NEW YORK — Gene Mako, who teamed with Don Budge to win a pair of US and Wimbledon doubles championships and lost to him in the Forest Hills national singles final that brought Budge the first Grand Slam in tennis, died Friday in Los Angeles. He was 97.
He died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a spokeswoman, Cara Lasala, confirmed.
Mr. Mako once seemed destined to be among the game’s biggest stars, possessing a dominating serve and a strong overhead. An injury to his right shoulder in 1936 took away his power, but Budge, already Mr. Mako’s doubles partner, encouraged him to persevere.
“I told him I’d be serving like a little old lady and would have to shovel the ball around, but it was OK with him,” Mako was quoted as saying by the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.
Mr. Mako and Budge went on to win the US men’s doubles title at Forest Hills in 1936 and 1938 and the Wimbledon doubles title in 1937 and 1938. They teamed in doubles on four US Davis Cup teams, including the championship squads of 1937 and 1938. Mr. Mako also won the mixed doubles at Forest Hills in 1936, teaming with Alice Marble.
In September 1938, Mr. Mako engineered a string of upsets to reach the singles final at Forest Hills as an unseeded player. His opponent in the title match was his good friend Budge, who had won the Australian, French, and Wimbledon singles titles that year.
Budge defeated Mr. Mako in four sets, becoming the first player to capture all four of tennis’s major championships in the same year. That match was Mr. Mako’s only singles final in a major. He was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1973 for his outstanding doubles play.
‘I told him I’d be serving like a little old lady and would have to shovel the ball around, but it was OK with him.’
Constantine Gene Mako was born in Budapest in 1916. His father, Bartholomew, was an artist who painted, drew, and created sculptures, and his mother, Georgina Farka, was a teacher. The family moved to Argentina and then came to the Los Angeles area when Gene was a youngster. Bartholomew Mako produced paintings promoting Hollywood films, as well as murals and stained-glass creations.
Gene Mako won the national collegiate singles and doubles titles, pairing with Phillip Caslin, for Southern California in 1934. But he injured his shoulder falling on an English grass court in the summer of 1936, limiting his future play in singles matches.
Although Mr. Mako’s Forest Hills singles final against Budge pitted friends and road-trip roommates, the competition at times proved intense. Winning the second set, 8-6, the only set that Budge dropped in the tournament, Mr. Mako displayed a strong forehand, a backhand slice from all angles, and superb lobs and drop shots.
“There was no holding back on either side, and there was no trace of amiability in the scorching forehand drives with which Mako caught Budge in faulty position inside the baseline or the murderous backhand and volcanic service which Budge turned loose,” Allison Danzig wrote in The New York Times.
Budge rejected suggestions that he allowed Mr. Mako to win one set out of friendship.
“I had too much respect and affection for Gene to treat him as if he were an inferior player who could be given a set for his troubles, rather than a condescending pat on the head,” he was quoted as saying in “Bud Collins’ Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis,” by Collins and Zander Hollander.
Mr. Mako was ranked number three in the United States and number nine in the world in 1938. When Budge began competing as a pro the following year, Mr. Mako curtailed his play. He served in the US Navy during World War II and briefly played pro tennis.
He later became an art dealer in Los Angeles at Gene Mako Galleries and assembled many of his father’s artworks. He also built private tennis courts.
He leaves his wife, Laura. Budge died in 2000.
Long after his tennis heyday, Mr. Mako reflected on his shoulder injury and its consequences.
“Everybody said I had the best serve and overhead in the world,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2007, recalling the time before he was hurt. “And I went from that to nothing. Mentally, it was a terrible thing.
“Because I had to concentrate like a son of a gun after I was injured, maybe I would not have played any better, or even as well, if I hadn’t been injured. I did most everything I did with whatever talent I had.”