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Tennis Was Easy after the Titanic
Bud Collins
April 06, 1998
Dick Williams clung to a lifeboat for six hours and later became U.S. champion
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April 06, 1998

Tennis Was Easy After The Titanic

Dick Williams clung to a lifeboat for six hours and later became U.S. champion

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As the situation turned ominous, Dick realized it was time to swim for it. He yelled to his father, "Quick! Jump!" This is how Dick would describe what happened next: "He started towards me just as I saw one of the great funnels come crashing down on top of him. For a moment I stood transfixed. Then I jumped to the rail, about 15 feet above the rising water, climbed over and jumped clear. As soon as I came to the surface, I started swimming with all my might." His own life, almost snuffed by the collapsing funnel, now hung on a hundred-yard freestyle away from the disintegrating, plunging Titanic.

"I kicked off my shoes but could not get out of my coat," he would write. "I turned towards the ship. It was an extraordinary sight. As the bow went under, the stern lifted higher and higher into the air, then pivoted and swung slowly over my head. Had it come down then I would have been crushed. Looking straight up I saw the three propellers and the rudder distinctly outlined against the clear sky. She slid into the ocean. No suction. No noise. Stillness."

Not for long. "Then came the terrible part—me cries of 1,600 people struggling in ice-cold water.... They were not drowning, for the life belts held them up. They were dying from the cold, gradually freezing to death. As they did their cries grew weaker and weaker. In another five to ten minutes everything was quiet, the ocean calm—a deathly stillness." Williams swam to a small group holding on to something "and threw off my coat at last." His haven was a collapsible lifeboat, with canvas sides, that had not been assembled, so only the wooden bottom of the boat floated just beneath the surface of the water. During the night as many as 30 people in a changing cast clung to the boat with him, but eventually "only 13 of us were picked up."

If illness had arranged Williams's presence on the Titanic, it was love that had driven Behr happily aboard. At 27, his best tennis years were past. (He had been in the U.S. Top 10 seven times, ranking No. 3 in 1907.) Meanwhile, he had become "enamored with another [passenger], Helen Newsom" according to his 82-year-old son, Karl Behr Jr. of Lake Wales, Fla. "Dad was in France, and when he learned she'd be getting on the Titanic with her parents in England, he chased her. They were in evening clothes, dancing, when news of the iceberg circulated. Mom's stepfather, Richard Beck-with, took it seriously. He told the women to change quickly, dress warmly, take only their jewelry. He and Dad took them to their assigned lifeboat, expecting to bid them goodbye. But the officer in charge ordered Dad and Beckwith in, to do the rowing, and off they went.

"I don't know what happened in that boat, but shortly after, Dad and Mom were married," says Karl Jr. "I'm damn glad they were on the Titanic together."

Two years later Behr and Williams faced each other across the net in Newport, less than a mile from the Atlantic. No tennis opponent they would ever face would be so formidable and unforgiving as she.

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