Gene Mako, Tennis Champion, Dies at 97
Published: June 17, 2013
Gene Mako, who overcame injury to win a pair of United States and Wimbledon doubles championships with his good friend Don Budge but lost to him in the Forest Hills national singles final that brought Budge the first Grand Slam in tennis history, died on Friday in Los Angeles. He was 97.
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The New York Times
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His death was confirmed by Cara Lasala, a spokeswoman for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he died.
A native of Hungary who learned to play tennis in Southern California, Mako seemed destined to be among the game’s biggest stars, a 6-foot “golden boy,” as one writer described him, displaying a dominating serve and a strong overhead and hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities.
But while playing on an English grass court in 1936, he fell and severely injured a shoulder. The injury took away much of his power, but Budge, his doubles partner and friend since their junior tennis days, encouraged him to persevere.
“I told him I’d be serving like a little old lady and would have to shovel the ball around, but it was O.K. with him,” Mako was quoted as saying by the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.
Mako and Budge won the United States men’s doubles title in 1936 at the Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill, Mass., and at Forest Hills in Queens in 1938; they won the Wimbledon doubles title in 1937 and ’38. They teamed in doubles on four United States Davis Cup teams, including the championship squads of 1937 and ’38.
In September 1938, Mako engineered a string of upsets to reach the singles final at Forest Hills as an unseeded player. His opponent in the title match was Budge, who had won the Australian, French and Wimbledon singles titles that year and was looking to complete the Grand Slam with a United States championship in Queens.
Though the match pitted friends and road-trip roommates, the competition was intense. Winning the second set, 8-6, the only set Budge dropped in the tournament, Mako displayed a strong forehand, a backhand slice from all angles and superb lobs and drop shots.
“There was no holding back on either side, and there was no trace of amiability in the scorching forehand drives with which Mako caught Budge in faulty position inside the baseline or the murderous backhand and volcanic service which Budge turned loose,” Allison Danzig wrote in The New York Times.
Budge defeated Mako in four sets, becoming the first player to capture all four of tennis’s major championships in the same year. That match was Mako’s only singles final in a major.
Budge rejected suggestions that he allowed Mako to win one set out of friendship.
“I had too much respect and affection for Gene to treat him as if he were an inferior player who could be given a set for his troubles, rather than a condescending pat on the head,” he was quoted as saying in “Bud Collins’ Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis,” by Collins and Zander Hollander.
Mako also won the mixed doubles at Longwood in 1936, teaming with Alice Marble in a straight-set defeat of Budge and Sarah Palfrey Fabyan. He was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1973 for his outstanding doubles play.
Constantine Gene Mako was born in Budapest on Jan. 24, 1916. His father, Bartholomew, was an artist who painted, drew and created sculptures, and his mother, the former Georgina Farka, was a teacher. The family moved to Italy and Argentina and then came to the Los Angeles area when Gene was a youngster. Bartholomew Mako produced paintings promoting Hollywood films.
Mako, who began playing tennis on public courts in the Los Angeles area, was winning tournaments by age 12 and became friends with Budge as a teenager, the two of them also sharing a love of jazz. He won the national collegiate singles and doubles titles, pairing with Phillip Caslin, for Southern California in 1934.
Mako was part of the Hollywood celebrity set in the 1930s, mingling with film stars. When he was married in November 1941, his best man was the actor Paul Lukas, a fellow native of Budapest and a tennis enthusiast, who had cheered Mako and Budge in the Davis Cup competition at Wimbledon in 1937, taking along Jack Benny.
Mako was ranked No. 3 in the United States in 1938. When Budge began competing as a pro the following year, Mako curtailed his play. He served in the Navy during World War II and briefly played pro tennis.
He later became an art dealer in Los Angeles at Gene Mako Galleries and assembled many of his father’s artworks. He also built private tennis courts. Budge died in 2000.
Mako, who lived in West Hollywood, is survived by his wife, the former Laura Mae Church.
Long after his tennis heyday, Mako reflected on his shoulder injury and its consequences. “Everybody said I had the best serve and overhead in the world,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2007, recalling the time before he was hurt. “And I went from that to nothing. Mentally, it was a terrible thing.
“Because I had to concentrate like a son of a gun after I was injured, maybe I would not have played any better, or even as well, if I hadn’t been injured. I did most everything I did with whatever talent I had.”