Wilmer Allison

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Wilmer Lawson Allison, Jr. (born December 8, 1904 in San Antonio, Texas–died April 20, 1977 in Austin, Texas) was an American amateur tennis champion of the 1930s particularly known for his devastating forehand volley. Allison's career was subsequently overshadowed by the arrival of the great Don Budge, but he was both a fine singles player and, along with his frequent partner, John Van Ryn, a great doubles player. In his 1979 autobiography Jack Kramer, who had a fine volley himself, devotes a page to the best tennis strokes he had ever seen: "FOREHAND VOLLEY—Wilmer Allison of Texas, who won the 1935 Forest Hills, had the best I ever saw as a kid, and I've never seen anyone since hit one better. Budge Patty came closest, then [John] Newcombe".[1]

A tall, wiry, right-handed player who stood 5'11" and weighed 155 pounds, his New York Times obituary said that:

Mr. Allison played with spectacular style. He was one of the most aggressive hitters, attacking with machine-gun speed and incessantly seeking the net behind his whiplash service. There were few better volleyers, and he was a bulldog for fight.[2]

Allison's greatest singles triumph was winning the 1935 U.S. National Championship at Forest Hills, defeating in straight sets both the Englishman Fred Perry in the semi-finals and fellow-American Sidney Wood in the finals. The previous year he had lost an epic finals to Perry 8-6 in the fifth set. Allison was ranked in the Top 10 of the United States amateur players for 8 consecutive years, being No. 1 in both 1934 and 1935, as well as being the unofficial World No. 4 in both 1932 and 1935. At Wimbledon, he lost the 1930 title to the aging Bill Tilden, the greatest player in tennis history to that point. Playing doubles with John Van Ryn, Allison won the 1929 and 1930 Wimbledon and the 1935 U.S. championships. His last major tournament was in 1936 when, seeded fifth at Wimbledon, he lost in the opening round to the unseeded Australian Vivian McGrath.

Davis Cup

In an era in which Davis Cup matches attracted nearly as much attention as the World Series or World Cup finals do today, Allison played 44 matches for the United States from 1928 through 1936, the most in history for an American player at the time of his retirement, just ahead of Bill Tilden's 41. Today his number of matches are the third most of any player, behind John McEnroe's 69 and Vic Seixas's 55. Playing 16 matches with John Van in doubles, he had an overall record of 32 wins and 12 losses but was never on a winning Davis Cup team.

In 1931, in an Interzone semi-finals match against Italy's ambidextrous Giorgio de Stefani, he won a memorable five-set match in which, at 2-5 in the fourth set, he saved two match points and, in the last set, beginning by being down 1-5, even more remarkably, saved another 16 before winning the match.

The following year, playing France in the Challenge Round for the Cup itself, he lost a vital, and extremely controversial, match against Jean Borotra. In the fifth set, at match point for Allison at 4-5, Borotra served what nearly everyone in the jammed stadium perceived to be a double-fault.

To the amazement of the spectators, the linesman insisted the service had been good. The dumbfounded American, who had been on the way to the net to shake with his opponent, resumed play and eventually lost the match, and the United States lost the cup.[3]


Allison's ability at singles was almost overshadowed by his doubles prowess. He and his long-time partner John Van Ryn won the two most prestigious doubles titles twice each, Wimbledon in 1929 and 1930, and the U.S. title in 1931 and 1935. And with Edith Cross he won the U.S. mixed-doubles title in 1929. In Davis Cup matches, he and Van Ryn had a record of 14 wins with only 2 losses. In the May, 1973, issue of Tennis Magazine, George Lott, who himself had won five U.S. doubles titles and two at Wimbledon, ranked the great doubles teams and the great doubles players; Allison and Van Ryn were his choice as the ninth best team of all time.

Here were two great players whose games meshed nicely. Van Ryn was slow but steady, while Allison was a streak player who, when he was good, was very, very good.[4]

Allison and Van Ryn were inducted simultaneously into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1963.

Mercer Beasley

A life-long Texan, Allison attended the University of Texas, where he was the National Collegiate Athletic Association Intercollegiate champion in 1927. In spite of his success, however, at one point he "found his game going sour and his national ranking taking a drop. He was unhappy about his forehand."[5]

Seeking help, he went to tennis coach and instructor Mercer Beasley, who was just about to acquire a reputation for discovering and tutoring the incomparable Ellsworth Vines, and who would soon go on to mentoring the nearly as good Frank Parker. Beasley was coaching at nearby Tulane University in New Orleans at the time,

and they worked out his difficulty with the stroke. It was after that the Texan began to play his best tennis and his forehand, sweeping across court or drilled down the line to open the way for his feared volley, was a big factor in his getting to the final of the national championship in 1934 and winning the title in 1935.[6]

It was apparently towards the end of 1929 or early 1930 that Allison worked with Beasley. Describing the 1930 Wimbledon Championships, The Story of the Davis Cup says that:

Wilmer Allison, a rugged Texan, did not possess half the talent of [Henri] Cochet; he was a net player who had taken an entire season off to work with Mercer Beasley in acquiring better ground strokes. He dispatched Cochet in the quarter finals and then beat [John] Doeg. [Bill] Tilden, with his bogey-man [Cochet] removed, won a close five-setter against [Jean] Borotra and swept Allison aside for the crown[7]

A grateful Allison wrote in the Introduction to Beasley's well-known and influential How to Play Tennis: The Beasley System, first published in 1933: "....the transcending genius of Beasley is that he can turn from teaching the most elementary steps to a rank beginner, and teach champions strategy and court tactics." [8]

After retirement

After suddenly retiring from competitive tennis following his unexpected loss to Vivian McGrath in the 1936 Wimbledon opening round, Allison became a U.S.Tennis Association committeeman. During World War II he served in the United States Army Air Forces, rising to colonel. From 1957 through 1972 he served as tennis coach for his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. Donating his services without pay, his teams won four Southwest Conference championships as well as three conference singles titles and one doubles title. He died in Austin of an apparent heart attach at age 72.[9]

Grand Slam record

Wimbledon Championships

  • Doubles champion: 1929, 1930

U.S. Championships

  • Singles champion: 1935
  • Doubles champion: 1931, 1935
  • Mixed Doubles champion: 1930


  1. The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis by Jack Kramer with Frank Deford, 1979, P.G. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1979, pages 295-296
  2. New York Times obituary of April 21, 1977, at [1]
  3. New York Times obituary of April 21, 1977, at [2]
  4. "The Greatest Doubles Teams and Players", by George Lott, in the May, 1973, issue of Tennis Magazine, reprinted in The Tennis Book. edited by Michael Bartlett and Bob Gillen, Arbor House, New York, 1981, page 337
  5. "On Nearby Tennis Courts: Beasley's Coaching Spans 35 Years", by Allison Danzig, in the New York Times,, July 13, 1957,at [3]
  6. "On Nearby Tennis Courts: Beasley's Coaching Spans 35 Years", by Allison Danzig, in the New York Times,, July 13, 1957,at [4]
  7. The Story of the Davis Cup, page 103
  8. How to Play Tennis: The Beasley System, American Sports Publishing, New York, 1933, pages xi-xii
  9. New York Times obituary of April 21, 1977, at [5]