Class of 1965
U.S. No. 1 (1940)
Grand Slam Results
4-time major champion, twice a finalist
What a thrilling and exciting excursion it must have been for a small town guy from Chickasha, Oklahoma to make, traveling 4,858-miles from his hometown to play in the 1939 French International Men’s Singles Championships in Paris, France. At the time, William Donald McNeill was still a college student at Kenyon College in Ohio, so the task before him must have felt daunting, but not entirely overwhelming.
As a collegian, McNeill and four other Americans were chosen by the Indian Lawn Tennis Association to play a series of exhibitions in Yokohama, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, and Calcutta, so international competition wasn’t a new endeavor for the all-court player. But McNeill had never played in a major tournament, let alone against a field comprised of the world’s best players. His nerves may have been unsettled as he made his appearance on the red clay of Roland Garros, dropping the opening set of his first round encounter match against Poland’s Adam Baworowski, 6-2. McNeill settled those jitterbugs nicely, rallying back for the victory, 6-1, 7-5, 6-1.
McNeill had one major stumbling block to overcome in the third round – needing five sets to defeat France’s Bernard Destremau – and had two four-set slugfests in the quarterfinals, jettisoning No. 2 seed Franjo Punčec of Yugoslavia and his compatriot Elwood Cooke before advancing to an unlikely championship match. Awaiting McNeill was No. 1 seed and countryman Bobby Riggs. With surprising aplomb, McNeill defeated Riggs in straight sets, 7-5, 6-0, 6-3, becoming only the second American to win the French, following Don Budge’s triumph the previous year. McNeill also returned home with a French Doubles title, teaming with Charles Harris to defeat the French combination of Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon, 4–6, 6–4, 6–0, 2–6, 10–8
While the victory for the unseeded McNeill was surprising, it shouldn’t have been. McNeill won five state tennis titles (singles in 1934-35 and doubles in 1933-35). One year prior to his Grand Slam victory, McNeill won at the 1938 U.S. National Indoor Tennis Championships played at the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York, defeating Frank Bowden.
McNeill closed out the 1939 season in the summer by impressively winning six rounds to conquer the Newport Casino Invitation Tournament, defeating Thomas Edward Cooke in the final. That fall he returned to Kenyon College and won the highly regarded Intercollegiate Singles title.
At the 1940 U.S. National Championships at Forest Hills, McNeill was in fine form, once again stunning the field. It included a semifinal win over Jack Kramer in four tight sets. Riggs once again awaited McNeill in the finals, and once again McNeill prevailed, defeating Riggs in a five-set final, 4-6, 6-8, 6-3, 6-3, 7-5. In the process, McNeill became the third of five players to rebound from being two sets down to win the championship. The satisfying win earned McNeill the rare sweep of college and national titles in the same year, matched only by Stanford’s Ted Schroeder in 1942. Those victories propelled McNeill to the No. 1 U.S. ranking. The mid-1940s saw McNeill cement his legacy with a U.S National Men’s Doubles Championship with Bob Falkenburg in 1944, while on leave from the Navy. He made the most of his time on leave, also advancing to the mixed doubles title match with Dorothy Cheney.
Military service interrupted McNeill’s tennis exploits, but didn’t quiet his racquet. During World War II he served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and was attached to the embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He won the 1942 Argentinean Championships and adeptly defended his title the following year, defeating Pancho Segura in the final. When he returned from duty, McNeill continued to play regular tournament tennis and bookended his career by winning his second U.S. National Indoor Championship in 1950.
French Open: W 1939
US Open: W 1940
French Open: W 1939
US Open: W 1944
Wimbledon: QF 1939
US Open: F 1944