When the man formerly known as Franciszek Paikowski retired from the sales staff of a Chicago corrugated-box company in 1979, he realized it wasn’t too late to reclaim his childhood passion. He signed on as a tennis pro at the McClurg Court Sports Center and began teaching weekend hackers how to hit backhands down the line.
Twenty-five years later, he would be posthumously inducted into the USTA’s Chicago Tennis Hall of Fame. He was a beloved teacher, but of course the honor had little to do with his talents as an instructor.
Paikowski, who decades before had changed his name to Frank Parker to ease his way into the WASPish, upper-crust world of American tennis, won two U.S. and two French national singles championships in the 1940s. He also scored a Wimbledon doubles title, partnering with the legendary Pancho Gonzales.
These were not his only claims to fame.
When he first arrived at Wimbledon at the tail end of the Depression, he caused a mini-scandal by appearing for his matches in what writer Marshall Jon Fisher called “short shorts and collarless white T-shirts. (Britain’s) own Bunny Austin had invented tennis shorts, but Bunny’s came down near the knee, while Parker’s almost indecently reminded one of briefs.”
Parker’s wife, Audrey, designed his tennis wardrobe; she was proud of the strutting virility of her man. And who could blame her? She was nearly 20 years older than her husband. She was also the ex-wife of his former coach, a man who had essentially raised him. Parker strived to keep that tawdry little fact from officials at Wimbledon, which was then–as it remains today–the prissiest, most tradition-encrusted tennis tournament in the world. (Wimbledon’s 127th edition ends this weekend.)
Nothing about Parker’s rise in tennis followed the rule book. When he won his first major championship, the U.S. Nationals, his hometown paper in Wisconsin wrote: “If you remember, everybody said–well, almost everybody–that Frankie Parker would never make it. But he did.”
The naysayers could be forgiven for their doubts. After all, Parker didn’t have the usual tennis pedigree. He came from, in his own words, “the low, low class. My mother took in washing,” he said in a 1994 interview at the U.S. Open. “I worked as a ball boy for the Town Club in Milwaukee and would make a dollar a week at five cents a set.”
Parker’s life changed when he was 10 years old. Milwaukee Town Club’s pro, Mercer Beasley, noticed him hitting old tennis balls against a wall and saw something special in the fatherless boy. Beasley had a good eye: at just 17, with Beasley’s tutoring, Paikowski won the U.S. clay-court championship and would soon change his name to one he considered appropriate for a great tennis champion.
Beasley’s wife, it would turn out, had a good eye, too. Five years after hefting the national clay-court trophy, Parker was ready to make his move on the international tour when Beasley discovered that his wife was secretly carrying on a passionate affair with his protégé. The Beasleys abruptly divorced, and Parker, now without a coach and wracked with guilt, lost his feel for the game. But he could not lose his feelings for Audrey Beasley. The May-December couple married. They would remain inseparable until Audrey died in 1971.
In time, Parker rebuilt his game. The big breakthrough finally, belatedly came at Forest Hills in 1944. And it came even though the 28-year-old had barely picked up a racquet in the weeks before the tournament. After all, there was a war on. Parker was a sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Forces. He hadn’t played an official tournament in months before showing up for the U.S. Nationals.
After Parker won the final, a relatively easy four-set match against Bill Talbert, Milwaukee Journal reporter Richard S. Davis asked the new champion about his claim that he came into the tournament cold.
“You wouldn’t fool a fellow citizen, would you, Frank?”
“Not for the world,” a grinning Parker said.
“Tell me, then, haven’t you been playing a lot more tennis than the public believes?”
“Honest to Pete, I haven’t,” he insisted. “You can’t in the army. I’ve played very little and the lack of practice hasn’t done me any good. I’m really off my game.”
That being the case, he then predicted that once he finished whipping Hitler and Hirohito and returned to his usual tennis routine, he’d surely win five national championships in a row.
He would have to settle for two in a row. The New York Times reported that, stationed in the South Pacific the following year, Parker “got a 9,000-mile bomber ride home to defend his title.” He once again defeated Talbert in the final.
By now, he and Mercer Beasley had apparently patched up their relationship. Beasley couldn’t hold a grudge against the only student of his to become a world champion. “They remained the best of friends,” Jim Luzar, one of Parker’s nephews, told the Times. “Whenever he won a tournament, he got a congratulatory wire” from Beasley.
Most of those telegrams came during the war years. Gonzales and Jack Kramer, with their violent, serve-and-volley “Big Game” style, rose up in the late 1940s to take over the sport.
“I never was much for speed (of shot),” Parker admitted years later. “I was more of a control player. Hit and run like a boxer and hitting to a certain point was my main thing on the tennis court.” He would go to the net, he joked, “only to shake hands with my opponent.”
The definitive turning point came in the 1947 U.S. Nationals final. Facing the tall, powerful Kramer, Parker frustrated his younger opponent with his careful placements and expert movement. He quickly won the first two sets. But Kramer shook off his torpor at the last minute and imposed his game on the match, charging back to force a deciding fifth set.
Parker, known as “the human backboard,” tried to force his opponent into uncharacteristic mistakes in that final set. He knew Kramer, who also came from a working-class background, planned to go professional and needed a win to turn a handshake deal into a contract. He hoped to use that ambition against him. “Jack Harris was in the stands–he was the promoter putting on the pro matches–and you can imagine how nervous (Kramer) was,” Parker recalled in a USTA interview.
Kramer would periodically look up into the stands at Harris, but all he saw was the promoter’s bald pate–because Harris had his head in his hands.
“I don’t know what actually happened,” Parker said. “The third set I sort of let go because I won the first two and I had played (Australian champion John Bromwich) the day before. I had played (Pancho) Segura the day before that, and they were all tough sets and matches and I was getting a little weary, but that is no excuse. Jack, he just upped his game and he prevailed.”
Parker would eventually turn pro himself. He needed to earn a living, too. The international tennis tour, then open only to amateurs, barely paid expenses. On the barnstorming U.S. professional tour, he, Gonzales, Kramer and their wives often would stuff themselves into one car to drive to matches together.
“After a match, we’d drive about 100 miles and check into a motel,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “The next morning we’d get up and drive the rest of the way, maybe 200 to 300 miles. Then we’d have promotion work. That was the hardest part.”
He might not have enjoyed the required promotion, but with his good looks and engaging personality, he was a natural at it. He made “about 500 (dollars) a week” as a professional tennis player–a nice paycheck in the early 1950s.
Still, it was a hard life, and promoters couldn’t always be counted on to write checks that would clear. By the middle of the decade, Parker had had enough. He took a sales job in Chicago and settled down with Audrey. His tennis would go on the back burner for the next two decades–until he joined McClurg Court.
He never lost his passion for the sport. And even as tennis dramatically changed with the arrival of big-time professionalism and the advancement of racquet technology, he held firm to his belief that he had played during a golden era. In 1994, he attended the U.S. Open and marveled up-close at how the players now crushed every shot with heavy topspin. Then he added:
“Of course, we used wooden rackets when we were playing. I doubt very much whether they could do the same thing with our equipment.”
A USTA publicity staffer asked if he thought he and his contemporaries would have been able to compete with Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and Boris Becker.
“Sure, we could, yes,” he said. “Definitely.”
Parker died in 1997 at 81. He continued in his teaching role at McClurg Court almost until the very end. The club would close a dozen years later, “in response,” wrote the owners in a press release, “to changing demographics and a lighter market demand.”
It was another small piece of the city’s sports history lost to the mists. Market demand had never been light when the charismatic Parker, Chicago’s own tennis champion, was striding its courts.
Douglas Perry is an award-winning journalist and author. His new ebook is The Fall and Rise of Roger Federer: 9 Unexpected Turning Points in Tennis History. Download a free chapter.