Gardnar Mulloy: 1913-2016
102-year-old American lived an eventful life in tennis
Gardnar Mulloy, who passed away on 14 November eight days shy of his 103rd birthday, was one of the last links to the pre-Second World War tennis circuit. The American, who played the sport for 75 years into his early 90s, rubbed shoulders with royalty — including Queen Elizabeth II, President Bill Clinton, Jesse Owens and movie stars — was a lawyer, a lieutenant and commanding officer of a landing ship tank with the U.S Navy in World War II, seeing action in Italy and North Africa, a university tennis coach and an author.
As the first International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee to reach the age milestone, he won five Grand Slam championship doubles crowns — including the 1942, 1945-46 and 1948 U.S. Nationals with Bill Talbert and Wimbledon at the age of 43 — and won a total of 129 national titles. Mulloy, a 6’1” right-hander, also reached the 1952 U.S. Nationals singles final (l. to Frank Sedgman) and also the Roland Garros doubles finals of 1951 and 1952 (w/Dick Savitt). He lifted the Davis Cup trophy on three occasions.
In later years he shuffled around using a walking frame, much to his frustration, but his mind remained just as sharp as the decisive volleys, dipping service returns and well-placed smashes he started striking on the international tennis circuit of the 1930s. Tony Trabert, the President of the International Tennis Hall of Fame who had known Mulloy since 1948, told ATPWorldTour.com in 2014, "He was very fit and the strongest thing he ever drank was milk. He always marched to his own drum. We first played one another at the US Nationals in 1949, when I was 19 and he beat me in four sets. In 1954, we met again on a Denver clay court when he was 41, and I beat him in five sets!"
Mulloy grew up in Spring Garden, near the Miami River, with his father building one of the city’s first tennis courts at their house in 1923. He went on to establish the tennis team at the University of Miami, where he was on an American Football scholarship and boxed, in 1935. He lived in a modest three-bedroom house, a ‘tennis museum’ of trophies, plaques, old photographs and film reels, next door to the one he grew up in, with the remains of the original family court in the back garden.
"I played [American] football and baseball in the city, before my father got me into tennis," Mulloy told ATPWorldTour.com in 2014, shortly prior to his 100th birthday. "Eventually, we won the U.S. National Father & Sons’ title three times [the first of which came in 1939]. I enjoyed competing, but when I grew up it was considered a ‘sissy’ sport in the United States. Tennis is the only sport where you are constantly involved – running, hitting the ball and receiving it. That is why I competed at the highest level for so long and continued as a senior. It’s a wonderful sport."
During his top-flight tennis career, the lithe and athletic Mulloy maintained an interested following at every appearance. His nonchalant attitude and biting humour always caused great interest among the galleries. But his career could well have ended with the outbreak of war in Europe, which closed down world tennis. In 1939, he was 26 years old and a graduate manager at the University of Miami.
"When I hit the big time, World War II began, right at the peak of my age and ability," said Mulloy, who, at the time, had recently completed a law degree to appease his father. "People often forget my war service. I wanted to get into the Air Force, but they weren't taking anyone over the age of 25. I got a break on a U.S. Naval course as a ’90-day wonder’, meaning a four-year programme was crammed into three months of training. I ended up becoming a tennis instructor, but I wanted to go to sea."
Through sheer persistence and hard work, Mulloy ended up as a Lieutenant and a Commanding Office of a Landing Ship Tank: the U.S.S. LST 32, leading a crew of 13 officers and 154 men. "It took three or four years away from me, but I was proud to serve my country at four different battles – landing in harm’s way," Mulloy told ATPWorldTour.com in 2014. Launched on 12 July 1943, Mulloy led the California-built ship into action at beachheads in Anzio, Salerno, southern France and northern Africa. For one particular act of heroism he earned the U.S. Navy Medal of Commendation and in 2015, Mulloy was awarded a French Legion of Honour for his service in World War II. He was the oldest first-time recipient of the order since it was created by Napoleon.
By the start of 1945, Mulloy's taste for tennis had returned, when the U.S. Navy Department posted him on a tour of Eastern seaboard hospitals with 52-year-old Tilden. He started to organise his own exhibitions with Alice Marble, Vincent Richards, Tilden and others. Only then did he consider staging a comeback on the international amateur circuit. "I recall people thought I was mad, but I wanted to play Davis Cup," said Mulloy. "I dedicated myself to getting back on the circus." He was 32 and married to his high school sweetheart, Madeleine – "the kindest most beautiful girl in the world" – with whom he raised two daughters, Diane and Janice. Sadly, Madeleine passed away in 1993, after 55 years of marriage.
Mulloy was one of the world’s best doubles players of the 1940s and 1950s, and compiled a 5-9 record in Grand Slam championships finals. As a 43-year-old, nicknamed 'The Grand Old Man Of Tennis', he picked up the 1957 Wimbledon title with Budge Patty after a 8-10, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Australians Neale Fraser and Lew Hoad. The result provided him “the most impressive incident” of his life.
Years earlier, at a pre-Wimbledon garden party, Mulloy had sat next to crown Princess Elizabeth, and asked the future Queen Elizabeth II why she had not been sitting in the royal box at The Championships, Wimbledon. Before Elizabeth could answer, the hostess of the party, Lady Crossfield, replied. Mulloy recalled, she said, “My dear, Mr Mulloy, you must remember those in the royal family have many confining obligations and duties to perform and therefore cannot possibly schedule everything.” Mulloy replied, “Oh, I thought perhaps [the princess] wasn’t able to get tickets, which I would be happy to provide.”
When Queen Elizabeth II presented the doubles trophies to Mulloy and Patty in 1957, Mulloy asked if she remembered him. “Yes, Mr Mulloy,” she replied. “I remember you quite well. As a matter of fact, I had difficulty getting in today as you forgot to leave me tickets.”
Looking back on a lifetime of memories, Mulloy, who continued to play at Grand Slam championships until 1971, when he was 57, before devoting himself to senior competition, told ATPWorldTour.com in 2014, "Tennis was just as popular in the past, but the sport has completely changed. Prize money has sky rocketed and there are plenty of multi-millionaires. We played for peanuts. Everybody says that the players of today are better than years gone by, but that’s nonsense.
"Racquets, tennis balls and equipment development has changed the sport. But tennis ball covering is very thin now. Prior to World War II, the inner core was made of pure grey rubber, but due to the wartime demand for rubber, manufacturers substituted a black synthetic rubber substance and made the core thinner. It made the tennis ball faster in play, and, as we have seen over the past two decades, the number of players going to the net has decreased.
"If former generations – players such as Bill Tilden, Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer and Rod Laver – 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 wrote an autobiography, The Will To Win, that was published in 1960. In 2009, he released an update to his autobiography, titled As It Was. In 1982, he mortgaged his house to start Pet Rescue, Inc., in Miami Gardens. Mulloy, a vegetarian, married his second wife, Jacqueline, whom he first met at Wimbledon in 1957 married in 2008. He is survived by his two daughters, Diane and Janice, four grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.
Gardnar "Gar" Putnam Mulloy, tennis player, coach, author, former U.S Navy lieutenant and commanding officer, born 22 November 2013, died 14 November 2016.