The following piece originally appeared in the book entitled ‘Tennis in Deutschland. Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Zum 100-jährigen Bestehen des Deutschen Tennis Bundes.’/‘Tennis in Germany. From Its Beginnings to the Present Day. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the German Tennis Federation’. The book in question was first published in 2002.
Viktor Voss – The Count from Mecklenburg
By Heiner Gillmeister
[Translated from the German by Mark Ryan]
Count Viktor Felix Eugen Voss, Chamberlain to the Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, was born on 31 March 1868 in Schorssow Castle, his parents’ seat in Mecklenburg. His mother, Elise Szápáry, was a Hungarian countess, his father came from the old nobility in Mecklenburg. True to their name, the Low German equivalent of ‘Master Reineke Fox’, a leaping fox adorned the family crest, somewhat in contrast to the statuesque pose the lawn tennis champion usually displayed on the court to the eye of the beholder.
Count Viktor Voss received his first lawn tennis lessons from an American gentleman who had spent a number of months at his parents’ estate, where a lawn tennis court had been laid for the young nobleman. That was around the beginning of the 1890s. To begin with, the admiration shown by the young aristocrat to his teacher was almost limitless. However, the count subsequently saw how easily the American was beaten by a third-class English player at a tournament. After that, Count Voss decided that in future he would only be taught by first-class players.
At that time the best lawn tennis players were William and Ernest Renshaw, who in the 1880s had won so many championship titles on the lawns at Wimbledon that they early decided they would only continue to play lawn tennis for their own enjoyment. In winter, when the inhospitable British climate led lawn tennis players to put away their rackets, the sons of a rich English industrialist, who had no money worries of their own, were in the habit of pursuing their enjoyable activity on the top-class courts at the Hotel Beau Site in Cannes on the French Riviera.
As luck would have it, the young count was also in the habit of paying a visit to the same courts in Cannes every morning – for professional reasons, so to speak. As early as the early 1880s, his sovereign, Friedrich III, hereditary Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, who suffered from very bad asthma accompanied by severe neuralgia, had a country house built in the Italian style on the cliffs high above the sea on the French Riviera. He called it the Villa Wenden, after one of his titles. The sovereign spent the winter months there with his family, and it was there that Count Voss dutifully carried out his duties in his capacity as Chamberlain to the Grand Duchess and Tsar’s granddaughter, Anastasia.
The count’s daily duties also included playing one or more lawn tennis matches because Her Imperial Highness was also an enthusiastic fan of the newly-fashionable sport. And because the German aristocrats also played their matches on the courts at the Beau Site Hotel, it was more or less inevitable that Count Voss would meet both of the Renshaws, perhaps while retrieving the ball after one of Grand Duchess Anastasia’s errant shots. The Renshaw twins, who were probably flattered by the fact that a real count was seeking their company, generously offered to take him under their wings.
Not satisfied with this offer, Count Voss later also additionally secured the services of perhaps the best professional lawn tennis player of the time, the Irishman Thomas Burke. The latter had settled in Paris as a professional after twice winning the world championship, but was also in the habit of spending the winter months in Nice. Like Countess Clara von der Schulenburg, his aristocratic equal and also a top-class lawn tennis enthusiast, Count Voss was in the habit of spending some of the winter in Nice.
After receiving lessons from Burke in Nice, Count Voss travelled the short distance to neighbouring Cannes, where he bravely faced the shots of his English opponents. While journeying from Cannes to Nice, Count Voss used a much-admired, red-painted car, because he was not only an exceptional German lawn tennis player, he was also an excellent clay pigeon shooter and one of the first German ‘gentleman drivers’ – and in these respects a role model for future generations of lawn tennis players.
After his first appearance at the Uhlenhorst Club in Hamburg in 1893, until the turn of the century, Count Voss was one of the main attractions at the tournaments held in Hamburg and Bad Homburg. In 1899, at the peak of his career, he finally fulfilled one of his fans’ long-cherished wishes. The German player tried his luck in the lion’s den, in the motherland of lawn tennis, in order to measure his strength against Britain’s best players. His tour began at the Middlesex Championships tournament in Chiswick, London, and ended at the Irish Championships in distant Dublin. During this tour, he scored several victories against second-class players in both England and Ireland.
His success aroused the curiosity of the English sports journals. For example, the magazine ‘Lawn Tennis’ praised his game in the following positive manner: “In addition to his tremendous serve, to which he occasionally adds a rather amazing underhand screw, the special features of the count’s game are the powerful and accurate drives he directs to his opponent’s backhand, and his smash from the baseline. When he is in form, it is pointless to try to hit the ball over him because his great reach is capable of scuppering the most perfect of lobs.”
Dr John M. Flavelle, a London doctor and lawn tennis player, who was very familiar with lawn tennis on the Continent, was one of the unbiased critics who expressed themselves in a less polite manner about the count’s abilities. While Flavelle conceded that Count Voss had a very good forehand drive and a solid volleying game, he considered his serve – which ‘Lawn Tennis’ had described as ‘tremendous’ – as easy to return, his smash as average and his backhand as exceptionally weak.
Most of the praise he was showered with came from the coaches of Count Voss who, because they had to earn their bread by teaching him, had every reason to praise their protégé’s success in an exaggerated manner. Nevertheless, the firm of Slazenger, number one among racket manufacturers, considered it very appropriate to name one of their new rackets ‘The Voss’. This was indeed proper recognition for the sporting achievements of the count from Mecklenburg, even if those in charge at Slazenger’s really had the goal of increasing their sales on the Continent.
The trademark of Count Voss was a white towel, which he was in the habit of wrapping around his head like a turban. His admirers, in particular those of the fair sex, would have sworn that the towel in question was wet. An American woman, who was questioned by a female friend in Bad Homburg about this strange habit, explained it in the following way: “Yes, the poor count suffers from such bad headaches that he always wraps a wet towel around his head.”
In the end the main sports magazine in the German Empire, ‘Sport im Bild’, which was published in Berlin, shed some light in the dark and solved the puzzle that the whole nation had been talking about. Although ‘The New York Herald’ had confirmed that wearing wet towels around the head like turbans was quite common in the United States, it might be interesting for their dear readers to know that the white towel used by Count Voss was completely dry!
According to ‘Sport im Bild’, the towel was applied to the count’s forehead only to counteract all the sweat pouring from the top of his head, and it also helped prevent the frames in his thick glasses from being adversely affected. (His glasses were also an additional, unmistakeable trademark of the German lawn tennis hero.) In England and the United States, his bespectacled fellow lawn tennis players did the same thing, and ‘Sport im Bild’ named the American Carr Neel and the Englishman Ernest Meers as players with the same habit.
Count Viktor Voss left the lawn tennis stage when he realized that there were no new territories to be conquered in the world of lawn tennis. As the lawn tennis star Otto Froitzheim began his rise just after the turn of the century, Count Voss swore a sacred oath never to step foot on a lawn tennis court again. Because the building in which he had been born, Schorssow Castle, had been sold in 1891, he moved back to the family estate in Ulrichshusen in Mecklenburg.
The castle in Ulrichshusen is built in the Gothic style and surrounded by water; it once also had a drawbridge. From this time on, the sports press, which never stopped regretting the much too early retirement of Count Voss, referred to him only as ‘The man from Ulrichshusen’. The remains of a lawn tennis court can still be seen in the estate’s park today. According to the locals, the court was probably laid around 1910, and up to a few years ago elderly residents of the village still remembered seeing their lord and master playing lawn tennis on this court. This seems to indicate that the lord of the castle did indeed return to his old habits from time to time.
In Ulrichshusen, which was recently converted into an environmentally-protected property, and which has a good reputation as a holiday destination and venue for festivals held in Mecklenburg, the rumour still circulates today that Count Voss and the Grand Duchess, Anastasia, who was often his mixed doubles partner, had a romantic relationship. However, Count Voss married twice. His first wife, whom he married in New York in 1911, was a divorced Italian marquise.
His second wife was Countess Clara von der Schulenburg, someone he knew well from the time they both used to spend on the French Riviera. She was a former commoner and also divorced. Like him, she was also a former lawn tennis champion. They married each other in 1928 in the Grunewald district of Berlin. Count Viktor Voss, who did not have any children, died in his villa in Waren am Müritzsee in Mecklenburg in 1936. He had battled with illness for five months and, because of the Olympic Games, which were taking place in nearby Berlin, his death went almost unnoticed.
Count Viktor Voss was buried in the family vault in the castle chapel in Gross Gievitz in Mecklenburg, another family estate, where his brother Felix lived and which recently came under the hammer. That a famous count should lie buried in Gross Gievitz was kept secret for a long time by the authorities in the German Democratic Republic, who wanted to erase the last traces of the old German aristocracy. However, a cross decorating the grave of Count Viktor Voss and also bearing his name can now once more be seen by those on the trail of German lawn tennis history.
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