Frank Kovacs

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Frank ("Frankie") Kovacs (1919 - 1990) was an American tennis player in the 1940s and '50s; he was known as the "Clown Prince of Tennis" for his on-court antics but was a good enough player to be the number 3-ranked American amateur in 1940 and the number 2 in 1941. As a long-time professional player after World War II, he kept his game at a high enough level into his late thirties to be ranked by various sources as one of the half-dozen best professionals in the world.[1] Joe McCauley, in his History of Professional Tennis, says that it was "reported in the [1951] PLTA year book that, as of October 1951, Frank Kovacs held a remarkable 14-3 lead over Jack Kramer in their head-to-head meetings." .[2] If true, this is most certainly a remarkable statistic, for Kramer was, by most reckonings, the world's number 1 player, amateur or professional, from 1948 through 1952 or 1953, and is still a strong candidate for the title of the greatest tennis player who ever lived.

Probably the most eccentric major player ever, stories of his Kovacs's antics are still told in the tennis world. Once, serving for a match point, he tossed three balls in the air - hitting the middle one for an ace. He was known to jump into the stands to applaud his opponents, and once staged a sit-down strike during a match. He often stopped play so that he could complain about the heavy nap on the balls, and would then shove the offending balls into his mouth so that he could chew on the nap. Kovacs' near-contemporary Kramer writes in his autobiography that "he was a big attractive guy, 6'4", with a great smile—sort of a Nastase type, only harmless, not mean." [3] He goes on to say that during an important match against Joe Hunt "Kovacs looked up at an airplane. Hunt mimiced him, so Kovacs lay down for a clearer view, and Hunt did the same, and they were both soon lying flat out on the turf watching an airplane fly by while the fans watched them." [4]

Although he showed flashes of brilliance (it was said of him that on the right days, when he was briefly "in the zone", he could be unbeatable), his career results were relatively mundane. His best amateur result was a second-place finish in the U.S. National Singles Championship in 1941, losing to Bobby Riggs; he also had a second-place finish in the United States Professional Championship in 1950, losing to Pancho Segura in the finals. As Kramer assessed him: "Kovacs had picture strokes, but the reason he could never win anything is because he didn't have any idea how to go about winning. He never had a set plan for a match. Hell, he never had a set plan for a shot. He could sort of decide what to do with it halfway through the stroke." [5]

Kovacs' best shot, says Kramer, was "a hard, angled backhand crosscourt, but he could never figure out how to set it up so he could take advantage of it." [6] As Riggs said to Kramer one day: "...don't worry about Frankie.... He looks great, but give him long enough and he'll find some way to keep you in the match, and give him a little longer and he'll find a way to beat himself." [7]

Kovacs was also responsible for something of a scandal over money in tennis, which, before the Open era, was divided into amateur and professional players. After he was barred from amateur tennis in 1941 (leaving with a characteristic witticism - "Amateur tennis stinks - there's no money in it any more."), he talked about how money was quietly - and widely - paid to supposedly amateur players for entering tournaments.

After being evicted from the amateur ranks, he and Riggs turned professional at the same time. In 1942 the professional tour consisted of round-robin matches between Don Budge, Bobby Riggs, Fred Perry, and Kovacs. Budge ended up with the best record, 54 wins to 18 losses, but Kovacs had the second best, 25 wins to 26 losses. He then joined the U.S. Army and served through the remainder of World War II .

His cousin was the entertainer Ernie Kovacs. He married an well-known San Francisco vocal coach, Judy Davis, in 1950 and they lived for many years in a beautiful home in the Oakland, California, hills. Frank Kovacs should not be confused with two other fine American players of roughly the same era whose careers overlapped Kovac's to one degree or another: Frank Shields, number one in 1933, and Frank Parker, number one in 1944 and '45.

See also


  1. The History of Professional Tennis, by Joe McCauley, page 66
  2. The History of Professional Tennis, by Joe McCauley, page 198
  3. The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis, by Jack Kramer with Frank Deford, page 50
  4. The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis, by Jack Kramer with Frank Deford, page 51
  5. The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis, by Jack Kramer with Frank Deford, page 51
  6. The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis, by Jack Kramer with Frank Deford, page 51
  7. The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis, by Jack Kramer with Frank Deford, page 51


  • The History of Professional Tennis, by Joe McCauley, Short Run Book Company Limited, London, 2003.
  • The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis, by Jack Kramer with Frank Deford, G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1979 (ISBN 0-399-12336-9)
  • The Last Sure Thing, The Life & Times of Bobby Riggs, by Tom LeCompte, Skunkworks Publishing, 2003, contains a number of Kovacs stories

External links