Sunday, December 10, 2017
Sports

Tennis, Titanic survival link unsinkable spirits

When Richard Norris Williams II won the 1914 U.S. National Tennis Championships in Newport, R.I., upsetting defending two-time champion Maurice E. McLoughlin, he completed what might still be considered the greatest comeback in any sport.

In two years: from the Titanic to the title.

It was a stunning tale that was made more remarkable by Williams' quarterfinal victory over Karl Behr, a fellow Titanic survivor.

A century ago, playing in an amateur tournament that became the U.S. Open, Williams, also known as Dick, was a Harvard student and an aspiring investment banker with no apparent need to ever promote or cash in on surviving a disaster that claimed more than 1,500 lives.

"A modest man who didn't like to talk about himself," said his grandson Quincy Williams. The proof, he said, was a memoir — about 35 double-space typed pages — written largely for family members, focusing on his years in tennis, his distinguished service in World War I and the tragedy in the Atlantic.

The Titanic was never a much-discussed family topic, though when James Cameron's film came out in 1997, "we were bombarded," Quincy Williams said.

Born to American parents but raised in Geneva, Dick Williams also corresponded with Walter Lord after the publication of Lord's 1955 best-seller, A Night to Remember, about the Titanic's sinking. Quincy Williams said the differences in his grandfather's writings to Lord and in the memoir, produced years apart, might have reflected trauma, failing memory or both.

•••

By any account, the experience was harrowing.

Williams jumped or was washed off the doomed ocean liner early on April 15, 1912, after being separated from his father, Charles, a Philadelphia-bred lawyer and a descendant of Benjamin Franklin's. According to Dick Williams' differing writings, his father drowned or was crushed to death by one of the ship's falling funnels. Dick Williams survived by kicking off his shoes and "swimming with all my might" while apparently encumbered by a heavy fur coat over his life jacket.

In his memoir, he wrote: "I turned towards the ship. It was an extraordinary sight. As the bow went under, the stern lifted higher and higher into the air, then pivoted and swung slowly over my head. Had it come down then I would have been crushed. Looking straight up I saw the three propellers and the rudder distinctly outlined against the clear sky. She slid into the ocean. No suction. No noise."

He ultimately hung on to and climbed into a collapsible lifeboat about 100 yards away; its canvas sides had not been raised, and the wooden bottom floated just beneath the surface. He recalled a changing cast of more than two dozen people clinging to the boat or sitting in knee-deep water — several of whom he helped pull to safety — as cries for rescue all around them weakened and eventually stilled in the darkness.

Including Williams, about a dozen from the lifeboat were among the roughly 700 survivors picked up by the Carpathia.

Among other chilling details in Williams' writings is his response to a doctor aboard the Carpathia who had "cheerfully advised" the immediate amputation of his legs to combat hypothermia and prevent gangrene.

"I'm going to need these legs," Williams said.

Twelve weeks later, having walked the deck of the Carpathia every two hours to restore circulation, Williams was back on a grass tennis court. His fourth-round opponent at the Longwood Challenge Bowl was Karl Behr.

•••

Though Behr, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., had attended boarding school in Geneva, he and Williams did not know each other. Five years older than Williams, then 21, Behr had been a star at Yale and a doubles finalist at Wimbledon in 1907, when he was the third-ranked American in singles. In at least one respect, he was far ahead of his time, occasionally donning a white headband to match the era's white pants.

Williams was aboard the Titanic because a case of measles had delayed his trip to the United States to enroll at Harvard. Behr, in Europe, had changed plans when he learned that his romantic interest, Helen Newsom, 19, was planning to take the maiden voyage. He married Newsom the year after sharing a lifeboat with her.

Behr's granddaughter Helen Behr Sanford, who also goes by Lynn Sanford, in 2011 wrote Starboard at Midnight, a book about her grandparents' lives that was based on research and Behr's 185-page memoir.

Sanford said Behr had accompanied Newsom to the lifeboat, planning to say goodbye. He later said it was initially believed there would be enough lifeboats, though Sanford was of the understanding that few imagined early on that the ship would sink after hitting the iceberg. "I believe he was told that they needed him to row," Sanford said.

In the aftermath, Behr, who died of prostate cancer in 1949 at 64, struggled with guilt, as did other male survivors, whose courage was questioned, especially when compared with those who lived to tell of their time in the water. "I think it took a huge love of life for him to continue," Sanford said.

•••

Behr resumed playing tennis and ultimately switched from a career in law to investment banking. Sanford said Behr also became an advocate for moving the U.S. championships permanently to the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills in his native New York.

"He believed that tennis shouldn't just be for the elite," Sanford said.

In his first post-Titanic meeting with Williams, at Longwood, Behr rallied from a two-set deficit to win in five. By the time they met in the quarterfinals of the 1914 U.S. championships, Behr was past his peak and Williams was entering his prime.

The straight-sets victory over Behr propelled Williams to what was considered a shocking dethronement of McLoughlin, a fierce server with an agile net game, in straight sets for the first of his two national titles. He finished his career with a U.S. mixed double championship (1912), two U.S. nationals doubles championships (1925-26), a Wimbledon doubles title (1920), a mixed doubles gold medal in the 1924 Olympics and a distinguished Davis Cup career as a player and a captain. He held the No. 1 ranking for U.S. singles in 1916.

Williams was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1957. Behr was posthumously elected in 1969. Williams died in 1968 at 77.

After Williams was elected, Allison Danzig wrote in the New York Times that when Williams was at his best, he was better than Bill Tilden. "His game was all offense. He never played safe," Danzig wrote, leaving many to wonder if that had anything to do with a second lease on life.

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