniversary of his wondrous feat gives tennis, a game that can use it, a renewed sense of its proud history.
After he won the US championship in 1937, Budge confided in his best friend and doubles partner, Gene Mako, his unheard-of goal of winning the four majors the following year. He counted on Mako's companionship and counsel.
Budge and Mako together made the three-week voyage to Australia by ship for the first leg of the Slam. Budge then sailed into the final match, where he dominated ambidextrous young Aussie John Bromwich. The trip was somewhat notable for Budge, since he temporarily lost his voice and had to communicate with pad and pencil.
Next came the French, on clay, which no American had won. Budge and Mako practiced hard on the Forest Hills clay courts in New York before leaving, and Budge vowed to make up for his inexperience on the slow surface by being extra patient.
He encountered only one tough match in the French, beating Yugoslavia's Franjo Kukuljevich, a left-hander, in five sets in the third round. In the final he destroyed big Roderich Menzel of Czechoslovakia in less than an hour.
A highlight of Budge's trip to France was a private performance by the great cello player Pablo Casals, a tennis fan who admired the American star. Budge long has been a music buff, and sat in on drums with the big bands of Benny Goodman and Count Basie. He listened to jazz records before tournaments to energize his tennis.
Budge waded through the Wimbledon field without losing a set, thrashing Bunny Austin at the finish, and also won the doubles with Mako and the mixed doubles with Alice Marble. Only the US championships stood in the way of a Grand Slam.
As irony would have it, Budge's opponent in the last match on grass at Forest Hills was his old pal Mako, whose practicing and playing doubles with Budge had elevated his own game to a higher level.
Until Mako did it, no unseeded player had reached the US final. His match against Budge was put off after a hurricane hit the East Coast, intensifying the tension.
Budge won the first set, 6-3, but Mako took the second, 8-6. Budge was overpowering in the next two sets, losing only three games, and the glorious goal he had told only to Mako was accomplished: Budge had won the Grand Slam, or to put it more accurately, he had invented it.
``People said I let Gene win a set because we were friends,'' Budge says today. ``I wouldn't have thrown a set to my mother!''
Budge, perhaps the most consistent great player ever, believes a big reason he won the Slam was his enjoyment of all different playing surfaces. Raised on hard courts, he told himself early in his career he was not going to have mental or physical problems on grass or clay.
He also points to his ability to pace himself and prepare assiduously for the big tournaments. Every year he took off six or seven weeks at the end of the schedule and did not so much as glance at a racket.
``Today's players are competing too much,'' he contends. ``They don't take time off to relax or to work on their weaknesses.''
Budge had no weakness. His greatest strength was his backhand, arguably the finest of all time. He says the left-handed baseball swing of his boyhood made for a natural right-handed topspin backhand.
The gentlemanly Budge enjoys talking about the Slam today with journalists or just casual fans. An unknown fan came up to him not long ago and left him almost speechless, though.
``He said he saw the last match I played at Forest Lawn,'' laughs Budge. ''I told him I'm not nearly ready for that.''