The Boy Who Was Afraid of Dying

The story of a “weakling” who fought his way to fame and health


The Boy Who Was Afraid of Dying

The story of a “weakling” who fought his way to fame and health


The Boy Who Was Afraid of Dying

The story of a “weakling” who fought his way to fame and health



UPON a drably dismal afternoon a decade or so ago, a small and abysmally unhappy French-Canadian boy curled himself up in a wide armchair beside the big bay windows of a gloomy room in the City of Montreal, and compelled his mind to the consideration of a desperate, terrifying problem.

Books, regimented in row upon row of shelves, lined the high-roofed chamber in which he made a tiny, pathetic unit. Most of them were law books. These had been his father's library. Now they were his, but in their ownership he found neither pleasure nor pride. His mind was obsessed with a fear which excluded all emotions save overshadowing grief.

That splendid man, his father, had died of tuberculosis in his early forties; his mother lay gravely ill upstairs. Five brothers had in turn been possessed by the great proprietor of us all. That very day he had wept bitter tears at the graveside of his last remaining brother, a victim of spinal

meningitis. Now he sat alone, a boy confronted by the suffocating horror of Death. He was only eighteen, but very soon he was to die, too.

Dismayingly he was aware of his fragility, his lack of stature, the obvious delicacy of his bodily structure. But he was aware also of courage within his soul. He wished desperately to remain alive. He would not, he decided, die. He, Marcel Rainville, would become strong; would make himself healthy.

Self-convinced at last that he could fight the threat of Death, he retired to bed; and, when he rose next morning, there was ordered in his mind a complete course of conduct upon which his life must be planned.

Ten Years Later

TOOK at another afternoon, ten years later.

This was springtime and warm sunshine flooded the red en-tout-cas courts of the Mount Royal Tennis Club. On this May day representatives of Canada and the United States were to meet in a Davis Cup elimination contest—one of that world-wide series of tennis matches which decide the international tennis championship.

The stands were packed, although the wise ones knew that Canada had small chance for a victory. The opponent of Sidney B. Wood, jr., the American star who later that year was destined to win the Wimbledon title, emblematic of the world’s individual championship, was a small, dark featured, serious minded French-Canadian —the same Marcel Rainville who, while yet in his ’teens, had made up his mind to conquer Death.

The match went to five sets. Rainville won, and thus wrote his name into the records of international tennis as the first Canadian to win a Davis Cup match from a United States adversary.

Handicapped physically, his early years clouded by the tragedy of the successive deaths of every member of his family until he alone was left, this valorous Canadian, at the age of twenty-eight, stands at the peak of his career as a tennis player, ranked second only to Dr. Jack Wright in the Dominion, a member of the Davis Cup team for four years; with a record of some importance also as a snowshoe runner, a hockey player, and at lacrosse. Hardly is there any branch of sport with which Marcel Rainville is unfamiliar. He skis in the winter and swims in summer. He has done some excellent track work. Because of his outstanding brilliance at tennis, his prowess in other lines has been forgotten in recent years, but the records of the University of Montreal and of the St. François Xavier intermediate hockey club prominently display his name in connection with more than one championship title in other fields.

At the same time and this is vitally important-—he lias launched himself upon what promises to be a brilliant career in law. A graduate of the University of Montreal,

he is now well established as a freelance lawyer in the Canadian metropolis. When the marching years compel his retirement as a competitor in international tennis, he will have before him many years of usefulness at the Bar. Never has he neglected his work for sport; rather he has made physical excellence the hand-in-hand companion of mental alacrity. Perhaps that is the most significant thing about this young French-Canadian’s interesting history.

“Afraid of Dying”

"KTARCEL RAINVILLE was born in 1904 at Bryson, a ^ village in Pontiac County, Quebec, on the Ottawa River just across from the Ontario line. His father was a lawyer, soon to be appointed to a judgeship. In his earlier years, Marcel passed much of his time successively in Hull. Ottawa and Aylmer. Then, because the metropolis was the most convenient centre from which to operate his circuit, Judge Rainville moved his family to Montreal. Marcel was then eleven years old. He has been a resident of the Montreal district ever since. His present home is at St. Lambert, a South Shore suburb.

In Montreal, Marcel was entered as a student at the famous Jesuit College of St. Mary's, that huge grey stone pile which dominates Bleury and Dorchester Streets below St. Catherine Street. The boys at St. Mary’s find small time for idleness. They put in long hours of study, broken only by periods of supervised sports on the wire-enclosed playground high above the street level. Here it was that young Rainville first learned to play hockey and lacrosse. Later he was sent to Ste. Thérèse Seminary, on the northern outskirts of the city, and it was at Ste. Thérèse that he became interested in the problems connected with stroking tennis balls across a net. In summer he also played baseball and lacrosse. Through the fall days he kicked a football. When winter came he spent every spare moment on skates or snowshoes or skis. Fair or dirty weather, all his recreative hours were passed out of doors. Instead of coddling his frail physique, he set out deliberately to make it hard, to make himself strong.

“I was afraid of dying,” he told me.

Every move he has made since that terrible day when he was left alone has been planned with the utmost care and executed according to plan. A good college lacrosse and hockey player, he was too small ever to become a front rank performer in these strenuous sports. He was a champion snowshoe runner, but the opportunities for high achievement in this line obviously are limited by considerations of season and locality. His choice of tennis was natural, intelligent and deliberate. Here was a game in which he could offset his physical handicaps by skill and strategy, and which, by stretching his modest means to the utmost, he could play out of doors for three-quarters of the year and indoors during the winter.

Once his decision to specialize in tennis was made, he charted his course as carefully as a general plans a military campaign. There have been checks and delays due to periods of minor sicknesses or other circumstances beyond Continued on page 40

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human control; but in the main he has driven straight for his successive objectives, and. one after another, has attained them all.

A Public Courts Graduate

LACKING the means or the inclination to J join one of the more exclusive tennis clubs with their inevitable concomitant of expensive social activities, Rainville began his tennis career on the public courts at Parc Lafontaine, in the east central district of Montreal. This was around 1924 and 1925. Dr. Jack Wright and Willard Crocker were the outstanding Canadian tennis players of the period, and Rainville missed no opportunity of watching them in action. Wright, he discovered, based his game upon finesse; Crocker upon speed and power of stroking. Rainville, studying tennis as he studied law, copied the best points of both styles. He kept a notebook and therein carefully marked down the peculiarities not only of Wright and Crocker but of every other player of top rank with whom he was brought in contact either as an opponent or as a spectator. This custom he continued for years, extending his records later to the famous United States and European players whom he met. He has laid his notebooks aside now because he has no further need of them. In his retentive brain he has a mental picture of the style details of every top

flight player in the world of tennis today.

For some reason which Rainville himself finds it difficult to explain, the quite ordinary public courts of Parc Lafontaine have in recent years produced a remarkable crop of j promising young tennis players. Roland 1 Longtin, H. P. Emard and Leo Boucher, outstanding French-Canadian players and promising Davis Cup material, are all graduates of that rough and ready school. With Laird Watt, of Mount Royal, and Bob Murray, of Westmount, these youngsters between them hold almost every Eastern Canadian title for which they are eligible.

“I think it is because down there we take our tennis seriously,” Rainville said. “The courts are not particularly good. But the Parc Lafontaine crowd studies the game. : exchanges opinions, constantly practises | new strokes and argues out the fine points, j All the boys are keen as mustard.”

It seems more than likely that the inspiring example of the intensely earnest Rainville himself is largely responsible for the Parc Lafontaine spirit, which has done ! more in recent years to advance tennis; among the French-Canadian players than ; any other single factor.

Rainville quickly became a star among the younger players of Eastern Canada, and then his campaign for a place on the Davis Cup team, the goal of all Canadian tennis players, was launched. Realizing that

he needed foreign experience, he took $700. every cent he could scrape together for the purpose, and started for Europe. On the way over a sneak thief reduced his slender capital by $200, but with the $500 remaining he managed to finance five busy months in Europe, an experience of great value.

On this trip Rainville discovered for the first time the essential difference between American and European tennis methods. In France he was required to play on soft courts with a ball inflated only to the minimum air content set forth in the international rules. He found that the strong forcing game common in the United States and Canada, where play is almost always on hard courts and with a ball inflated to the maximum, was of little value against the soft but infinitely skilful strategy of the best European players. He learned to combine the powerful style of Crocker with the backcourt science of Cochet.

Seated behind his desk in his law office, Rainville illustrated with wpst movements the difference in the two styles.

“On the soft courts and with the soft ball,” he says, “Cochet does this”—a twist of the wrist to the left—“and this”—a twist to the right—“and this”—a downward twist indicating a soft overhand. Unless one is a tennis bug the picture is a trifle obscure, but it is obvious that in Rainville’s mind there is a clear-cut picture of Cochet “doing this, and this, and then this,” and that he has a defense and a counter-attack already prepared to meet his next Cochet campaign.

American Experience

AFTER his European tour Rainville ^ turned to the Southern United States for new experiences; and in recent years he has travelled more widely and played in more winter tournaments below the MasonDixon line than any other Canadian player not excluding even Dr. Jack Wright whose experience in the United States has been chiefly in New England and the New York district.

"I cannot speak too highly of the rare hospitality and valuable instruction I have received from my American friends,” Rainville said. “Except for the experience gained in a series of visits to Florida and other Southern States, I could never have beaten Sidney Wood. Probably but for that experience I could never have brought my game to the point where I could make a position on the Davis Cup team.”

Winter tennis campaigns cost money. Rainville spent a small fortune of his own to forward his ambition to become a Davis Cup player, but about this time he happily met and fell in love with the charming lady who is now his wife.

She was a daughter of G. N. Ducharme, president of the Provincial Bank of Canada and founder of La Sauvegarde Life Insurance Company. Enthusiastically interested in Rainville and his ambitions, the Ducharme family entered wholeheartedly into his plans and thereafter he had no financial worries.

One of the most attractive attributes of Marcel Rainville’s character is his frankness. Discussing this phase of his tennis career, he said:

“My wife’s family made it possible for me to continue my Southern experiences and I want her to have all the credit. But for their assistance, I doubt if I could have made the grade. To some girls my ambition might have appeared as a foolish waste of time, but she understood and the Ducharmes never questioned my expenditures.”

By 1929 Rainville was ready. That year he beat out Gilbert Nunns for fourth place on the Davis Cup squad, and he has been a Davis Cup player ever since. He is now the second ranking player in the Dominion, and the logical successor to Dr. Jack Wright as Canadian champion. His game this year, he says, is at its best. He has finally perfected a combination of the forcing style learned from Crocker with the soft game acquired in France and the back-court strategy which his experience in American tournaments has fostered. His ability suddenly to change tactics makes him a dangerous opponent on

any court. This feature of his game was never more apparent than in his famous victory over Wood, when in the final game, after playing a soft back-court defensive style, he started to come in to the net and smash. The match point was a terrific overhand drive to the base line which caught Wood completely off balance; so much so that the American player in a desperate effort to reach the ball fell heavily and sprawled his six feet of length on the court.

In his career at various times, Rainville has beaten some of the world’s best. He holds victories over Wood, Wilmer Allison, Fritz Mercur, Herbert Bowman, Phil Neer, Littleton Rogers, H. G. N. Lee, and Keith Lester in the singles, and he has given hard battles to Frank Shields, George Lott and Fred Perry.

At White Sulphur Springs last winter, paired with Gene McAuliffe in the doubles, the Rainville-McAuliffe combination beat the famous doubles team of Allison and Van Ryn. With George Lott as his partner, Rainville won the Pan-American title at Miami during the same campaign.

Naturally modest and unassuming,Marcel is cocky and confident on the courts. This feature of his game, as is the case with so many aspects of his tennis personality, he has built up deliberately. As a boy he was timid. To overcome this handicap, he wrote at the top of his diary every morning for years:

“Well, I can beat them all.”

His philosophy of living insists that a man’s habits should be moderate but well rounded. Of late he takes an occasional highball, but unless he was satisfied with his physical condition he drank no intoxicants whatever. He doesn’t smoke because smoking is bad for the wind. In training he is a relentless driver of himself. During his early tennis years he rose every morning at fivethirty o’clock and started for the open air. Winters, he skied on Mount Royal in the morning, played hockey in the afternoon, then went back to skis until nightfall. While he was grooming himself for his Davis Cup drive in 1929, he went from one end of the city to the other every morning all winter long to put in an hour and a half of hard practice at the National Amateur Athletic Association with Leo Boucher as his partner. On one celebrated occasion he played hockey for the University of Montreal in Madison Square Garden on a Saturday night, and on the following afternoon placed fifth in an intercollegiate snowshoe race run in a blinding snowstorm at Lake Placid. The man is a small, compact bundle of energy and drive.

How to Advance Canadian Tennis

"D AINVILLE has very definite ideas as to the methods to be used for the advancement of Canadian tennis. With Dr. Jack Wright he agrees that our promising young players should be given every opportunity to participate in tournaments abroad, financed when necessary by the Canadian Lawn Tennis Association or by private individuals. Without his foreign experience, Marcel Rainville says, he could never have built up the sure confidence in his own ability i which every champion must possess.

“A young tennis player who shows promise,” he said, “could make the rounds of the tournaments in the Eastern United States for practically the entire summer for $300. The experience he would gain, not only in match play but in practice against better men, would be worth many times that amount to Canadian tennis.”

One of his pet theories is that Davis Cup matches in Canada should be played with a ball made to suit Canadian tennis style, something about halfway between the soft ball used in Europe and the highly inflated American ball. The present practice is to use United States standard balls in Canj adian tournaments. On this point he said :

“The rules permit us to use the ball best suited to our own style, so long as it stays within the limits defined in the regulations as to size and maximum and minimum

inflation. In the United States we are compelled to play with a hard, fast ball, designed to fit the American game, which chiefly is built on speed. In France they go to great lengths to keep the ball soft, in accord with the softer French style. We are entitled in Canada to use a ball which i would help our own game, a combination of the American and European styles. We should take advantage of that privilege.”

Rainville’s whole life at present is bound up in three interests—his law practice, his family and his tennis. He is a good lawyer, I conscientious and hard working. Indeed he could hardly be anything else, for his entire j family tradition on both sides is dedicated to the law. His father was Judge BourbeauRainville. His mother was Eliza David, a daughter of the late Senator L. O. David and a sister of the Hon. L. Athanase David, the present Provincial Secretary for Quebec. Don’t be surprised if, after he retires from competitive tennis, Marcel Rainville turns up in politics. It’s in his blood.

He has one daughter, Claude, a chubby

blonde youngster, a perfect picture of health | and vigor, who undoubtedly will be taught the importance of a sound backhand just as soon as her fingers grow large enough to grip a tennis racket.

His physical condition, of course, is perfect. Long since he has forgotten his fear of dying. Willard Crocker told this reporter ¡ in June last, when Rainville was winning club tournaments in the Montreal district with an almost monotonous regularity, that Rainville had never been in better form.

“He has developed a forearm that would knock you over,” Crocker said.

Marcel’s one grief now is that he cannot | figure out a scheme whereby he could add three or four inches to his height and similar extra length to his reach.

“Those tall, long-armed guys like Shields and Vines,” he said, “are hard to beat. You can’t pass ’em. The only thing to do is outsteady them.”

Marcel Rainville is good at that. He 1 outsteadied the Grim Reaper himself.