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Wick researcher uncovers Caithness family origins of history-making US tennis star

By Alan Hendry

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Dr Linda Swanson has traced the Budge family back six generations. Picture: Alan Hendry
Dr Linda Swanson has traced the Budge family back six generations. Picture: Alan Hendry

Tennis legend Don Budge was born on the west coast of America – but his family origins are very much rooted in the far north of Scotland.

Research by tennis fan Dr Linda Swanson, from Wick, has revealed the extent of his Caithness links.

In 1938, Budge made history by becoming the first player to win all four of the sport's Grand Slam events – the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open – in the same calendar year. In all, he achieved six Grand Slam singles titles.

"As far as I'm concerned he is one of the greatest tennis players that ever lived," Linda (61) says. "I'm therefore thrilled to think of Don Budge as an honorary Caithnessian.”

She was speaking to Wick Voices, the online oral history project of the Wick Society, the town’s voluntary-run heritage organisation. The full recording can be heard on www.wickvoices.co.uk

Budge won the men's singles, men's doubles and mixed doubles at Wimbledon two years in a row, in 1937 and 1938. "That has never been repeated," Linda points out in the recording.

He defeated Germany's Gottfried von Cramm in the 1937 Wimbledon men’s singles final and Henry "Bunny" Austin, from England, a year later.

Budge won the second of his Wimbledon singles titles 75 years before Andy Murray achieved the first of his two, in 2013.

John Donald (Don) Budge was born in 1915 in Oakland, California. Linda has established that his father, John, was born in Smith Terrace, Wick, in 1883.

John moved south and played football for Rangers reserves before sailing in 1906 from Glasgow to New York to begin a new life in America.

Don’s grandfather, also John Budge, was a journeyman baker born at Mavsey, Lybster, in 1853, while his grandmother Williamina Bruce came from Nicolson Street, Wick. John and Williamina were married in Wick in 1876 and lived in Breadalbane Terrace before moving to Bank Row – residing in one of the properties that would be destroyed in a German bombing raid in 1940.

Don Budge's father married Pearl Kincaid in California in 1907. The couple had three children together, including Don.

Linda explains that her research into Budge's Caithness heritage – and, potentially, a family connection of her own – began with her “late, great storytelling cousin” Jimmy Sutherland. He once pointed out that they may be related to the famous tennis player "through the Sutherlands up the coast".

Don Budge's father, John, was born in Smith Terrace, Wick.
Don Budge's father, John, was born in Smith Terrace, Wick.

Using resources such as census data, parish records, immigration lists and genealogy websites, Linda has been able to trace the Budge family back six generations to the Occumster area and she says her quest is ongoing.

The "killer document", as she describes it, was John Budge's application for US naturalisation in 1925 which gave his place of birth as Wick, Scotland.

"You could have scraped me off the ceiling when I found this document. I was so excited, I could hardly sleep that night," Linda says.

"I was almost as excited as when Andy Murray won Wimbledon. And I thought, 'Why did I not know this? Why does this seem to be such a big secret?' And then I thought, what pride for this wee town."

Reflecting on Budge’s sporting achievements, she says: "Don was 6ft 1in, which was tall for a tennis player at that time, and he had a devastating serve and backhand.

"I first became familiar with Don Budge during the annual BBC Wimbledon coverage. They would always have a feature on the last British man to contest a Wimbledon final.

“Up until Andy Murray came along, that accolade belonged to Henry or 'Bunny' Austin in 1938. And who did Austin play in that 1938 Wimbledon final but Don Budge."

Budge "annihilated" Austin in that final, Linda says. "In fact, so much so, the coverage made Don out to be a pantomime villain."

The American was playing as an amateur, more than 30 years before the start of the open era.

"He was the world's number one ranked tennis player during that time," Linda points out. "He won the Davis Cup with the United States. Between 1937 and 1938 Don won six major titles.

"The feat that is perhaps most linked with Don Budge is that he was the first player, either male or female, to win the tennis calendar Grand Slam – all four majors in one season.

“Just to put this into some kind of perspective, the only other male player to win the calendar Grand Slam was the great Rod Laver in the 1960s."

Wimbledon was the scene of back-to-back singles triumphs for Don Budge in 1937 and 1938.
Wimbledon was the scene of back-to-back singles triumphs for Don Budge in 1937 and 1938.

Novak Djokovic came close in 2021 but missed out on the US Open, losing in the final to Daniil Medvedev. "He could hardly play," Linda says of the great Serbian who has won a record 24 Grand Slam singles titles. "He was almost paralysed with fear.

“Djokovic later admitted that going for the tennis calendar Grand Slam simply became too much. He couldn't deal with the weight of history. But remember, Don Budge did it."

Linda notes three factors that prevented Budge from becoming "an even greater sporting figure": professionalism, World War II and a serious shoulder injury.

"Don played in an era that when you became successful and you won slams such as Wimbledon you turned professional – and professionals weren't allowed to contest tournaments such as Wimbledon. Fully open tennis didn't come along until the late 1960s."

Budge served in the US Army Air Forces from 1942-45 and this "stalled his tennis career", Linda says.

"Furthermore, while in the service, Don suffered a serious shoulder injury while training, which never really healed properly, so consequently he was never quite the same player again."

Budge died in January 2000, six weeks after being injured in a car accident.

Linda adds: "I'm so excited to discover Don Budge's Caithness connections... As a Wicker myself, I cannot begin to describe the level of pride I feel in knowing Don Budge's father was born and raised in Wick.”

Doreen Leith, who leads Wick Voices, said: "We are so impressed with Linda's meticulous research into Don Budge and his Caithness connections. This recording is a valuable addition to our ever-growing oral history collection."

  • Dr Linda Swanson, from Wick, studied at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh where she gained a BSc in Chemistry, followed by a PhD, before going on to work in research and teaching. She lectured at two English universities, Lancaster and Sheffield, and is founder and managing director of Simulators for Teaching (sim4t.com).
  • Wick Voices began in 2016 with the aim of preserving local voices for posterity. People from all walks of life, and of all ages, are invited to share reminiscences and stories. There are now 418 interviews freely available to listen to at wickvoices.co.uk with more being added regularly. Collectively the recordings have been played more than 467,000 times.

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