As Dick Williams and Karl Behr strode onto the I rectangular lawn at the Newport (R.I.) Casino to face each other in the quarterfinals of the 1914 U.S. Tennis Championships, they must have thought they were the most fortunate of athletes. They were garbed in creamy flannels and white dress shirts. They were applauded by a capacity crowd of about 4,000. Williams, a slender six-footer from Philadelphia, won the match 6-2, 6-2, 7-5, on his way to the first of his two U.S. singles titles. Both he and Behr would one day be enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. And both men were survivors of the Titanic.
Williams, who died 30 years ago at the age of 77, was the better player. He was the captain of six victorious Davis Cup teams, four of which he played on. He also had the more harrowing escape on the night in April 1912 when the Titanic went down.
Williams leaped off the foundering ship and waited in the frigid water for six hours before he was rescued by the steamer Carpathia. His legs froze stiff, and, as he said in a memoir he wrote for his family, a physician on board the Carpathia "cheerfully advised" immediate amputation to fight hypothermia and preclude the onset of gangrene.
The 21-year-old Williams rejected that medical judgment. Somehow he got to his feet—"As I tried to stand," he wrote, "it was like thousands of needles going through my legs"—and began to lurch and trudge to restore circulation in his legs. "I tramped the decks constantly, even through the nights, getting up every two hours to walk some more."
It worked. Williams saved his legs, and within three months he hit the U.S. tennis scene running—literally. First he won the 1912 Pennsylvania Grass Tournament at Merion Cricket Club, beating the young Bill Tilden. Next he took the U.S. Clay Court title. Then, in September, he played in the U.S. championships, losing in the quarterfinals to Maurice McLoughlin, the eventual winner. "Not for many years has a player leaped into fame so quickly" American Lawn Tennis magazine said of Williams in June 1912.
He won his first U.S. title two years later and his second in 1916, the summer after the tournament moved from Newport to what would be its longtime site at Forest Hills, N.Y. America's foremost tennis writer at the time, Allison Danzig of The New York Times, saluted Williams for his "daring style, taking every possible ball (when not volleying) on the rise with hair-trigger timing. On his best days he was unbeatable by any and all, always hitting boldly, sharply for the winner. He did not know what it was to temporize."
A fateful case of measles put Williams on the Titanic and led to the death at sea of his father, wealthy Main Line attorney Duane Williams. Dick, a great-great-great-great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin, had grown up and become an exceptional tennis player in Switzerland, whose climate had been recommended for Duane's delicate health. Father and son had planned to travel to the U.S. earlier, in part to enroll Dick in the class of 1916 at Harvard, but the voyage had been delayed by Dick's illness.
They had attended the Captain's Dinner on Sunday, April 14, and "all of us had the human weakness to overindulge," Williams would recall. Later, in the water during his blackest night, he would think, "I'm darned lucky I had such a good meal."
After a walk in the chill air, father and son retired for the night. The Williamses were awakened in their portside cabin at 11:45 p.m. by "merely ajar," Dick would write. "We were not excited, but felt something had happened." Leaving the cabin and learning of the ship's collision with an iceberg, they saw only this evidence: a sailor exhibiting a bucket of ice as a souvenir. "There was no panic, some confusion," Dick would write. "The band was playing lively tunes." More than 30 years earlier, his father had been on another ship in the Atlantic when it struck an iceberg. Then, the crew and passengers were able to keep the vessel afloat by using a cargo of cotton to plug the hole in the hull. Dick wrote that Duane Williams was confident that even if the Titanic became an unlikely loser to this icy mass, "she would float for 12 or 15 hours, and any number of ships would stand by to help us."
Wearing life preservers beneath heavy fur coats, the Williamses explored the brightly lighted decks, "although the listing made the going a little hard," Dick would write. Later there were "harrowing scenes enacted when wives were forced to leave husbands, for the order had been women and children first." After the last of the lifeboats had been loaded, the Williamses were gripped by "a peculiar feeling, knowing that all means of escape seemed cut off."