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Lost Trophy Revives Legacy

Elina Frumerman

Photo: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Photo: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Joe Hunt was one of the most accomplished tennis players of his era, but after he died in a military accident in 1945, he was largely forgotten — until one of his trophies turned up in Beverly Hills.

The recovery of a decades-old trophy on eBay is helping revive the name of a dashing figure from tennis' past.

Largely forgotten in the nearly 70 years since his death, Lieut. Joseph R. Hunt once topped the U.S. rankings and beat Jack Kramer to win the 1943 U.S. singles championship — the equivalent of today's U.S. Open.

Hunt might have won more had he not perished in a Navy fighter plane accident in 1945 off the coast of Florida two weeks shy of his 26th birthday. He never defended his title.

"He's sort of the James Dean of tennis," said Kramer's son, Bob Kramer.

On Thursday, Hunt's legacy will be honored in a ceremony at The Ojai Tennis Tournament, a 119-year-old amateur event about 80 miles north of Los Angeles with 29 divisions and 1,500 players that today hosts the Pac-12 tennis championships.

The catalyst for his recognition is the unlikely discovery of the intercollegiate singles trophy Hunt won three-quarters of a century ago during his heralded rise up the ranks.

Not only will the 1938 silver cup be restored to its rightful place, but some of Hunt's descendants — including one who has been pushing the U.S. Open to honor Hunt — will attend and see the trophy for the first time.

"His name has been lost in history," tennis historian Bud Collins said in a recent phone interview. "I don't think they ever cleared up why his plane crashed."

Garage sale find

The trophy's journey home began, innocently enough, at a rummage sale several months ago.

Sandy Marks, a self-described "picker" who trolls estate sales, noticed it at a Beverly Hills garage sale during her regular hunts around the Los Angeles basin.

"I just saw it was cool," said Marks, who lives in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and snagged a vintage dog show trophy at the same sale. "I thought someone out there would know what it was, and really want it."

She put the cup, about 10-12 inches in diameter, up for bid on eBay. It sold quickly for $66.

The buyer was a Southern California tennis fan and collector familiar with the Ojai event, which is the longest-running U.S. tournament staged in the same location. Many of the sport's greatest players, from Bill Tilden and Pete Sampras to Billie Jean King and Tracy Austin, competed there.

The collector, who declined to reveal her name, happened to know the Ojai media director, Steve Pratt. She contacted him about the trophy. Would it be of interest, she wondered?

That set off another chain of events.

Two-sport star

Despite his lack of renown, Hunt, who went by Joe, was no flash in the pan.

A member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, he was one of the more accomplished players of his era before his service in World War II cut short his life. Hunt was ranked No. 1 in the United States in 1943, and he remains the only man to win the national boys' (then 15-and-under), juniors' (18-and-under), collegiate and U.S. men's singles titles.

"If American tennis ever had a golden boy, it was the handsome, flaxen-haired Hunt, who won the U.S. singles championship a half century ago at Forest Hills in the last match of his life," Collins wrote in a 1993 story for Sports Illustrated.

By 17, Hunt was already one of the youngest players to crack the top 10 in U.S. rankings. As a freshman at the University of Southern California in 1938, he played No. 1 — and went undefeated in singles and doubles.

Such was his athletic prowess that at one point he abandoned tennis and tried his hand at football, becoming a running back in 1940 for Navy (he had left USC and enrolled in the Naval Academy). He was awarded a game ball for his performance in the Army-Navy game.

Hunt's dramatic tennis victory over a weakened Kramer at Forest Hills (he had lost 19 pounds from food poisoning during the tournament) is also part of the sport's lore. Cramping, Hunt collapsed after match point and likely would have been unable to continue. Kramer, his good friend, hopped the net to offer congratulations to the supine Hunt.

Pancho Segura, who lost to Kramer in the semifinals of the 1943 U.S. Championship, recalls Hunt as a serve-and-volley maestro whose athleticism and good looks made him a favorite of female fans.

"He was a very good-looking man with a body like Charles Atlas," Segura, 92, said in a recent interview. "He drew women to his matches."

Had he lived, added Segura, "He would have been good for tennis. He was a credit to the game."

Family member found

Pratt, alerted by the trophy turning up, checked the record books and discovered that Hunt won the 1938 inter-collegiate singles division. He vaguely remembered the name, but nothing more.

Intrigued, he took to the modern tools of investigation: Google and Facebook.

Pratt found a person named Pike Rowley, who was associated with Hunt. In fact, Rowley's mother was married to Hunt, but after he died, she married Rowley's father.

Pratt contacted Rowly on Facebook. Rowley steered him to a lawyer in Seattle they thought might be related.

His name? Joseph T. Hunt.

Nervous and excited, Pratt dialed his number.

"He was floored," Pratt says.

Little known to Marks, the eBay buyer, or Pratt, was that Joseph T. Hunt, 55 and Joe Hunt's great nephew, had started his own campaign to bolster his great uncle's name.

Last year, on the 70th anniversary of Hunt's U.S. Championship, he had mailed a packet of materials to several dozen distinguished international print and broadcast tennis media.

"Although having won at tennis' ultimate proving ground, Joe is likely the most unknown of the elite players in tennis history," wrote Seattle's Hunt.

His purpose was to drum up support for Hunt's nomination to the U.S. Open's Court of Champions, which honors past U.S. Open champions along an entrance at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows.

Hunt also contacted the United States Tennis Association, but said he had made little headway. According to USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier, Hunt is not under consideration at present but could be in the future.

"I've been carrying this my entire life," said Hunt in a phone interview from Seattle. "He has a compelling and unique story, but whenever I talk to someone in tennis, they've never heard of Joe."

Legacy still alive

Hunt went on to explain that for decades he has been in possession of a companion Ojai tournament trophy — the 1938 doubles plate also won by his great uncle.

He picked it up, along with other scrapbooks, trophies and memorabilia — including a medal presented to Hunt by Bob Hope — as a 10-year-old from his maternal grandmother's carport, where she had been storing the items.

He had studied them for years.

"A big part of my life is to try to have Joe recognized for his role in the game," Hunt said. "I've been trying to keep his legacy alive as best I can."

Pratt's call stunned and delighted him.

"I thought it was wonderful that he found me and that this trophy existed," he said. "My first response was, 'I'll buy it! How much?' "

According to Hunt, no family members attended his great uncle's 1966 Hall of Fame induction in Newport, R.I.

"None of us in the family even knew about it," Hunt said. "It's very sad."

In a way, this week's ceremony in Ojai will bring a modicum of restoration for the family — a homecoming of sorts.

Hunt will travel with his wife, his 21-year-old son and his 77-year-old father — one of the few living family members to have actually met the original Joe Hunt — for Thursday's ceremony, where they will be presented with the long-lost silver cup.

"It is an odyssey, isn't it?" Hunt said. "You can probably tell I'm passionate about it."