Joe Hunt Invitational honors Navy tennis, war hero

It is unlikely there has ever been a Naval Academy tennis player who achieved as much as Navy Lt. Joseph R. Hunt, who in 1943 won the National Championship while serving in the Navy. It was one of many titles he won during his career.

Hunt gave up his tennis career to attend the academy, so he could serve his country, then graduated and advanced on to training as a Navy pilot. Tragically, he died two years after his championship, in February 1945, when the plane he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic Ocean during a test mission. He was 25.

The tragic story of the short life of Joe Hunt makes for a heroic tale.

This weekend, as it has each year since 2015, the Naval Academy and its tennis program will be honoring Hunt when it hosts the Joe Hunt Invitational tournament. Ninety-six players from 11 schools will be participating in competition running from Friday through Sunday.

“It is a tremendous honor to our grand uncle that the Naval Academy is preserving and perpetuating his legacy through this annual event,” said grand nephew Joe Hunt. “Coach Chris Garner and his staff do an amazing job hosting the tournament, which provides a full weekend of competition for student-athletes to prepare them for their seasons.

“My grand uncle would be so proud of all competitors and to think he played a role in such a tournament, and the Hunt family is grateful to the Academy for honoring his memory in this way,” Hunt said. “He was a champion who gave his life for his country.”

In September 2015, the Naval Academy dedicated one of the courts, the one Hunt is said to have practiced and played on — to Hunt to commemorate his inspiring service to his country and the game of tennis.

This year’s tournament also comes during the 75th anniversary of Hunt’s 1943 national championship.

“(Associate coach) John Moreland came up with the idea that we should do something to recognize arguably the best (tennis) player in the history of the school as well as someone who served the academy and gave his life for his country,” said Garner.

A nationally-ranked player both as a teen and into his twenties, Hunt was among the top five players in the country when he took a tour of the U.S. Naval Academy. At the time, he was enrolled at Southern Cal and had already won the NCAA doubles championship.

Having previously shown an interest in serving his country as war began in Europe, Hunt was so impressed on his visit that he left USC and enrolled at the academy. He played tennis for the Mids, winning the 1941 NCAA singles titles. Hunt also played football at Navy and participated in the 1941 Army-Navy game, earning a game ball.

Hunt was due to graduate from the Naval Academy in 1942, but in December 1941, Pearl Harbor happened and his class was moved up to graduate early. He was stationed on the destroyer USS Rathburne over the next two years

In 1943, Hunt was reassigned to training stateside and was given permission to take leave to prepare for and play in that year’s national tennis championship. He went on to win the final, defeating tennis legend Jack Kramer in a grueling four-set match. He was unable to defend his title in 1944 because he was on active duty, then perished during a test run of a Grumman Hellcat fighter plane in February 1945, just two weeks prior to his 26th birthday.

“No reason was given, he just seemed to spiral down,” said Hunt. “The instructor was telling him to pull out of his dive, and there was no response. He spiraled down.”

Prior to the national championship, Hunt had won the national 15-and-under and 18-and-under titles and the NCAA doubles title (at USC) and singles title (at Navy).

“He is the only player to ever win at all five levels,” said Hunt, adding that when his grand uncle played on the 1938 and 1939 Davis Cup team, it practiced on academy courts.

In 1966, Hunt was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

“He accomplished so much in 25 years,” Hunt said. “He was number one in 1943 and had won national (age group) titles at 15 and 18. He was definitely on the path to being one of the greatest. Jack Kramer said that when Joe died, he lost his greatest rival. He was quite a significant tennis player — his impact was lost by his death.”

Fred McNair IV, a former national tennis champion and No. 1 ranked player in doubles, cited the tournament as a testament to the significance of Hunt, his tennis accomplishments and his service to his country.

“This tournament continues to perpetuate the memory of Joe Hunt and what he would have liked to have seen … a tournament for young adult players with good, intense competition,” McNair said.

Though he attended the University of North Carolina, four generations of McNair’s family attended the Naval Academy, including his son Seth. Among the Fred McNairs who attended the Academy were an eventual superintendent of the academy (his great grandfather), a Medal of Honor winner (his grandfather) and his father, who attended the academy at the same time as Joe Hunt.

“Joe Hunt was intense. He intrinsically pursued and reflected excellence,” said McNair, who is a member of the Friends of Navy Tennis boosters. “He left (Southern Cal and the pro tennis circuit) to go to the academy so he could become an officer, because he wanted to serve the nation in a leadership role.”

In addition to Navy, schools competing in this year’s tournament are Air Force, Connecticut, Delaware, Farleigh Dickinson, George Mason, George Washington, Monmouth, Richmond, St. Bonaventure and Temple.

“It’s a good field. The matches count on each individual player’s record for the fall season, so they are actual matches (and not exhibitions),” Garner said. “It is a great chance for teams to get to play matches against a lot of different schools.”

Two special ceremonies will take place honoring Hunt. Prior to the start of the tournament on Friday at 10 a.m., the younger Hunt will speak to the teams about his grand uncle and why the tournament is so important to his family. On Sunday at 10 a.m., prior to the start of the No. 1 singles championship match, a trophy ceremony will be held with both finalists participating. Both ceremonies will be held at the Dyer Hall courts.

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