Joe Hunt’s Lasting Memorial

The United States Naval Academy men’s tennis team kicked off the fall season by hosting the inaugural Joe Hunt Invitational, September 25-27. The championship has been named in memory of the 1942 Southern California graduate who remains the foremost player in the school’s history. The year before leaving Annapolis, he won the NCAA singles title. The year following his departure, the Naval Lieutenant, in an epic battle of the services, defeated Jack Kramer, who was in the Coast Guard, 6-3, 6-8, 10-8, 6-0 in the US National singles final.

Jack Kramer and Joe Hunt Photo International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, Newport, Rhode Island

Jack Kramer and Joe Hunt
Photo International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, Newport, Rhode Island

Hunt had it all. He was a versatile athlete with movie star good looks. The late Pat Henry Yeomans wrote about him in her treasured book, “Southern California Tennis Champions Centennial 1887-1987”, saying, “Joe won his first national title, in 1934, when he was the singles champion and teamed with Arthur Nielson, Jr. for the National Boys’ doubles title. He won the National Junior Doubles, with Bobby Riggs in 1935, with Julius Heldman in 1936 and with John Moreno Jr. in 1937, the year that he also captured the singles.”

Hunt, who developed his game playing at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, used his serve and volley skill to earn a US Top 10 ranking as a 17-year-old. As the No. 1 player at USC in 1938, he didn’t lose a singles or doubles match, and he teamed with Louis Wetherell to win the NCAA doubles championships. With the world’s turmoil worsening, he enlisted in the military and transferred to the US Naval Academy. In 1940, he was a halfback on the football team and played against Army that season, where he earned a game ball.

Photo Kevin Wensing

Photo Kevin Wensing

His charmed life came to an abrupt and unexpected end fifteen days shy of his 26th birthday on February 2, 1945 when his Navy Hellcat, a WWII combat aircraft crashed into the ocean while he was on a training flight off the coast of Florida.

Hunt’s great-nephew, Joseph (Joe) T. Hunt grew up playing tennis in Southern California. Now an attorney practicing in Seattle, he has been the family leader, organizing efforts to see that Joe Hunt’s legacy is more than his posthumous induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1966.

“Seattle” Joe Hunt admitted, “I grew up playing tennis with people like Jacques Manset, Mark Wooldridge, Mark Basham and Mike Falberg in Santa Barbara. I played my high school tennis for Tim Trigueiro’s dad, Jack. He was quite a character, and one of the best coaches I have ever known. And remember, I still consider myself a Santa Barbara boy, and my mother and sister live there.

Joe Hunt serves for the family. Photo Kevin Wensing.

Joe Hunt serves for the family.
Photo Kevin Wensing.

“Joe and the family moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles when he was about 14 years old. His father, Reuben was not only a top player himself, but also a successful bankruptcy referee. I am fairly sure they relocated to Los Angeles for his bankruptcy practice.”

Yeomans noted, “He was a hometown Los Angeles boy from a famous tennis family. His father, Reuben Hunt collected tennis trophies all along the Pacific Coast. There were two older children when the family lived in Berkeley. Charley, who was a fine junior player in the 1930s, and Marianne Hunt, who won US Girls’ 18 Hard Court doubles, in 1930, with Alice Marble.”

After his National championship victory in 1943, Hunt was ranked No. 1 in the US after having been No. 9 in 1936; No. 5 in 1938; and No. 4 in 1940.

On Military Appreciation Day at the 2014 US Open, Joseph (Joe) R. Hunt was recognized, along with all veterans who had sacrificed their lives for their country. The festivities resulted in the first-ever reunion of two sides of the family. “This was truly a once in a lifetime event,” (Seattle) Joe recalled.

On Sunday, September 27th, prior to the Joe Hunt Invitational final, the presentation took place on Court 6, designating it the Joe Hunt Court. “Court 6 is special,” Hunt said. “It sits by itself at the end of ‘Captain’s Row,’ which is a collection of beautiful homes where Navy captains live.  It has a huge viewing area and was the court that Joe played not only his Navy matches on, but it is also where the Davis Cup team came to practice with him.  There are photos of Joe playing Don Budge on the court and letters from the Davis Cup captain, Walter Pate, organizing exhibition matches on the court, between Joe and Bobby Riggs. So, this is a very special court that will now bear Joe’s name.”

Men's team with coach, Chris Garner and Joe Hunt holding the Joe Hunt Invitational trophy. Photo Kevin Wensing

Men’s team with coach, Chris Garner and Joe Hunt holding the Joe Hunt Invitational trophy.
Photo Kevin Wensing

Naval Academy Athletic Director, Chet Gladchuk, former men’s tennis coach, John Officer, and his wife, Cathy, along with current coach, Chris Garner and his team welcomed all the members of the Hunt family who attended the celebration with open arms.

“In today’s tennis world can you imagine a top player transferring from USC to the Naval Academy after winning the NCAA doubles title,” Garner asked? “Can you imagine one of the top American players putting his career on hold in order to serve his country? Joe Hunt did it.

“After transferring from USC, he would claim the NCAA singles title while attending the USNA. Joe was one of the best players in the world at the time. I have seen a picture where he is practicing on the same court being named in his honor with the US Davis Cup team. (Practice had to be there because he could not leave the Yard while classes were still in session.) It’s amazing the US Davis Cup team came to practice at the Naval Academy for Joe. He obviously was a tennis great, with many accomplishments, but his service and commitment to his country is an even more worthy accolade for which he was recognized.”

“Seattle” Joe Hunt talked about his sense of closure, bringing out, “Last year on Arthur Ashe Stadium Court at the US Open was deeply appreciated, but for me, those first inspiring moments on the Yard in 2014 a haunting, life-long question was finally answered. Why?

“Why would a 19-year-old, ranked No. 5 in the country, a Davis Cup player, the odds-on favorite to win three straight intercollegiate championships and one of a small handful of players capable of winning multiple US and Wimbledon Championships…leave his family, his home, his shining tennis career to come to the US Naval Academy?

“I believe I know why. Joe visited here for the first time in the spring of 1938 as a guest of coach Art Hendrix. In that visit, he saw what I saw, and felt what I felt, and I believe he was inspired to be part of a higher calling in life, something greater than himself – serving his country as a Naval officer.

“As it turned out, while his opportunities were limited, what Joe ultimately gained at the Naval Academy took him to the very pinnacle of the tennis world. He grew up here; he became a man here. He loved the place. As an individual and as a tennis player, he was maturing. The fullness of his life can be seen in his having given his life to the service. To this day, Joe’s body still lies with his plane, at the bottom of the sea, 10 miles off Daytona Beach.

“This tennis court is now a lasting memorial for Joe. On this day, you have brought him home and laid him to rest. We, Joe’s family, hope the site, in some small way, can be part of what inspires and encourages Naval tennis players in the years to come.

“I want to thanks all of those who were involved in causing this to happen and making the memorial for Joe come into being.”

Mark Winters

Look for a fresh examination of tennis topics at “Mark Thoughts”


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