In September 1943, Lieutenant Joseph R. Hunt was on leave from the U.S. Navy when he won an upset victory over his good friend Jack Kramer in the finals of the men’s singles championship at Forest Hills, New York--the equivalent of today’s U.S. Open. Only 17 months later, the 25-year-old Hunt was killed when his Navy fighter plane crashed during a practice flight off the Florida coast in early 1945. Hunt’s tragically brief tennis career--and his service to his country--will enjoy a long-overdue turn in the spotlight this September 1st, when the U.S. Open honors him in an on-court ceremony in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Born into a tennis-loving family in San Francisco in 1919, Joe Hunt played in his first tournament when he was only five years old. He would go on to excel at every level of the game, becoming the first–and so far only–player to win the U.S. boys’ (then 15-and-under), juniors’ (18-and-under), collegiate and men’s singles titles. As a college student at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, he starred in tennis and football, winning both an intercollegiate singles championship (1941) and a game ball for his performance as a running back in the all-important Army-Navy game (1940).
But in 1943, when the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association decided to go ahead with that year’s national championships despite the hardships of wartime, Hunt was a decided underdog. At the time, the event at Forest Hills was an amateurs-only tournament; it wouldn’t become the U.S. Open until 1968. As Bud Collins reported in Sports Illustrated in 1993, nearly all of the top American male players were in the military at the time, and the tournament was compressed into just six days so that players who could get leave wouldn’t have to use too much of it. Gas rationing made travel difficult, and rubber was also rationed, so tennis balls were used far past their prime.
Hunt, who had a big serve-and-volley game with a strong forehand, was seeded only seventh at the tournament that year. In the quarterfinals, he upset the top seed, Frank Parker, a sergeant in the Army Air Corps who had flown from Guam to make the tournament. He took down the fourth seed, Bill Talbert, in the semifinals to set up the final round clash with Kramer, his former Davis Cup doubles partner. Seeded third, Kramer had struggled mightily to get there as well: Stricken with food poisoning, he lost 19 pounds during the tournament, and survived a grueling semifinal against the No. 2 seed, Francisco “Pancho” Segura of Ecuador.
The final, held on a humid, 90-degree September afternoon, took four tough sets. On match point, Hunt–whom the newspapers called a “tall blond sailor man”–collapsed to the ground with a cramp in his foot. But Kramer’s shot sailed out, sealing the 6-3, 6-8, 10-8, 6-0 win for Joe Hunt. Kramer climbed over the net and sat down on the ground next to his good friend to shake his hand.
While Kramer was able to obtain additional leave from the U.S. Coast Guard to play in a Los Angeles tournament, Hunt returned to duty aboard his Navy destroyer immediately after the match. After serving in both the Pacific and Atlantic theaters, he requested reassignment to train as a fighter pilot. He had been recently reassigned to the Navy’s air arm on February 2, 1945, when he flew his single-seater F6F Grumman Hellcat fighter in a routine gunnery practice off the coast of Daytona Beach, Florida. His plane failed to recover from a spin at 10,000 feet, crashing into the Atlantic.
Over the nearly seven decades since his death, Hunt’s story was largely forgotten–until recently, when a series of events combined to bring it the recognition it deserves. In 2013, the 70th anniversary of his Forest Hills win, Hunt’s great-nephew, Seattle attorney Joseph T. Hunt, contacted the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and various tennis media outlets in order to raise awareness of his great-uncle’s accomplishments. “Many of us were unaware of the story, to be honest,” says Chris Widmaier, the USTA’s managing director of corporate communications. “But it moved all of us. He was a potentially great champion, an American patriot. It really opened our eyes.”
Then, in a fortuitous twist, a California tennis fan and collector bought Hunt’s 1938 intercollegiate singles trophy on eBay after it was picked up at an estate sale in Beverly Hills. As reported in USA Today, the collector (who declined to reveal her name) then notified the staff of the Ojai Tennis Tournament, an amateur event held some 80 miles north of Los Angeles. They tracked down Hunt’s great-nephew in Seattle, who welcomed the chance to reunite the trophy with his great-uncle’s collegiate doubles trophy–also won in 1938–which he had retrieved from his grandmother’s car port at the age of 10. Last April, Joseph T. Hunt and other family members were on hand to accept the long-lost singles trophy in a ceremony held at the Ojai tournament.
Now, the USTA will hold its own ceremony for Hunt, as the centerpiece of the third annual Military Appreciation Day at the U.S. Open on September 1st. For the past several years, the tournament has chosen Labor Day Weekend as an occasion to honor and recognize wounded warriors for their service. This year, nearly two dozen members of the Hunt family as well as Vice Admiral Walter Carter, superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, will be on hand for the event, which will be held between the second and third matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium. According to Widmaier, “It’s a huge tennis family, and many of them have never been to the U.S. Open, so we’re excited to be hosting them.” In addition to a video retrospective of Hunt’s tennis accomplishments and war service, Carter and the Hunt family will join the chair umpire for the coin toss that begins every U.S. Open match.