By Bill Simons
It’s not easy to capture 95 years of grace.
But Hunter Delatour was easy, thoughtful, caring and rather wise. He emanated an assuring gravitas and was trusted. Maybe that is why some called him tennis’ answer to the late Walter Cronkite.
But no, that wasn’t quite it. It was more that he was the last of a different era. Call him, if you will, tennis’ last gentleman.
Okay, all of us now tread through this “my way or the highway,” gotcha culture of ours. But Hunter was shaped by a different mold: dignified, subtle, quiet, refined, giving. He could listen and bring feuding factions together while never descending from the high road. He reflected, paid attention and had a curious, almost comforting, chuckle. And he so loved his sport.
He began his tennis long ago on Long Island in the roaring ‘20s world of the Great Gatsby in Great Neck. Never mind lavish images of Fitzgeraldian grandeur. Hunter was but a boy on the Great Neck High School tennis team who competed on the Eastern junior circuit and played on Princeton’s considerable tennis team led by Mercer Beasly, a legendary coach who was plagued by poor eyesight. (Delatour would spend decades trying to improve eyesight and prevent blindness.) As a young man, he also managed the idyllic Twilight Park Tennis Club in New York’s Catskill mountains, where Bill Tilden used to show up. His bent for leadership was first seen in the Navy from 1941-46, where he rose from ensign to lieutenant commander. Now and forever, Hunter will be the only man to be honored by the British government as a member of the order of the British Empire, as well as be a member of Wimbledon’s more-than-proper All-England Club, be elected president of the USTA, president of the International Hall of Fame, president of the USTA NorCal and get inducted into the Northern California Tennis Hall of Fame.
Hunter had cred.
He led American tennis as the president of the USTA in 1983-84 at the height of the (Nastase to Connors to McEnroe) rock ‘n rage bad-boy era. Here he met the helter skelter with a cool, “let’s talk this out” diplomacy. In those days American tennis was seen as quite evil, thank you very much. But Delatour’s peace initiatives soon soothed ruffled international feathers as he worked many a diplomatic wonder behind the turbulent scene. After Mac and Jimbo imploded in a riotous Davis Cup tie in Sweden, he tried to create a (“Thou Shall Not Totally Humiliate America”) code of conduct, which called on players to “act with courtesy and civility.” The players bristled, the code got nowhere.
Hunter got everywhere. He was loved.
Over three decades no American official was so adored by Wimbledon. He was a near-constant presence in the Members Enclosure, where he offered a knowing perspective from across the pond, or in the Royal Box, where he charmed the mighty. No wonder he was an honorary member in clubs from South Africa to Sweden, from India and Japan to Israel and Spain.
Media-friendly and aware of the importance of bringing tennis to the inner city, he worked with Arthur Ashe’s National Junior Tennis League. He helped create the USTA’s schools program and worked to celebrate tennis’ heritage. The California State tournament, which he ran for years at the Alpine Hills Club near Palo Alto, was always a happy mecca.
He was said to be “one of the seven wonders of tennis’ volunteer world.” Davis Cup, Fed Cup, World Youth Cup or ITF meetings in distant outbacks, he traveled the globe with his wife, Eugenie, to advance the game. “His passing,” noted former Stanford coach Dick Gould, “is a gigantic loss. He was incredibly loyal, and there was no finer ambassador for tennis nationally and internationally. He stood for the good of the sport.”
Former USTA NorCal Executive Director Peter Herb said, “I never heard anyone say a negative thing about Hunter. Such a diplomat, such a gentleman.”
He was a gentleman, the last gentleman.