Richard Norris Williams narrowly avoided having both legs amputated after jumping into frozen water during the sinking of the Titanic on 15 April 1912. Following his rescue, the American went on to enjoy a highly successful tennis career, the highlight of which was a mixed doubles gold with Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman at the Olympic Games Paris 1924.
The 21-year-old Williams was already an accomplished tennis player and brilliant student when he boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg, France, on 10 April 1912 with his father, Charles. Born in Geneva, Switzerland, on 29 January 1891, he first picked up a racket as a young boy, under the guidance of his father, a tennis enthusiast who played a key role in creating the International Tennis Federation. Williams was Swiss junior champion at the age of 12. However, eager to continue his career at the highest level, and to pursue his studies at Harvard University, he and his father set sail for the USA on the fateful vessel.
"I'm going to need these legs!"
At 11.40 p.m. local time, on 14 April 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland. What followed was one of the most famous tragedies of the 20th century. The hull was damaged below the waterline, water rushed into the watertight compartments and the ship sank bow-first. Williams jumped from a height of more than 12 metres into minus two-degree water, while his father perished when the first funnel fell from the ship. The young tennis player swam to reach a lifeboat, and made it to the RMS Carpathia, which had come to rescue survivors. His legs were frozen and a doctor suggested they should be amputated immediately. "I'm going to need these legs!" he shouted. Insisting on walking around the deck of the Carpathia, he gradually rediscovered feeling in his lower limbs.
Barely 12 weeks later, Williams was on court at the Longwood Challenge Bowl near Boston, in a match against Karl Howell Behr, another survivor of the Titanic! Behr won in five sets, but while his career was coming to an end, Williams' was only just taking off. Later in 1912, he won his first Grand Slam title – the mixed doubles with Mary Browne at the US National Championships, the precursor to the US Open.
A superb volleyer, Williams won the Davis Cup with the USA in 1913, 1921, 1923, 1925 and 1926, recording 10 victories and just three defeats in total, and he remained unbeaten in the doubles. He won the men's singles title at the US National Championships in 1914 and 1916. He was Wimbledon champion in the men's doubles with Chuck Garland in 1920, and alongside Vincent Richards in 1925 and 1926. In the intervening period, he served in the US army during the First World War, and was awarded the Légion d'Honneur and the Croix de Guerre.
Mixed doubles triumph in Paris
Aged 33, Williams was a member of the US delegation at the Olympic Games Paris 1924. On the clay courts of Colombes, he was knocked out of the men's singles in the quarter-finals by Frenchman Henri Cochet (7-5, 3-6, 2-6, 4-6), who went on to reach the final. In the men's doubles, his run alongside Watson Washburn also came to an end at the quarter-final stage, with the American duo losing a thriller to South Africans Jack Condon and Ivie Richardson (6-4, 9-11, 4-6, 6-4, 4-6, 4-6).
In the mixed doubles, Williams teamed up with Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman, who had just won the women's doubles with Helen Wills Moody, the Olympic singles champion. Williams and Wightman received a bye in the first round following the withdrawal of French pair Suzanne Lenglen and Henri Cochet, before winning their next three matches to reach the final on 21 July, where they faced compatriots Marion Jessup and Vincent Richards (the latter of whom had already been crowned men's singles champion). The Titanic survivor and his partner were comfortable 6-2, 6-3 winners. “He deserved to win an Olympic title," noted Frantz Reichel, author of the Official Report of the Olympic Games Paris 1924, who also remarked that “Williams could not give his all in the singles, as a result of a foot injury suffered in his match against Mr Alonso, whom he nevertheless defeated in the third round.”
Inside the world's top 10 from 1912 to 1914 and from 1919 to 1923, and continuously inside the US top 10 between 1912 and 1925 – the New York Times described him as "unbeatable at his best and more talented than Bill Tilden" – Williams would go on to become a leading investment banker and President of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. He died on 2 June 1968 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, aged 77.