Ellsworth Vines

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Henry Ellsworth "Elly" Vines, Jr. (September 28, 1911 – March 17, 1994) was an American tennis player of the 1930s who was the World No. 1 player for 4 years, once as an amateur and three times as a professional. In the opinion of Jack Kramer, himself a great player, Vines was, along with Don Budge, one of the two greatest players who ever lived. According to Kramer's 1979 autobiography, Budge was consistently the best, but, at the very top of his game, Vines was unbeatable by anyone: "...On his best days, Vines played the best tennis ever. Hell, when Elly was on, you'd be lucky to get your racket on the ball once you served it."[1] He later became a successful professional golfer and unquestionably has the best record of any athlete to have played both sports.

Tall and thin, Vines had a game with no noticeable weaknesses, except, according to Kramer, because of his great natural athletic ability, laziness. He was particularly known for his powerful forehand and his very fast serve, both of which he generally hit absolutely flat with no spin. Although Vines could play the serve-and-volley game, he mostly played an all-court game, preferring to hit winners from the baseline. Playing in the white flannel trousers that were standard dress for the time, he greatly impressed the youthful Kramer in a 1935 match in Southern California: "And here is Ellsworth Vines, 6'2-1/2" tall, 155 pounds, dressed like Fred Astaire and hitting shots like Babe Ruth." Kramer made up his mind on the spot to concentrate on tennis.

Vines had "the perfect slim body," according to Kramer, "that was coordinated for anything. Elly won Forest Hills the first time when he was still only nineteen, but at the same time he was also devoting himself to basketball at the University of Southern California. He went there, on a basketball scholarship." (However, he would never play on the basketball team; the school's official all-time roster does not list him.)

Bud Collins, the editor of Total Tennis: The Ultimate Tennis Encyclopedia, writes in his chapter on 1932 that Vines "...had a curious windmill stroke in which the racket made an almost 360-degree sweep. Starting on high as though he were going to serve, he brought the racket back almost to the ground and swept up to the ball. He put no spin on it, however, thereby hitting a flat shot with tremendous force that made him unbeatable when he was on." Collins goes on to say that "Opponents came to realize that the way to beat him was to keep the ball in play, hitting him soft stuff until he started making errors." [2]

Born into a middle-class home in Pasadena, California, Vines was a 15-year-old high-school student at Pasadena High and working part-time in a bakery when he was spotted by the 44-year-old Mercer Beasley, who, with only four years of coaching experience, had not yet become the most famous tennis court in America. According to the New York Times:

Beasley...flattened his serve and forehand into the rifle shots they became and used ingenuity in developing his fabled accuracy. A narrow strip of canvas with cutouts would be stretched across the top of the net, and Vines would spend hours drilling balls through the holes.[3]

After turning professional in 1934, Vines practiced with Bruce Barnes before beginning his tour against Bill Tilden. "It’s hit and miss with us," joked Barnes after one session. "When he hits I miss."[4]

Growing bored with tennis while only in his late twenties, Vines became a professional golfer and, over the years, had a number of high finishes in tournaments, including one professional victory and a semi-final position in the prestigious 1951 PGA Championship when it was a match-play tournament. "He was twice in the top ten of golf money winnings," writes Kramer, "and he was surely the best athlete ever in the two sports." (Frank Conner is apparently the only other male athlete to ever compete in the U.S. Open championships of both tennis and golf; he was a somewhat more successful professional golfer than Vines but nowhere near as good a tennis player.) He goes on to compare Vines to another great tennis player, Lew Hoad. "Both were very strong guys. Both succeeded at a very young age.... Also, both were very lazy guys. Vines lost interest in tennis (for golf) before he was thirty, and Hoad never appeared to be very interested. Despite their great natural ability, neither put up the outstanding records that they were capable of. Unfortunately, the latter was largely true because both had physical problems."

Vines was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1962.

Grand Slam singles finals

Wins (3)

Year Championship Opponent in Final Score in Final
1931 U.S. Championships George Lott 7-9, 6-3, 9-7, 7-5
1932 Wimbledon Championships Bunny Austin 6-4, 6-2, 6-0
1932 U.S. Championships (2) Henri Cochet 6-4, 6-4, 6-4

Runner-ups (1)

Year Championship Opponent in Final Score in Final
1933 Wimbledon Championships Jack Crawford 6-4, 9-11, 2-6, 6-2, 4-6


  1. Kramer considered the best ever to have been either Don Budge (for consistent play) or Vines (at the height of his game). The next four best were, chronologically, Bill Tilden, Fred Perry, Bobby Riggs, and Pancho Gonzales. After these six came the "second echelon" of Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Gottfried von Cramm, Ted Schroeder, Jack Crawford, Pancho Segura, Frank Sedgman, Tony Trabert, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Björn Borg, and Jimmy Connors. He felt unable to rank Henri Cochet and René Lacoste accurately but felt they were among the very best.
  2. Total Tennis: The Ultimate Tennis Encyclopedia, by Bud Collins, page 53
  3. New York Times, March 20, 1994, obituary of Vines, at [1]
  4. History of the Pro Tennis Wars, Chapter V, by Ray Bowers, http://www.tennisserver.com/lines/lines_03_03_01.html


  • The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis (1979), Jack Kramer with Frank Deford (ISBN 0-399-12336-9)
  • Total Tennis: The Ultimate Tennis Encyclopedia (2003), by Bud Collins (ISBN 0-9731443-4-3)

See also

External links