Sports writing is littered with words like “courage”, “bravery”, “pain” and “suffering”. Dick Williams was a player who knew their true meaning. Not only was the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Doubles Champion of 1920 a decorated war hero but he was also a survivor of the Titanic.
Richard Norris Williams II, who died 49 years ago this week, was one of the most popular players of his day. With his flamboyant attacking style he could always be guaranteed to entertain. He enjoyed success in both singles and doubles.
Born in Geneva to American parents in 1891, Williams spent his boyhood years in Switzerland, where he was coached by his father, Charles Duane Williams, who was a descendant of Benjamin Franklin. In 1912 Williams and his father were on their way to the United States when they boarded the ill-fated Titanic.
During the three hours before the ship foundered after striking an iceberg the two men helped other passengers into lifeboats. After the last of them had been launched and with the ship about to sink, they headed to the captain’s bridge, where Charles Williams was killed by a giant funnel which came crashing down.
Dick Williams, having jumped into the sea, climbed into a half-submerged lifeboat along with about 30 other passengers, who spent the next six hours up to their waists in the freezing water. By the time they were rescued by the Carpathia steamship, all but 11 of them had died.
While on the Carpathia Williams met another tennis player who survived the sinking. Karl Behr had lost in the 1907 gentlemen’s doubles final at Wimbledon.
On board the rescue vessel a doctor told Williams that his legs had been so damaged by the cold that they might have to be amputated. Williams, who reportedly told the doctor that he was “going to need those legs”, walked up and down the deck in an attempt to restore his circulation.
Six weeks later, remarkably, Williams played in a tournament – and won it. Two years later he won his first singles title at the US Nationals (which later became the US Open) after beating Behr in the quarter-finals. He won the title again two years later.
Williams attended Harvard University, where he won the Intercollegiate tennis championship twice, but in 1916 he enlisted in the US Army. An artillery officer, he fought in the Second Battle of the Marne and was awarded France’s Croix de Guerre and Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur medals.
At the end of the war Williams resumed his playing career and continued to prosper. He was a bold player who loved to take the ball early and was always looking to hit winners, even on his second serve. It was reported that he once won a set against Bill Tilden in five minutes.
In “The Fireside Book of Tennis”, Allison Danzig, the greatest tennis writer of his day, wrote: “He was a player of breath-taking daring in his tactics and stroke production, who either beat his opponent with his sheer brilliance of stroke in taking the ball on the rise or defeated himself with his errors if his touch was lacking. Never content to play safe or to win with prosaic measures, he might scale the heights or plumb the depths, according to whether he was on or off his game.”
Williams had made his debut at The Championships in 1913, when he reached the fourth round of the singles, but did not return until 1920, when he made the quarter-finals. His best effort in singles came in 1924, when he lost to Rene Lacoste in the semi-finals.
However, Williams enjoyed greater success in doubles and it was in tandem with a fellow American, Chuck Garland, in a rare Harvard-Yale combination, that he won his only Wimbledon title in 1920. In the semi-finals they beat Tilden and Bill Johnston (“Big Bill” and “Little Bill”), who dominated men’s tennis in the year immediately after the war.
In the final Williams and Garland beat Britain’s Algy Kingscote and Ireland’s Cecil Parke 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2. “It was a red-letter day for Williams,” the Associated Press reported. “He was the directing brain and outstanding personality of the match. His opponents served upon his backhand until they found he always made brilliant returns down the centre line.
"They then attacked his forehand, only to find that the pace of his return often put the ball away. Williams’ play generally was brilliant.”
Williams reached the final again in 1924, in partnership with Watty Washburn, only to lose to Frank Hunter and Vinnie Richards. In 1925 and 1926 Richards and Williams joined forces to win the US Nationals title twice.
In 1924 Williams won the Olympic mixed doubles title alongside Hazel Wightman. They were effectively reigning Olympic mixed doubles champions for 88 years as the event was not played again until 2012.
Williams also had a fine Davis Cup career. He captained the United States to victory six years in a row from 1921 and again in 1934, when the Americans lost to Britain in the final at Wimbledon.
A modest and humble man, Williams died in 1968 at the age of 77. It was thought that the vascular and circulation problems he suffered in his later years could be traced back to his time in the freezing water of the Atlantic in 1912.
However, Williams was not one to dwell on the past. “He never talked about his Titanic experiences or his tennis experiences,” Lydia Griffin, his grand-daughter, told The Independent on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
“He had all these wonderful trophies that he had won, but his view of them was practical. We carved our Christmas roast on his Wimbledon platter.”