Frank Parker

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Frank "Frankie" Andrew Parker, born Franciszek Andrzej Pailowski, (January 31, 1916, Milwaukee, Wisconsin – July 24, 1997, San Diego, California) was an outstanding American amateur tennis player for nearly two decades, being rated among the top 10 players for 17 consecutive years, from 1933 through 1949, a record for male players that stood until being surpassed by Jimmy Connors in 1988. Two times the number-one ranked American player, he won the national singles championships twice while serving in the Army Air Force during World War II. One of only four Americans to twice win the French championships on their slow clay surface, he was also a fine Davis Cup player, winning 12 of 14 matches.

A youthful prodigy, Parker was also perhaps the first American champion to come, not from the country club set, like Bill Tilden, or even the middle class, like Ellsworth Vines, but from "the low, low class. My mother took in washing. I worked as a ball boy for the Town club in Milwaukee and would make a dollar a week at five cents a set."[1] Parker quickly came under the guidance of Mercer Beasley, a visually impaired mentor who, unable to play himself, was gaining acclaim as "the greatest tennis coach in history." Beasley and his wife essentially adopted the youthful Parker, taking him with them from teaching job to teaching job.[2] Under Beasley's tutelage Parker was the national boys champion, the national juniors champion, and then, at age 17, the eighth-ranked male player in the country. Six months younger than the great Don Budge, he consistently ranked higher than Budge until the latter turned 20.

According to Jack Kramer, another great near-contemporary of Parker's, and many other observers, the youthful Parker, an emotionless, robot-like tennis-stroking machine, had originally had "a wonderful slightly overspin forehand drive. Clean and hard."[3] Then, according to Kramer,

for some reason Beasley decided to change this stroke into a chop. It was obscene; it was like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.... Beasley got it into his head that Parker should hit with a forehand like Leo Durocher threw the ball from shortstop to first base. That was what Beasley patterned Parker's new forehand after.

Parker's revamped forehand was not a success; writing about the 22-year-old Parker in 1938, Time magazine said that while he had "learned Beasley accuracy and strategy, developed several trick strokes—notably "the shovel"—but never perfected a strong forehand."[4] In a 1935 controversy after the 19-year-old Parker had been defeated in an early round by Fred Perry in the United States championships, Parker declared that he was quitting to school to work on his forehand with Beasley in Bermuda. Beasley himself then announced that, "Frankie's got a swelled head. I tried to make him use the circle swingback but he wouldn't listen to me...."[5] For years after breaking from Beasley he attempted to reconstruct his original stroke but never entirely recovered it and, according to Kramer, never quite achieved the ultimate heights that he might have otherwise.

As a strange sidelight to Parker's longtime relationship with Beasley, the youthful player and Beasley's wife, Audrey, who was at least 20 years Parker's senior and had been his surrogate mother during all his teen years, fell in love, hiding the fact from Mercer for a number of years. In 1938, however, when Parker was 22, the Beasleys divorced and Audrey married the much younger Parker. The marriage, however, was apparently a happy one for 43 years until Audrey died in 1971.[6]

Frank Parker should not be confused with two other fine American players of roughly the same era whose careers overlapped Parker's to one degree or another: Frank Shields, number one in 1933, and Frank Kovacs, number two in 1941.

References

  1. Once a Champion: Legendary Tennis Stars Revisited, by Stan Hart, Dodd, Mead & Co., New York, 1985, page 160
  2. It is uncertain whether the youth was ever legally adopted by the Beasleys; some sources of the 1930s such as the Time magazine of September 16, 1935, [1] say that he was; at other times he is referred to only as their "foster" child. While being interviewed for Stan Hart's book in 1984, Parker said that his mother would not let the Beasleys adopt him.
  3. The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis, Jack Kramer with Frank Deford, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1979, (ISBN 0-399-12336-9), page 48
  4. "Sport:Love Set", Time magazine, March 29, 1938, at[2]<
  5. "Sport: Rain at Forest Hills", Time magazine, September 16, 1935 at, [3]
  6. The New York Times obituary of Parker, July 28, 1997, at [4]