The Bounding Basque

How Jean Borotra won 19 Grand Slams, escaped a Nazi prison, and stole a Davis Cup
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index (1)_1 It’s the last week of July 1932. The Paris sun is beating down on the clay court at Roland Garros, and the Davis Cup is hanging in the balance. Jean Borotra is gassed. Across the net from the Frenchman stands the world’s fourth-ranked player, Wilmer Allison, a Texan with a wicked forehand volley. Allison holds advantage in the 10th game of the decisive fifth set—one errant Borotra serve away from victory. A nervous energy pulses through the rowdy capacity crowd as its national hero toes the service line, sweat soaking his trademark white linens and blue beret.

Borotra experienced many tense moments during his surreal life—on the tennis court, in high-level business meetings, at Vichy headquarters in occupied France, in a German concentration camp. On that day in the French capital, he should have been on the sidelines. Earlier in the year, after helping his country win five consecutive titles, the 34-year-old Frenchman had announced his retirement from Davis Cup singles play, citing his age and exacting business responsibilities. His departure from international competition didn’t last long; days before the French were scheduled to defend their crown against a group of young and athletic Americans, star René Lacoste fell ill and the French Tennis Federation leaned hard on Borotra to take his place. “I felt morally bound to play in the circumstances,” he would later tell his biographer[1]. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, and all the rest.

The first match of the competition sapped most of his energy. Borotra faced Ellsworth Vines, a tall and strong 21-year-old who had rolled through the entire Wimbledon field that June on the strength of his blistering serve. Borotra wasn’t intimidated. He played the best match of his career, attacking the net at every opportunity, “smothering the versatile Vines” (Boston Globe; July 30, 1932) in four sets. His unlikely triumph, along with teammate Henri Cochet’s convincing win over Allison, gave les Bleus a commanding 2–0 lead in the best-of-five series. The Globe’s banner headline the following day was subdued: “U.S. Davis Cup Hopes Fade.”

But the American doubles team squeaked out a narrow victory on day two, forcing Borotra back onto Court Central for a date with Allison on the final afternoon of play. In the buildup to the match, questions swirled about Borotra’s stamina. He seemed to confirm the worst fears of the Stade’s 12,000 fans early on, winning just four games in the opening two sets. The Parisians could feel it all slipping away: their five-year reign atop the tennis globe, and the career of their favorite player, the “greatest tennis lawn idol who ever lived” (Independent, July 18, 1994).

Borotra doesn’t give in. He breaks Allison’s serve in the third set, then breaks it twice in the fourth to tie the match. Watching their countryman storm from behind with little bounce left in his legs, those inside Roland Garros go berserk, showering Borotra with a “continuous uproar” of cheers (New York Times; August 1, 1932). When he staves off defeat again by breaking Allison at 5–3 in the fifth, the noise is deafening. So deafening, in fact, that it rattles Borotra himself in the critical 10th game. After falling behind 40–0, his American rival strings together four straight points to take the advantage. “The crowd was stunned,” recalled Johnny Van Ryn, Allison’s doubles partner, in a 1997 interview with Sports Illustrated, “and Borotra looked finished.”

On match point, he faults his first serve into the net. His second, a lazy lob, lands several inches over the service line. Allison sees it float out of bounds, bats it “idly far out of his opponent's court,” and throws his hands in the air. He’s outlasted the European legend, all but clinching the Davis Cup for his country.

Except he hasn’t. The linesman—a man named Le Ferrier—does not raise his hand to signify a double fault. He alone thinks it landed in play. Whether Le Ferrier was excessively nationalistic or just cracked under pressure is unclear, but as Allison whacked his return yards out of bounds, the umpire has no choice but to announce deuce. It’s a devastating blow for the American, who “almost literally collapses” before hitting every single shot for the remaining three games out or into the net, dropping the final set 7–5. Thanks to a generous official and the heroics of an aging superstar, the Davis Cup would stay in the City of Light one more year.

Decades later, Allison’s bitter teammates would refer to the tournament as “The Great Cup Robbery of '32.” Borotra considered his improbable run the defining moment of his tennis career. It was undeniably exciting and controversial, two traits that epitomized the Frenchman’s long and complicated experience as a public figure. He didn’t sport a wild mullet or swear belligerently at referees, but the lanky boy from the seaside town of Biarritz lived a life unlike any in tennis history.

Jean Borotra invented Russell Westbrook's whole look

Jean Borotra was born on the French side of Basque country in 1898, the oldest of four children. His father died when he was nine, and young Jean—suddenly the man of the household—coped by setting one serious goal: gaining admission to the famous École Polytechnique, a selective engineering school outside Paris with a reputation for ensuring the economic success of its graduates. When he wasn’t poring over his homework, he was on his bike or in the courtyard of his prep school in neighboring Bayonne, where kids played soccer, rugby, and the Basque national game of pelota, a variation of racquetball that values agility and quick hands. Borotra didn’t step foot on a tennis court until he was sent for two months, at the age of 14, to stay with a family in Great Britain to perfect his English. Even then, he showed only modest enthusiasm for the game.

That changed during the Great War. In 1916, Borotra voluntarily joined a French artillery regiment for which he fought with distinction for the remaining two years of the war. Then followed 12 months in the French Army of the Rhine as his division’s Sports Officer, a job that required him to organize matches and games in any sport his fellow troops requested. One day, forced to pick up a tennis racket, he found that he had a knack for the game; his conditioning was superb and the hand-eye coordination he developed on the pelota court transferred well at the net. In the Army of the Rhine doubles championship, the first tournament he ever entered, Borotra and his partner reached the finals. The following year, while home for the summer, he and his younger brother walked to the Biarritz Club every day and hit balls. They had no coach and very little technical knowledge, but they worked at the game maniacally, bombing serves and ground strokes for hours at a time. Borotra was hooked. He fulfilled the promise he made to his mother a few months later, securing enrollment at École Polytechnique, where he would study for two years and matriculate with an engineering degree. Business, however, could wait—Borotra had tennis to play.

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A. Wallis Myers, the leading tennis journalist of his day, once wrote that Borotra “taught the whole world a new gospel.” Unlike most of his peers, Borotra believed firmly in the power of the volley. His service was slow and flat, his baseline stokes mediocre. He violated the foot fault rule constantly. None of that bothered him in the slightest. Borotra knew his legs and eyes were his greatest assets, so he worked at all costs to get to the net as quickly as possible, putting pressure on his opponent to hit winning shots at acute angles. Englishman Fred Perry, an eight-time Grand Slam winner, described the unorthodox approach this way: “[Borotra] came in behind [his serve] so fast that the ball almost hit him on the back of his head.”

Borotra’s exuberant personality complemented his frantic style of play. The Independent, in its obituary of the Basque native, compared his matches to “theatrical productions.” On wide shots, he’d leap into the crowd and kiss the hands of any women he had disturbed, charming the flappers who flocked to see him. If he was slated to play a five-set match, he’d bring five stylish blue berets to the court and then swap headgear at critical junctures, signaling to the crowd when he intended to ramp up his intensity level. He yapped constantly, hurling jokes and veiled insults at officials, opponents, and anyone else within earshot. Sometimes he’d take off entire games or sets, feigning exhaustion to lull his opponent into a false sense of security. Time after time, his extraneous activities disrupted his opponent’s rhythm and concentration. In his 1948 autobiography, frequent foe Bill Tilden called Borotra “god of galleries and devil of the players.” Fans preferred the Bounding Basque. And they loved watching the young man pounce.

Between 1922 and 1923, Borotra entered every tournament and showcase he could, racking up a surprising number of victories given his lack of competitive experience. After coming from two sets behind to win the National Championship of France on covered courts in February, he was added to his country’s Davis Cup squad, made his first visit to the hallowed grounds at Wimbledon (where he was bounced in the third round), and reached the semi-finals of the American Doubles Championship in Boston. In the modern era, Borotra would have joined the professional tour without hesitation, but the Grand Slam tournaments were reserved for amateur players until 1968, and Borotra didn’t have private means to subsidize his burgeoning career—he needed a job that both paid enough to support his family and freed him to travel liberally.

Inspiration struck in the States that summer. On a swing through New York, Borotra noticed the gas pumps dotting Manhattan’s streets, a convenience unheard of in France. When he returned home, he applied for a job as an engineer with a company keen on entering the petrol pump business. He got the gig and thrived. Within months, Borotra was promoted to export manager, and when large competitor Satam bought out his employer in 1924, the new bosses put Borotra in charge of general commercial affairs for the entire firm. It was an ideal fit; for the next decade, Borotra traveled all over the world hocking gas pumps and playing championship tennis. “Both work and play,” his biographer notes, “were carried on at a dedicated and intensive pitch.”

With no financial limitations, the cosmopolitan Frenchman went on a run of form few tennis players would ever duplicate. Starting in 1924, Borotra rolled off 15 Grand Slam titles, including singles victories in the French Open (1924 and 1931), the Australian Open (1928), and at Wimbledon (1924 and 1926). He’d celebrate each triumph with a stylish party at his fashionable Paris apartment, filled with wine and beautiful women. (A brief New Yorker piece from 1926 mentions that he felt “quite virtuous if in bed around 12, and has been known to go on as wild an escapade as a midnight bus ride.”) Twice he climbed to the world’s number two ranking. But he really made his mark in the Davis Cup, playing alongside three countrymen in a squad the press would dub “The Four Musketeers.”

In his 1968 book Covering The Court, New York Herald Tribune sportswriter Al Laney summed up the quartet’s impact this way: “There never has been in International sport so determined a drive, pursued with such zeal through many setbacks and disappointments, as these young Frenchmen waged with patriotic fervor and spirit.” Toto Brugnon was the oldest and the rock upon which their doubles success depended. The youngest was the technically proficient Lacoste, named the "Crocodile" for his doggedness. (He would later start the tennis apparel company that bears his last name and signature reptile.) In the middle were Cochet, a diminutive player who nonetheless hit graceful and powerful groundstrokes, and Borotra, the team’s energetic heart and soul. Nobody could touch them. In a span of eight years, the quartet notched 20 Grand Slam singles titles, another 23 Grand Slam doubles titles, and six consecutive Davis Cup trophies. When they upended Bill Tilden and the Americans to win their first crown in 1927, the French government literally built the stadium at Roland Garros to host the 1928 final. Federation officials eventually emblazoned the French Open singles trophy with “Le Coupe des Mousquetaires” to honor their heroes. And in 1932, “France's last day in the tennis sun,” (Boston Globe; November 20, 1980) fans watched in awe as Borotra—the most popular player in the world—took advantage of the linesman’s mistake to snatch one last cup.

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A player as charming and decorated as Borotra would have been a natural fit to transition to the broadcasting booth or a philanthropic board after retiring, but his playing days wound down just as France fell into utter chaos. Hitler was on the move, having invaded Poland in autumn 1939. The Blitzkrieg in France, when the Germans finally launched it the following May, was swift and savage, killing 130,000 troops in just six weeks. Another 2 million French soldiers—the heart of the workforce and family life—were captured and shipped away to prison camps. Paris fell a month later. Almost overnight, the country’s army was crushed, its civil society devastated, and its national pride gravely wounded.

Philippe Pétain was the grandfatherly figure who promised to protect France from the worst abuses Hitler could dispense. Nobody in the country was more revered then Pétain, a World War I general who limited fallout from the French Army mutinies on the Western Front and saved the Allied cause at the epic Battle of Verdun. On June 16—following the evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk, the fall of Paris on June 14, and two violent cabinet meetings pitting advocates of armistice against the old guard—Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned, clearing the way for the 84-year-old marshal (who had joined Reynaud's cabinet as Minister of State just three weeks prior) to take over as head of state. “To the French in that disastrous summer of 1940, the Marshal was more than the new head of the government,” writes historian Milton Dank. “He was the living link with past military glory.”

Pétain, it turned out, was also an old-style conservative with intense opinions about contemporary French culture. Decades of what he called “pleasure-seeking” promoted by “rootless intellectuals” had emasculated his homeland, and the first priority of his new administration would be an intellectual and moral retraining of his citizenry, one that would help restore “France to the French.” Historian Jean-Pierre Azéma bluntly states that “it was Pétain’s intention to innovate,” and he did so by signing a controversial armistice with Germany, lobbying hard for constitutional changes that granted him full powers to govern without restraint, moving the capital to the remote spa town of Vichy, and launching what he hoped would be a “Révolution Nationale.”

Marechal Petain: France's angry, Nazi-facilitating grandpa

On July 3, 1940, Jean Borotra made a decision that changed his life forever: he threw his lot in with the Vichy regime. It wasn’t his first choice. When he heard Pétain announce the armistice on June 22, the tennis star and reserve officer—whose unit was called into active duty immediately after the German onslaught began—requested permission from National Defense Minister Maxime Weygand to escape into Britain so he could continue fighting on behalf of the Allies. His wish was granted. But on the morning he was scheduled to catch a clandestine flight to the U.K., Winston Churchill—concerned French ships would fall into German hands—ordered the bombing of the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir, killing 1,200 French sailors. Borotra was stunned. He cancelled his plans and convinced himself France needed his leadership; within the month, the Bounding Basque accepted a job as Pétain’s Minister for General Education and Sport.

Borotra wasn’t a particularly political person, but he was deeply patriotic and considered Pétain a hero worth serving [2]. He also largely agreed with the marshal, and by extension the Germans and Italians, about the role sports could play in national development; improving physical fitness, he told Smyth, would make the “soft and indifferent” French youth “better equipped for life and better prepared to answer all the calls our country may address to them.” Over several months, Borotra and his colleagues built a curriculum centered on team sports, rhythmic exercises (dance and choral singing), manual work, and first aid. They also agreed to endow every French city, no matter how small, with an amateur athletic field. And in October, Borotra assembled hundreds of elementary school teachers at Clermont-Ferrand to outline the obligatory program, which would include nine hours of compulsory gym classes each week. Physical development would no longer play second fiddle to academics in French schools, a change he claims the educators applauded by loudly singing “The Marseillaise” at the end of his presentation.

On top of those pedagogical reforms, Vichy announced plans to outlaw professional sports—including popular spectator sports like tennis, boxing, and football—and restrict athletic press and radio publicity, citing the country’s need to train all French boys and girls, not just those who demonstrated early athletic promise. “Fabulous sums paid to some professionals have had the effect of warping young athletes’ ideas of sport,” Borotra told the UP on March 10, 1941. “They strive not for pleasure or health but to acquire millions.”

For almost two years, Borotra toured France and the colonies in North Africa, spreading the gospel of amateur athletics and physical education. Reinvigorating the national corps while under the grip of a ferocious occupation, however, was no easy feat. The Nazis predictably showed little interest in facilitating a mutually beneficial partnership with Pétain, refusing to release French prisoners of war or withdraw forces from northern France. They also charged Vichy a staggering $10 million per day for the occupation’s “cost of upkeep.” “From the very beginning,” Azéma writes, “those in charge of the Reich’s economy were in favor of exploiting the vanquished.” There was hardly enough money for food in Vichy France, much less new ball fields. A shortage of leather even prevented the state from manufacturing enough footballs for the school children. Révolution Nationale was no more than a sketchy blueprint; almost none of the plans, including Borotra’s, came to fruition. “No doubt,” he would later say, “in the realm of material realization, we only achieved little of what we set out to do.”

Unfortunately, Vichy leaders didn’t fail in all of their pursuits. Pétain and his allies made great progress in their war against republican institutions, effectively abolishing the Rights of Man, harassing Freemasons and trade unions, and passing a series of anti-Semitic regulations that excluded Jews from elective and public functions, the army, universities, and certain professional jobs. According to historian Henry Russo, the Vichy regime and the collaborationists were directly responsible for the imprisonment of 135,000 people, the internment of 70,000 suspects, the dismissal of 35,000 civil servants, and the deportation of 76,000 French and foreign Jews, fewer than three percent of whom lived to see the end of the war. Borotra may not have agreed with every decision his bosses made, but his commitment to Pétain meant the tennis legend was complicit in some truly disgusting acts.

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Though busy, Borotra’s stint as sports commissioner was short-lived; less than two years after accepting a position in Pétain’s cabinet, the Frenchman fell out of favor with the Germans, who by 1942 made almost no pretences about Vichy France being a Nazi puppet state. As he relates to Smyth, Borotra was summoned to the German embassy after a trip through North Africa and pilloried by the German ambassador for his “patriotic fervor” and “intolerable attitude”—his training demonstrations, he was told, were fostering undesirable national pride. When the hard-line collaborationist Pierre Laval took over for Pétain as head of state in April, he sacked Borotra immediately. The Bounding Basque returned to his job at Satam, a company struggling to stay solvent in the face of onerous wartime export restrictions, and his Paris apartment, where the heat had been shut off. The triumphs of the Four Musketeers were distant memories.

Meanwhile, the war raged on. That November, British and American forces invaded Vichy-held North Africa and convinced many Vichy troops to join the Free French forces. For the first time since the German invasion, soldiers from Borotra’s homeland and the nations where he played some of his best tennis would be working in unison to defeat Hitler. Following the conflicting headlines as closely as he could, Borotra—likely embittered about his recent dismissal—decided the coalition was worth supporting, and he traveled to Vichy to alert Pétain’s closest assistant of his scattershot plan to rejoin the fight.

The gesture was both thoughtful and absurdly naive; minutes after arriving at a Paris rail station to begin his journey south, two Gestapo agents—tipped off by someone in Vichy—whisked Borotra off the platform and into custody. Over the next seven days, the secret police pumped him full of pentathol (i.e. “Truth Serum”), interrogated him briefly, and then shipped him to Sachsenhausen, a Nazi concentration camp outside Berlin, where he would sit, in solitary confinement, for six months. His cell had no running water and no toilet. The only book available was a dog-eared copy of Mein Kampf. The former world champion had been left for dead.

René Lacoste was troubled by Borotra’s disappearance. He also took seriously the famous mantra of the fictional Musketeers. In early 1943, three months after his former teammate was swept up in Paris, Lacoste petitioned the King of Sweden—an acquaintance and tennis fan—to intervene on Borotra’s behalf. Shockingly, it worked. Without explanation, Borotra was transferred to Itter Castle, a chateau in Austria the Nazis were using to house prominent French prisoners[3]. The move likely saved his life; at Itter, detainees had access to adequate food and exercise. They could talk with fellow inmates and correspond with family. Compared to the concentration camp, Borotra considered the castle “paradise.” It’s where he would live for two years.

From inside the chateau, the prisoners listened to the BBC religiously. In 1944, they celebrated when Allied forces liberated Paris. Word of Hitler’s suicide came the next spring. On the same day that the continent was blanketed with reports of Germany’s unconditional surrender in Bavaria, Borotra pulled off the greatest physical achievement of his life: he slipped out a castle window, passed through German lines by posing as a “dim-witted peasant” (with bindle in hand), swam through a river, and led a company of American troops back up the road to surround the remaining SS troops standing guard at his prison. “Here again was the Borotra of the boundless energy,” the UP reported the following day (May 9, 1945). “This, once again, was the cocky guy with the racy blue beret.”

***

Borotra played on the international club circuit well into his sixties, was appointed head of the influential High Committee on Sport, and traveled extensively until 1994, when he passed away at the ripe age of 95. Yet there’s a depressing coda to his story. Even during his dying days, Borotra’s loyalty to Pétain—who was convicted of treason in 1945 and who was imprisoned at a fort off the French Atlantic coast until he died six years later—never wavered. In 1951, Borotra enthusiastically joined the Association for the Defense of the Memory of Marshal Pétain (ADMP), an organization whose ostensible goal was to secure a retrial for their beloved leader. (He’d eventually serve a four-year term as board chairman.) But ADMP’s project was in part ideological, too; by whitewashing the legacy of the old war hero and resurrecting the values of his National Revolution, the historian Russo convincingly argues that the group has “served as a breeding ground for the nostalgic extreme right.” For years, Borotra lent his celebrity to this dubious cause. In doing so, he complicated his own legacy.

Smyth, in the introduction to his book, notes that Borotra “has the happy characteristic of being convinced that all decisions he has made have been the right ones, and all the causes he has espoused have been the right causes.” It’s this obstinance that animated the Frenchman’s indefensible devotion to Pétain. It also gave him the confidence to apply to an elite school, enter a burgeoning business field, and base his entire tennis career on a shot-making strategy that was previously unproven. He was arrogant and pigheaded, no doubt, but also courageous and captivating. Jean Borotra, one of the most skilled tennis players the world has even known, was never, ever boring.

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[1] The book—Jean Borotra: The Bounding Basque—was published in 1973 by Sir John Smyth, a veteran tennis writer for the Sunday Times. The portrait is largely sympathetic; at multiple points, Smyth gave Borotra “the opportunity of expressing his own point of view in his own words.”

[2] He was registered as a member of the French Social Party, a right-leaning party dominated by World War I veterans.

[3] Former president Albert Lebrun, former Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, and General Maxime Weygand were among those who served time at Itter.


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