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Book details rise of Falls' reluctant tennis star

Jimmy Arias is without doubt the greatest homegrown tennis player ever produced in Western New York. However, there was a player who moved to Niagara Falls from California in the early 1900s who could rival Arias as to who was the greatest tennis player to have ever lived in this area.

That would be Robert Lindley Murray, a left-hander who won the National Indoor Singles title in 1916. In 1917 and 1918 he won the United States Singles Tennis Championships at Forest Hills. His win in 1918 was especially noteworthy in that he defeated the legendary Bill Tilden, a seven-time U.S. Open singles champion who is considered by some to be the greatest male player of all time. Murray defeated him, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5.

In addition to defeating Tilden four times in tournament competition, Murray was ranked fourth in the United States in 1914, 1916 and 1919. However, his crowning achievement was being ranked No. 1 in the United States in 1918. He was inducted to the Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame, the USTA Northern California Hall of Fame, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Men's Hall of Fame, and the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Roger W. Ohnsorg of Grand Island, an author who competed and did well in many local senior tennis tournaments, has written a fascinating and extremely detailed biography of Murray. "Robert Lindley Murray: The Reluctant U.S. Tennis Champion" sells for $23.95 and is available at the Book Corner in Niagara Falls and at online book sellers.

Originally from Palo Alto, Calif., Murray came to Niagara Falls at age 23 to work for Hooker Electrochemical in the early 1900s. (He later became president, chairman of the board and chief executive office of Hooker.) Before arriving in Western New York he was a Phi Beta Kappa student at Stanford, he had defeated the top intercollegiate players in the country, had won several tournaments, and was ranked fourth in the United States.

Murray had a strong serve and volley game. In 1931, he wrote, "My strong points were a vicious serve, a quick dash to the net and the ability to volley quite decisively anything that came anywhere near me. My overhead smash was also strong and I could cover miles of court, getting to any shot that came over the net, albeit at the expense of tremendous energy.

"Due to my athletic training at Stanford [he set the Pacific Coast record for the half mile in 1914 by running it in 1:57.2 in open competition] I was always in good condition and had considerable endurance. As it was, a hard match always took a tremendous toll on me. However, I could always go at top speed through a five-set match unless the day was particularly humid, which would always affect me."

The term "reluctant champion" resulted from the happenings of the 1918 U.S. Open. About a month before the tournament Murray was working on a very important U.S. government project for Hooker Electrochemical. The New York Times reported that Murray would not be playing in the U.S. Open due to work commitments.

When Hooker President Elon Hooker read and heard about Murray not playing in the tournament he was very upset and went to Niagara Falls to get Murray to break away from the project. For the next five days Hooker tried adamantly to get Murray to play in the U.S. Open. Murray's direct boss, Bjarne Klaussen, was furious that Murray was being forced to play the U.S. Open. He said he would resign if this was going to happen. When Murrray heard this, he "reluctantly" agreed to play.

With the Open only eight days away, Murray was taken to the farm of Harry McNeil, the tennis pro at the prestigious Heights Casino in Brooklyn. For two days they played before breakfast, after breakfast, and most of the afternoon, trying to get Murray into top tournament shape. While training, Murray received disturbing news that Elon Hooker was seriously ill and had been rushed to a private hospital in New York City.

Murray was invited to play in the Southhampton Long Island Tennis Invitational, the only grass championships before the nationals. The invitational was only three days before the nationals. In the Southhampton semifinals, Tilden defeated Murray, 6-3, 6-3.

Before the tourney started Murray received word that Hooker was worse and could not have visitors. With a heavy heart Murray played in the tournament. He improved with each match and on the day of the finals against Tilden, Murray received word that Hooker wanted to see him.

Barely able to talk, the executive gave Murray an inspiring speech. With mixed emotions Murray walked out to play the final against Tilden. Looking upward, he could not believe his eyes. At the top balcony of the clubhouse was Elon Hooker lying on a cot, attended by a doctor and a nurse.

This was a great inspiration for Murray, who defeated Tilden in straight sets to achieve his greatest victory in a distinguished career.

e-mail: thegreatgar@verizon.net.

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