Way before the inimitable Laszlo "Laci" Bellak came from Hungary to play in the 1937 U.S. Open, he had an unmatchable reputation as an on-court entertainer--a world class player with an impishly unique and maddeningly effective style. The first U.S. player to see Laci in action and to marvel at his virtuoso serio-comic performance was Marcus Schussheim, the sole representative of the newly formed USTTA to attend the Dec., 1933 Paris World's. There Laszlo lost, for the third time, the final of the Men's Singles Championship--and so has often been called "the greatest player never to win a world singles title."
Bellak and his boyhood friend Victor Barna, both born in Budapest in 1911, began their extraordinary table tennis careers by playing together at the Bellak home, for Laci had received a ping-pong set from his father for his 13th birthday. Then, on venturing out to parlors where the Game was played, they met Sandor Glancz, their lifelong friend, who by the late 1920's was also one of the best players in the world.
In 1927 Bellak, Glancz, and a fellow named Muller, representing the National Sports Club, won the national team matches over the favored team of Barna, Miklos "Mike" Szabados, and Zoltan Mechlovits--with Muller surprisingly winning all his matches. This was the start of a world-class career for him too? Here's Laci, always one to tell a fun story, describing in his 1990 Table Tennis Muller's future in the Sport:
"...After our big win, on the way home, to our greatest surprise...Muller threw his racket in the sewer. 'That is all I wanted to accomplish,' [he said] 'to win the national team matches. I am not interested in the game anymore.' Sure enough, he never played again."
Bellak's win in the Men's in the 1926 Budapest Championships may have made him professional enough to have a racket in reserve, for, from what he tells us, he might have needed it: "By 1927 most of the players were using pimpled rubber bats. Even this had disadvantages. From the heat of your finger the rubber would melt and stick to the fingers. Also, the pimples would fall off in about two months."
But whatever the problems that confronted them in the beginning years of international play, these Hungarian teenagers, soon to become youthful sophisticates, lived for the Sport, and by the time the first U.S. Team arrived at Wembley in 1935, Barna, Bellak, and Szabados were known as "The Three Musketeers" for their preeminent World Championship play and for their always sold-out Exhibition Tours.
It was in 1935, shortly after he'd finished a so-called "Circus" Tour of the U.S. with Glancz, who took the opportunity right then and there to stay in the States, that Barna won his fifth and last World Singles crown.
The Hungarian supremacy was coming to an end, and the 1936 U.S. Team was there at the Prague World's to see it. Defending Swaythling Cup Champion Hungary had won 8 of the 9 World Team Championships held. They'd lost only in 1932, in this same city Prague when, given the political climate of the Czech-Hungarian play-off tie, the tension was so great and chauvinistic tempers so explosive that the matches were accompanied by "ugly shouting and cursing by the spectators." In fact, the partisanship had been so outrageous that Barna, about to go up against a Czech opponent, was actually struck on his way to the table.
This time in Prague the Hungarians were stunned by an early 5-0 loss to Rumania whose players simply refused, on these slow tables, to play an aggressive shot. Bellak said that the tables "were repainted" just a few days before the matches were to begin, "and the paint was not yet completely dried, making the surface soft, slow and somewhat spongy." In a later tie, more of the same relentless defensive play by France's Michel Haguenauer gave him three wins over the Hungarians, and when Daniel Guerin beat Bellak, and Charles Dubouille downed the now far from invincible Barna (who in an automobile accident had broken his playing arm), the Hungarians, some were saying, were history.
Barna would be able to win the 1936 U.S. Open by beating the best the U.S. had to offer--Abe Berenbaum and Jimmy McClure (Sol Schiff couldn't play, was suspended)--but here at the World's, Victor as Defending Champion was no match for his countryman Ferenc Soos. Also, Defending Doubles Champions Barna and Szabados were upset in the 8th's by Frenchmen Michel Haguenauer and Raoul Bedoc. Bellak was soundly beaten in the quarter's by Richard Bergmann, and, paired in the Doubles with Istvan "Stefan" Kelen, lost to the eventual U.S. winners, McClure and "Bud" Blattner, in 5, in the quarter's. Nor in the Mixed could Barna, Defending there too, or Bellak win their close 5-game matches to have any further chance for the title.
Of course though it had just been proven Hungary was no longer dominant, its still great male players--particularly Bellak, with his ability, literally with any part of his person, to maneuver the ball in so many entertaining ways--continued with both their tournament and exhibition play to draw appreciative European audiences.
Next season, after hosting the '37 U.S. World Team in Budapest--offering them friendly warm-up matches, sightseeing opportunities, and in general feting them royally--the Hungarians would find their Swaythling Cup hopes at the Baden (near Vienna) World's dependent on how they fared with these Americans.
The first day's play went well for both teams, both were undefeated. But in our morning tie on Feb. 2, with Schiff sitting out (Team Captain Elmer Cinnater said Sol hadn't looked good in practice; Sol said he didn't care about practice), the U.S. suffered what appeared to be a disastrous 5-4 loss to Hungary. Bud did his bit--beat Bellak 2-1 and Ferenc Soos 2-0; Abe, though downing Laci, fell, with victory so 13, -20, -22 near, to Soos (he was just overanxious, Cinnater said); and Jimmy, though stopping a sweep by Barna, also lost a critical end-game battle to Soos, -7, 19, -19, then couldn't take the tie-deciding match when Bellak, after losing the first game 24-22, rallied to win the next two. So Laci was Hungary's hero of the moment--he'd won the one match he had to.
However, when the U.S. avoided a calamitous second loss--5-4 outplayed Czechoslovakia--and won all their other ties, they had an 11-1 round robin record. And, surprise, in Hungary's last tie, they were unexpectedly 5-0 annihilated by Austria. After Barna lost to Alfred Liebster, deuce in the 3rd in the opening match, Cinnater asked him if Bellak could pull out the next match against Helmuth Goebel. Victor, downcast, replied, "He always loses when I lose." And he was right. Indeed, the whole Hungarian Team was so demoralized by Barna's loss to Liebster that it was soon a certainty two teams would have 11-1 records, and that there would be a U.S.-Hungary play-off for the Championship.
In this climactic tie, Laci again won one match--over Blattner. But this time it wasn't going to be enough, for McClure and Schiff were undefeated, and the U.S. held a 4-3 lead. In the 8th match, McClure had lost a 19 game to go into the 3rd with Soos, but nobody on the U.S. side seemed too concerned that the the hour time limit for the match might be exceeded. Though were Jimmy to win this game, the Championship would be ours, his corner gave him sound advice: "Look, if you can win it, win it, but if the game's close, chisel." When Jimmy was up 11-10, the match was stopped and, since this was Team play not Singles, both the American and Hungarian players were awarded 1/2 point. This meant at the very least the U.S. was assured of a 4 and1/2-4 and 1/2 tie.
In the 9th match, Schiff, who was compiling a marvelous 21-1 record in this Team play, 22, 18 came through against Barna, who was surely intimidated by Sol's fingerspin serves, or even by his threat to use them--and so the U.S. won its first and to this day only Swaythling Cup Championship.
In the Singles, Bellak lost, 19 in the 5th, to that same Austrian Goebel who'd beaten him in the Team's, and who, in the Men's Doubles with Bergmann, after being down 2-0 and at deuce in the 4th, would eliminate Laci and Soos. Ironically, in the Doubles final, it was the Austrians' turn to be up 2-0, and at deuce in the 3rd, before losing the title to the again successful U.S. Defending Champions McClure and Blattner. In the Mixed, Laci and Anna Sipos got by McClure and Dolores Kuenz in 5, but then were defeated by fellow Hungarians "Steve" Boros and Ida Ferenczy.
Bellak was now 26, his best years were clearly behind him, and perhaps he was destined never to win a World Championship of any kind?
At the English Open that followed, McClure advanced to the semi's with a -14, 14, 24, 18 win over Poland's Defending Champion "Alex" Ehrlich. Then, while the eventual winner Barna, down 2-1 and at 19-all in the 4th, managed to slip by his good friend Boros, a "grim" Jimmy was turning back Bellak. One reporter said that again and again Laci netted "straightforward shots"--as if he might have done better at times to play with the sole of his shoe. "Straightforward shots"? The wording has to be somewhat ambiguous. Are such shots being hit by Laci or by his opponent? Surely the writer must mean that the ball was coming to Bellak with routine, easy-to-read spin, for when did Laci, unquestionably the most entertaining and spectacularly deceptive stroke-artist in the Game, and one sure to cause, as U.S. Team Captain Cinnater said, a "sensation" on his upcoming Feb.-Mar., 1937 Tour of the U.S. with 1936 Czech World Men's Singles Champion Standa Kolar, ever hit a "straightforward" shot?
Bellak, Kolar, and Sandor Glancz, who was now applying for U.S. citizenship, would be the mainstays of a third (Feb. 23-Apr. 29) International Tour, or "Circus," of more than 40 U.S. cities--with the barnstorming as usual being interrupted by play in the U.S. National's.
Bellak in particular was a great favorite:
"...[With] one eye confidently on the ball and the other waggishly on the crowd, Bellak of course was a 'panic' whenever his trick shots, juggling, tom- foolery, sensational playing and other wares were exhibited."
However, Laci apparently got off to a wrong-foot, off-court start at these Newark, N.J. National's, for, as he tells it, as the tournament opened, a reporter for a local morning paper quoted him as saying that "It will take the top four U.S. players five years to come up to our Hungarian standards." A startling comment indeed about our World Champions. "What did you tell that reporter?" an astonished Glancz asked Bellak.
"That the first four Americans are as good as the Hungarians are," said Laci. "But that it will take the others at least five years to come up to our standards."
Oh, oh, Hungarian goulash, a la American. Ah well, let's hope those who read the peppered words and took offense were able to get a taste of Laci's on-court fun--see him, on the right foot, sole-slap-back with his left a c'mon,-who-could-take-me-so-seriously return.
Here in the grand ballroom of the Mosque Theatre, the #1 domestic seed, Schiff, who'd had that wonderful World's, got to the semi's without the loss of a game. Coming out to meet him was "Clown Prince" Bellak. But before downing Berenbaum, U.S. #1 in '35, #2 in '36, in the quarter's, Laci may have had some not so comical deuce-in-the-4th moments with George Hendry. Despite talk here of "the most spectacular hitting matches ever seen in America," young Hendry favored a rather close-to-the-table, heavy-chop defense, and his tenacious play would force even the best of world-class players to take him seriously.
On the other side of the Draw, McClure struggled his 5-game who-could-outhit-who way to the semi's over Abe Krakauer and Bernie Grimes. Coming out to meet him was the winner of the Kolar-Lou Pagliaro quarter's match. "I am the World Champion," the visiting Czech would say when someone chided him for a loss on his U.S. Tour. "I don't need to beat anyone." And then he'd add, "But at these National's, when I have to, I will win."
And maybe he would, for though earlier he'd been -10, -19, 15, 15, 18 almost fatally slow in adapting to Jimmy Jacobson's unorthodox attacking strokes, he did right himself. And in the quarter's, after he'd lost that first game to Pagliaro at 9, and people were saying that the lower 6" net gave the N.Y. mighty mite a walloping advantage, since the ball came at him at eye-height, or at least chest-height, and so offered him more line-of-sight coordination, Kolar took over the offense and quickly turned the match into an 8-point game.
In the one semi, Bellak's forcing sidespin attack beat a too cautious Schiff three straight (23-21 in the 3rd). In the other, McClure, the aggressor, was up 1-0 and 20-17 in the 2nd over Kolar when a match-turning incident occurred that Jimmy couldn't shake off. He "was convinced his 'game-point' drive had tipped the table edge but the 2 umpires ruled it out and he dropped 3 games in a row." Worse, McClure later said that everybody thought the ball had hit--including Kolar. "Oh," said the Czech, who understood little or no English, to Glancz, "is that what they were talking about? Yeah, it hit."
In the final, the "visibly tired" Kolar seemed little more than a 17, -12, 15, 7 foil to Bellak--"the one player worthy of that extravagant word 'genius'" Ruth Aarons had called him, and one of those Hungarians whom former teammate Stefan Kelen, dismayed at Hungary's fall from power, had declared were "only good for exhibition purposes."
Following the National's, the Eastern's were held in Trenton, N.J., and it was here that Bellak had reportedly "turned green with envy" when Princeton golf pro Ted Bourne, who'd later tour as table tennis performer with the Harlem Globetrotters, "kept a ball aloft with a jet of air from his pursed lips."
Hard to believe that this trick wasn't already in showman-extraordinaire Bellak's repertoire. But if it wasn't, it soon would be. For Laci prided himself that any table tennis trick someone else could do, he could do too. Once, according to Laci, who was always more intent on being interesting rather than exact, some Hungarian friends told him that Coleman Clark or some other exhibitionist could serve the ball so that after it cleared the net it would spin back into the server's jacket pocket! Naturally Bellak couldn't wait to try his hand at that. After a week's hard practice, Laci said he'd learned to do this trick. Which must have been a first, since his Hungarian friends had made up the story as a tease.
In the Men's semi's at this Eastern's Bellak must have drawn quite a gallery to play to when, like Kolar at the National's, he found himself 2-0 down to Jacobson. But, just as the hard-driving Czech had rallied for a win in Newark, so would Bellak here. In the other semi's, Schiff--whose fingerspin prowess included a serve that could clear the net and spin back over it, and then maybe roll into his jacket pocket--scored an upset win over Kolar. But then, as in the National's, he again fell to Bellak in the final.
So, a very successful visit to the States for Laci. Granted the Tour was tiring--What did he see of the U.S. on those sometimes 500-mile-a-day trips? "Gas stations, table tennis tables, hotel rooms"--he would leave as the country's new Champion. There was still quite a bit of playing life left in him, eh?
Nor was Hungary to be written off as table tennis power--not just yet. At the '38 Wembley World's, the Hungarians avenged their disastrous '37 loss to the Austrians by toppling them in the Swaythling Cup final, 5-3. Bellak, who not long before had stopped Bergmann from winning his 3rd Austrian Open, beat him here too, and when both Barna and Tibor Hazi defeated Liebster and Karl Schediwy, Hungary was once again Champion.
In the Singles, though, the crafty Bellak, whom Schiff never thought to be "a hard hitter" but who taking advantage of the lowered 6 "net could all the more "angle you to death," lost a disheartening match to McClure after being up 2-0.
But bad as that was, the Doubles was worse. After all these years, Barna and Bellak had paired up, and had gotten to the final against two-time Defending Champion McClure and his new partner Schiff. Supported by the English spectators, who found the Americans' spontaneity, their exclamations and gesticulations of joy or disappointment, unsporting, even abhorrent, the Hungarians, up 15-10 in the 5th, looked to be winners. Then Sol, going for a shot, took a tumble--ohhh, twisted a leg, an ankle, did he?
"It's alright," Sol said from the floor to Jimmy bending over him, "I'm O.K." "Yeah?" said Jimmy, mindful he didn't like the way the momentum of the match was going. "Well, stay there!"
Out comes someone able to assist the injured, and after some delay ("stalling" we call it today), Schiff is pronounced fit, Jimmy (as was his feisty habit when in trouble) doubtless doubles up the already rolled-up cuffs of his trousers, and play resumes.
With an historic reversal. Though the Hungarians were leading in the end-game, Laci "repeatedly attempted outright winners," or as Bergmann put it, Bellak "went hitting mad and attempted to kill the most impossible shots," which did not go in.
Poor Laci--I'm reminded of his youth, and how at deuce he used to hit in his opponent's serve and score about 90% of the time.
"Why do you do that?" asked his disapproving coach.
"Because I win that way," said Laci.
"But in the years to come you won't," said his coach.
At the end of this doubles match against McClure and Schiff, Bellak must have felt much as he did way back in 1928 when, up 2-0 and 20-18 and wanting to end the match spectacularly, he'd blown that World Singles final to Mechlovits. In fact, could he consciously or unconsciously have been trying to make his flamboyant hitting "right" this time to balance the debacle of the past? Years later he'd reminisce, "All my life I rushed the ball--you can't do that." Final score: 21-19. World Doubles Championship for the 3rd straight year to the Americans--and, as a London Sunday Express headline had it, more than a few "Boos" too.
Consolations and Consolation's to Bellak--over his countryman Boros.
And another, much more meaningful title too--the Mixed Doubles.
Laci had asked Barna to get him a partner, and he did--England's Wendy Woodhead, who credits 1929 World Champion Fred Perry for getting her started in the game. Wendy, at maybe 5' 9" (Laci says 5' 11"), towered over Bellak. But since she could topspin from both sides, she turned out to be a perfect partner for him. They won 5-game matches from Barna and Dora Emdin and, in the final, from Bo Vana and Vera Votrubcova, winners at both the previous and succeeding World's. "I played over my head," said fun-loving Laci, as if at a moment's notice he could also take on the role of straight-man. "Well, you certainly didn't play over hers," came the response from the wings."
So after 10 years of trying Laci had finally won a World Championship.
Off then to the '38 English Open at Blackpool went the ebulliant Bellak, McClure and Schiff. Here Hendry gave his all in a sensational 28-26 in the 5th losing encounter with Barna. Schiff once remarked about how much Barna looked the Champion, how well he carried himself, how no one ever said anything bad about him. Sol, himself, however, felt Victor was a little stand-offish ("He wasn't cold, but he wasn't warm either"). Hendry found Barna much too aloof. After their incredible 5-game match--the two games Victor lost were the only ones he'd lose in the whole tournament--he hadn't an encouraging word, hadn't any word at all, to say to this U.S. teenager who'd played so well. A proud man Victor "Viki" Barna surely was. Maybe at times too proud. But Bellak remembers an occasion when he loved him for it:
"'One time,' said Laci, 'Viki and I were invited for dinner at a rich man's mansion.
As soon as we entered, the host asked us if we wished to play table tennis [play for our supper, so to speak] before or after eating. Whereupon Victor replied, without hesitation, that they had just come to say, "Sorry, but we can't stay," and walked right out.'"
Barna went on to win this English Open by beating Bellak in the final. Victor was one of the few players who never seemed to be caught off guard by the clever drops that often followed Laci's angled-off drives--no doubt because, as they'd played together from the time they were kids, they knew each other's games backwards and forwards.
The Feb., '38 cover of Topics showed Austin "Bud" Briggs's drawing of Bellak (though not his two-fingered grip) to hype the March Philadelphia National's. Laci, being granted leave from his recent, necessary stint in the Hungarian Army, was on hand to defend his Championship. In what was surely his "fixed" opening match, he played, and so honored, Philadelphia's "Father of U.S. Table Tennis," Thomas C. Bradley. Laci's next match, though, against the underrated N.Y. star, Doug Cartland, was for real, for Doug lost the first at deuce, then took a game from Laci before being beaten in 4.
Reportedly, Doug was now or soon would be writing some stories for pulp magazines. But of course it was Laci who really enjoyed being the storyteller. Especially when the stories were about him. He had a child's delight in them and for decades would tell them again and again--the same self-aggrandizing ones, but tinged with humor and ironic self-deprecation, so that you'd take such pleasure in his pleasure, in his humanity, really, that they'd disarm you very time. Here's his good friend Sandor Glancz to share a couple with you:
"Laszlo's favorite story is about how one day he was walking on the streets of Budapest with Victor Barna and Miklos Szabados...and, according to Bellak, the other two "Musketeers" were arguing as to who was better. Finally, Laci said to them, 'Look, I'm sick of your arguing. Why don't we ask the first stranger and let him decide?' So he stopped the first stranger and pointing at Barna and Szabados asked him if he knew either of these two gentlemen. Whereupon the stranger said, 'No, Mr. Bellak, I don't.'"
Perhaps this is Glancz's favorite Bellak story:
"...[In] 1928 in Stockholm...[Laci and I] played in the world championships, and as always shared the same room. I woke up in the middle of the night to hear Bellak talking in his sleep. 'Captain,' he was saying, 'who is the greatest player you ever had on your Team?' After a pause, Bellak said, 'Thank you, Captain.'"
In the one semi of this '38 Philly National's, Bellak--the most "brilliant and versatile stroke artist in the game"--met Lou Pagliaro, who'd earlier won a thrilling match from McClure. Laci beat Lou in 4 but was never seriously threatened. Why not, didn't Paggy have a good offense? Yes, but Laci could neutralize it, and take control. As Schiff and Cartland say in their 1939 Table Tennis Comes of Age:
"...[Bellak] half-volleys your fastest drives, sends over three or four fast half volleys in rapid succession, and when he forces an opening comes in and starts his ferocious offensive."
In the other semi, Schiff, the #1 domestic seed, was forced into the 5th by Hendry who'd failed to win the 1st from 20-18 up and with an easy ball to swat in. "It shook me up," said George. Of all the matches he's lost, this one against Schiff is the one he most regrets. For, had he beaten Sol, he might have been able to hold Bellak--they'd played in England for shillings and he'd done alright--and thus might have become the U.S. Champion.
So it's the two #1 seeds in the final...with Bellak successfully defending his Championship in 5. Mayer Brandschain, writing in the Mar. 27, 1938 Pennsylvania Record, spoke of Bellak's rally from 20-15 down in the 4th and Schiff's edge ball at 20-19 that sent the match into the 5th. Then he said, "The decisive thing for Bellak in the tense fifth game, in which he first trailed by 5-9, was his ability to win points against Schiff's service." Perhaps more than anything else, though, it was Laci's "very exasperating backhand, played with so much sidespin and deception" that gave Sol the most trouble? Anyway, more than 50 years later, Sol would remember it was Laci's ability to hit shots, stroke the ball, in a way you'd never expect that was so disconcertingly effective.
While waiting for the presentation of the Ben Glickman trophies--USTTA Honorary Vice-Presidents Octavus Roy Cohen (author) and Sidney B. Lenz (bridge expert) were doing the honors--"Bellak amused the crowd with his ball-juggling monkeyshines." Here was a player nonpareil who bounced those Coleman Clark tournament balls off his racket this way and that, and from the top of his head to the tip of his sole. But don't think that Laci didn't care about the formal presentation of a large Championship trophy to him. Although as a youngster he'd enjoyed swimming and diving, he'd decided to "concentrate on table tennis" because that sport, one "the wealthy could play," offered "better prizes."
After winning, back to back, his second U.S. Open, Bellak had no time to rest. For the next month he would be the star of the Glancz-organized traveling "Circus." Or well, alright, for one night only, the Apr. 8th Tour stop at the Boston Arena, maybe the co-star...or maybe even the second banana. For at this performance, the troupe's guest was the ex-World Champion Ruth Aarons, still quite the superstar. She was giving what she called her "last sports exhibition"--except she hoped that there would be "a few more club and vaudeville engagements."
Though it was a terrible night in Boston, "snow, sleet and rain storm," over 4,000 paid spectators attended--the largest crowd in the U.S. ever to watch a table tennis exhibition. And--with the help of Glancz, Paggy, Johnny Abrahams (who'd played doubles with Laci at this last National's), Les Lowry, and of course Bellak ("the master of spin and angle shots")--what a show Ruth put on:
"A novel touch was added to the two hour and a half program when a special exhibition match was played purely for the benefit of the candid camera enthusiasts in this section. Under ideal lighting conditions almost 40% of said rabid fans gathered on the court to photograph Miss Aarons."
Also, at roughly about this time, with the cooperation of the new (though short-lived?) Table Tennis Manufacturers' Association, Warner Brothers' Clem McCarthy made a table tennis movie short. It was called "Table Manners," and starred Eddie Foy and his strong supporting cast of Laci, Ruth, current U.S. Women's Champion Emily Fuller and runner-up Dorothy Halliday, Glancz, and Pagliaro.
This, by the way, wasn't the first such movie short. In 1936 Pete Smith did a "Sports Parade" film with Coleman Clark that featured Don Terry and Don Siegel. Terry (born Don Locher) was 4-time California Open Champ from 1935-40, and a movie serial hero (see, for example, the 1938 "Secret of Treasure Island" or the 1941 "Don Winslow of the Navy"). Siegel was the 1934 California Open and 1935 Western States Champ.
Bellak told me that Siegel wanted Laci, who for a time lived in Nice--I believe in 1932, when novelist Romain Gary reportedly was City Champion there--to hustle the French Riviera with him. Sound far-fetched? Maybe not, for the Game was so popular at Nice that crowds would line the balustrades along the waterfront boulevard to watch those on the beach play table tennis.
Out of money abroad, Siegel, according to Laci, finagled his way back to the U.S. by a bold pretense. Laci said that the outraged band that had paid Siegel's passage because they'd needed the drummer he'd pretended to be, sure made him into one in the days at sea before the ship docked. Later, Siegel, who'd "started at Warner Brothers in 1934 as an assistant in the film library at $1 an hour," became a well-known Hollywood director (see, for example, the 1956 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" or the 1972 Clint Eastwood movie "Dirty Harry").
There were no California Champions, probably no Californians at all, at the 1939 Toledo National's, but Bellak, out of the Army now, was back to defend his '37 and '38 Championships. In the 8th's, he advanced, as expected, over Pagliaro. Lou tried to compensate for a non-existent backhand attack with his backhand defense. But he was still vulnerable on that side, for it was only his forehand that had the heavy chop. Moreover, though he was fast of foot and if given the opportunity could come in from deep defense to pick-hit shots, he just couldn't take the offense from Bellak, whose two-fingered grip allowed him to stroke not bullet balls (he lost too much freedom of the arm for that) but deceptive, well-placed drives and beautifully controlled drops.
At the previous World's the U.S. attended--they would not go to Cairo in '39--Bellak had lost in the Singles to McClure after being up 2-0. Now in the quarter's of this '39 National's he met Jimmy again. Against many an opponent McClure's aim was to build up topspin until he could get the ball he wanted to kill, or, if he were back on defense, to wait, with his wonderful sense of timing, to quickly pick-hit one through. But against Bellak, whom Cartland, for one, acknowledged was really "tricky" and "one of the few players to keep me on defense," Jimmy knew he had to be very aggressive. And he was. Bill Price would later say that in these National's Jimmy played "the fiercest, most fighting offensive game I've ever seen."
With that same "shrewdness" or "caginess" that he shared with tennis great Bobby Riggs, Jimmy decided to "drive all of his [Bellak's] serves and try to serve myself so he couldn't do the same thing to me." Moreover, he had to keep the ball away from Laci's forehand, unless it was hard hit--but, and though many people didn't think Bellak had much of a defense, Jimmy said he also had to watch out for Laci's "peculiar terrific backhand chop." The forehand side was definitely to be guarded against. "Just lifting the ball over to that side with top-spin was not enough, because if it was just the least bit high he would either jump over and crack it with his forehand or hit it with that indescribable forehand-backhand, which he never hits the same way twice."
When McClure called Bellak an "ungodly" opponent, he meant of course that Laci was so unpredictable, made so many outrageous shots, that he confused player after player and made him doubt himself and lose heart. But this did not happen to McClure. "Jimmy was able to take the offense a little more often than Bellak"--and this made the difference. Jimmy's "great speed and fighting spirit enabled him to move all about the table in order to hit his favorite forehand drive," and "with devastating cross-court smashes in four deucedly exciting games [-21, 21, 22, 20] Jimmy blasted the crown off the baldish head of [the] two-time champion." Of course the crowd gave them both a tremendous ovation.
Thus there would be, after two years, a new Open Champion. Perhaps it would be McClure, for though in the semi's he lost a game to Cartland, he never really felt threatened by Doug. "I had all the confidence in the world," said Jimmy, "and nothing looked impossible for me to hit."
But perhaps the new titleholder would be Bellak's countryman, 27-year-old Tibor Hazi, '38 World semifinalist, who, with his wife Magda Gal Hazi, a former World Singles finalist, had arrived in the States only a few days before the start of the tournament. Tibor had served in the Hungarian Army for eight months, but had been released by special permission to come to Toledo for the Open and to do an Exhibition Tour of the U.S. with Laci.
In the quarter's, Grimes had begun impressively against Hazi, winning the first game at 12--but could do nothing thereafter. Garrett Nash, who'd knocked out Schiff in 5, had his chances against Tibor in the semi's, outscoring him in points (-20, 11, -20, -18), but not, all importantly, in games.
The final then was between McClure and Hazi. Jimmy said he was determined "to rush him [the Hungarian] off his feet" and, except for the third game, with the help of a handkerchief bandana and rolled-up pants cuffs, he succeeded. This final was broadcast by WTOL, and, as the cover of the Apr., '39 Topics shows, Jimmy is being interviewed on air after the match. Hazi is also pictured on that cover, looking, with a smirk, as if he knows something we don't. The secret explanation is that Bellak, not caught by the camera, is whispering something into his ear. Perhaps an intimate's response to Tibor's claim that Jimmy used illegal fingerspins against him? "I don't say that's why I lost," Hazi said many years later, "but he did use them at critical times"--a charge Jimmy denied.
In the Men's Doubles, World Champions Schiff and McClure would not be the U.S. Champions. Hendry and Price upset them--with much credit going to Price, who "repeatedly nullified the champions' fierce driving by miraculous returns." Bellak and Hazi were (19, -19, -16, 20, 19) almost beaten by Pagliaro and Abrahams who together were able to do what Paggy couldn't do alone against Bellak--wrest the ofense away. In the final, the Hungarians were easy winners. One commentator said that Hendry and Price made a big mistake by playing an almost entirely defensive game. But Hendry's reply to that would surely be, "What choice did we have?"
Laci played in the Mixed Doubles with his friend Reba Kirson (later Monness). A couple of months earlier, he'd told her, "We win the Mixed or I kill you." Well, they didn't win, lost in an early round deuce in the deciding 3rd, to the youthful Indianapolis team of Roger Downs and Sally Green. But, regardless of whether Laci so much as laid a hand on her, or whatever ailed her (she'd written, wackily, that by the time of the '39 National's Laci would be a U.S. citizen), Reba said she couldn't play afterwards for a month.
As for Laci, he and Tibor were off on a Tour of the Pacific Northwest. Their start-off point the last week in March had been the Alcazar Gyn in Baltimore and Heurich's Gym in Washington, D.C. where they played exhibition matches against Schiff and Philadelphia's Izzy Bellis, who'd been the #1 seed at the Toledo National's.
After several days of traveling, they could be seen at a Congregational church in Topeka, Kansas where a local sports columnist said they seemed to make the ball "squat down flat like a poached egg or squirm over the net as if pulled by an unseen thread." Then they moved on to Denver in time to put in an Apr. 8 Saturday night appearance at the "new $230,000 Lincoln Room of the Shirley-Savoy Hotel," not coincidentally while Colorado prexy Charles Cox was running his State Closed. A week earlier, a Fred Perry vs. Don Budge lawn tennis match had drawn 500 spectators. For their Exhibition Bellak and Hazi drew 800. Onward!
First stop in the Pacific Northwest: the Crystal Garden in Victoria, British Columbia. One reporter, after seeing the first of two evening performances, said that Bellak "was the whole show....Blowing the ball back over the net, striking it with the edge of the paddle, juggling ball and paddle, actually playing a game all by himself...." Hazi, however, was "a favorite with the woman fans."
At Seattle, Ray Pearson, the Northwest's best player, beat Hazi, deuce-in-the-3rd before a hometown crowd--the only win by a local on the month-long Tour. No way Bellak was gonna lose though--not even if he stood on his hands and held the bat in his teeth, played that way for a time, pretending all the while he might at any moment become the diving instructor he once was and do a back flip off the table. According to one published report, Laci had won "140" straight matches, or was it, as another paper had it, "160 matches without losing one game"?
This was standard hype of course, not to be taken too seriously--but go ahead, make a face. That's what Bellak did at Vancouver's Western Sports Centre--made faces at the spectators. And what's more, said a reporter, they liked it.
In Portland, where Bellak and Hazi played before going back to Canada and finishing their Tour in Calgary and Edmonton, it wasn't Tibor but Laci who got to partner pretty Mayo Rae Rolph in a doubles match. Dick Jordan, Harold Philan, and Don Vaughan, said Don Vaughan, "were much improved over last year and made the Hungarians work for their points." In fact, Vaughan bragged good-humoredly in Topics that he'd blanked Bellak, 3-zip. Yep, in a fishing contest. Don had caught 3, Bellak, who'd paid $3 for an Oregon fishing license, had caught 0....Who ate the fish? Hazi.
On the West Coast, then, Bellak and Hazi's Tour came deja vu to a close. And now, even as Chance isn't the least bit worried about presenting as yet unseen opportunities for both men, I wonder, as the peripatetic Bellak must so often have, "What now?...And for how long?" Which as I close Part I here reminds me of my favorite Bellak story:
"He [Bellak] was living in Paris, in a little apartment next to the Moulin Rouge, and was giving an occasional table tennis lesson to a millionaire (one lesson equaled two weeks average pay). He was also spending some time playing bridge with this millionaire, his wife, and his wife's boyfriend.
"How'd you like to go to Biarritz for a while?" said Mr. Millions to Laci one day when Laci had all of $5 in his pocket.
Laci, uneasy were such a personage to come knocking on his humble door, waited outside to be picked up at the Place Pigalle, and from the start had a great time: was wined and dined, given pocket money to gamble with, was recognized by one and all as a man of considerable means--a millionaire by association.
But just about the time Laci was getting used to the good life, to what it was like having money, it was time to go back to Paris, to the Place Pigalle, where waving goodbye to his friends, he reflected with Chaplinesque ruefulness that, well, he still had that $5 in his pocket."