PUMA Wilhelm Bungert

  • MADE ON: --/62

Virtually no one knows anything about these vintage PUMA tennis trainers, so we did what any decent publication would do: caught up with the man himself, German court legend Wilhelm Bungert.

Most likely due to his success in 1962 (reaching the International Australian Championships quarter-finals and both the International French Championships and International Tennis Tournament of Monte Carlo double finals) Wilhelm Bungert was approached by PUMA to produce a tennis trainer. While the sports scene has all but forgotten this German star’s legacy, the sneaker collector family still has unanswered questions. In the hopes to fill some of the blanks we sat down with Wilhelm in his cozy country-side business out in Hilden to relive his past and learn about this special, rare pair.

Hey Wilhelm, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

My pleasure!

Looking back, what thoughts do you have on your tennis career?

Actually, not very many, except that I lost a lot of money in the last thirty years. When I stopped in about ’75 or ’78 there was not much prize money in the game. And looking back, it’s a pity; if there had been, then today I wouldn’t be working anymore, I would be sitting in the sun, sunburned, and enjoying the times.

Was it hard for a lot of professional tennis players at that time?

At that time when I played there wasn’t a professional game really and I had to see my father pay the expenses (or sometimes the German federation payed the expenses) and I had to have something left for myself, which was often very small. When I played the Wimbleton finals I only got about thirty pounds; you can imagine what thirty pounds is today.

Yeah, that doesn’t sound like very much at all. And how was it to play these final games you were in, at Wimbledon, at Kitzbuehel, at Düsseldorf?

That was a great experience to be on the center court where I played about twenty-five or thirty times. But the final you play once in your life maybe, and for me it was actually only once in my life at Wimbledon, and the Dutchess of Kent and her husband came, and they congratulated me and I was nervous to get the medal and talk to them. Funny enough when I put my ear next to her to fully understand what she said she talked to me in German! I was so surprised that I hardly knew what to answer. So that was a big surprise for me that she spoke German to me.

The Dutchess of Kent speaks Deutsch, who knew! And in these games you played you obviously met other professional tennis players… did you ever meet anybody that you bonded with and still stay in contact with?

All the old players from that time, we still often meet in Paris because we have a membership called the Last Eight club. From all over the world – tournaments like Wimbledon, like Paris, like New York, like Australia – all the last eight players for singles and semi-finals for doubles and mixed doubles, are automatically a member and we’re always invited to visit the ongoing games. We have to pay our travel and accommodation expenses, but we get our game tickets for free and even my wife gets one, so every year for the last ten years I’m going to Paris. Before that I was going to Wimbledon but now I prefer to only go to Paris. I can go by car and stay for four days and come back again. And it’s much cheaper in general.

That’s very cool!

Yes, and there, of course, I meet all the old guys who are still alive. I mean, look, when you get to an older age – like the last two weeks – a lot of old friends die and they’re gone and you can’t get them back. So you have to see who is coming. Like Frew McMillan, like Fred Stolle, like Ken Rosewall. Rod Laver too, but he had a stroke, a brain stroke, and he’s not in good shape anymore. Like these guys, most of them you’ll see in Paris.

Tell us, about this pair, how did they come into existence?

PUMA approached me, I think in 1962 or so, and at this time the tennis shoe business was nothing. We only had about three hundred thousand or four hundred thousand tennis players in Germany and the business of tennis shoes was actually nothing. When my shoe was released they sold maybe five hundred or eight hundred pairs in that year. I got one mark at that time per pair, so you can do the math and easily imagine what you can (or more importantly can’t) do with that. Remember, this was before I got to the Wimbledon semi-finals and it wasn’t until ’63 and ’64 that the business really picked up and got much better, so that’s why at the time that I met with people from PUMA there was not much happening.

So it was possibly just bad timing on their part? Maybe bad luck in general?

Yes, exactly.

Then after that, neither of you continued working together?

No, then I had a different company who made clothing for me and then adidas came and made the shoes for me so we didn’t continue our collaborations.

And considering their age, how do you think these shoes would hold up in today’s standards?

Well that’s a challenging question, because today, when you play on hard court, you need at least one pair for two or three hours, then you’ll have to use new ones,. Back then we didn’t play so much.

Wait, that’s crazy. It’s just that the athleticism of the game has increased, or what?

Well you’re running much more, you’re playing much harder, and the game is much faster so you have to run more.

Got it. What else, in your opinion, has changed since back then?

When I look back, as I told you in the beginning, the only thing I think is that it’s a pity I didn’t live my career today. I really didn’t live and play at a time when I would get sufficient money like players get today. We got hardly anything back then and in fact we were happy to get some money at all. To be honest, if my father wouldn’t have paid all the expenses I wouldn’t have been able to play at all. So it’s just nice to be in the business still with some old friends, and meet these old friends. If I wanna go somewhere I just give a call and I can meet friends and have a nice time. Now though, it’s all different, the business has changed completely and time has changed and it’s not comparable to the time it was.

Yeah, I’m sure it’s a lot more about money these days.

Money is the only thing now. Money, money, money. It’s all that counts and even those who have money still want more of it.

Considering that you didn’t really have the funds to play back then and that it didn’t produce a lot of money, what would you say your main reasons for playing were?

I wanted to see the world. I wanted to know people. There’s hardly any part of the world I haven’t’ been to, starting from Japan to South America, to Hawwaii, to everywhere. And it didn’t cost me anything because I was invited. I got the train fare paid, I got the hotel or the private hospitality paid, and at that time you could make friends. Today it’s hardly possible to make any friends. If you’re a professional player you go to a tournament, you play the tournament, you stay in the hotel and nobody cares about you. You go to the court, you play, you take your money, and you go. At that time we were all friends; we were a big family, but today it’s nothing, it’s just business.

And do you still play now, in your mid-70s?

No, not anymore, I stopped about a year or a year and a half ago because my legs are too slow. If you don’t have legs on the court you better not play because then you’ll hit too late or you’ll hit the ball out. Ultimately you can’t really move and tennis is all moving, moving, moving, being in good shape and that’s it.

So you stopped when you were about 72 or 73 years old, but what were you playing mostly?

I was playing a veteran’s team, playing with my friends, and sometimes playing doubles, but even that I don’t do anymore. I prefer to have a golf club in my hands and try to hit the ball and if I hit it good I’m happy, and that’s all.

Wait, you prefer to have a golf club in your hands you said?

Yep. I sometimes go with my old tennis friends from the tennis club we go to France for a week and stay in a hotel, in private hotel where we have a golf course, and we play a few golf rounds, and that’s all I do. I’m still too busy and then I’m tired when I get home. Everything has changed so much, unfortunately, even if I watch some tennis today or I go to the big tournaments I see how they play and how they work and how they really have hard work. It’s no longer comparable and it’s no fun anymore. It’s just hard work.

Right I understand that. Maybe the reason we look for vintage shoes is why you miss old school tennis; there was a spirit about it.

Yeah, definitely.

What can you tell us about your business now?

I have a tennis and golf center, I have six indoor courts with sliding roofs – you can open the roof – I have eight outdoor courts, I have a little golf practice course where beginners can come and learn golf, and I have a restaurant and a pro shop too. All this keeps me quite busy.

Well thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me Wilhelm!

My pleasure Dylan.

written by Dylan Cromwell

photography by errol

shoes contributed by Will Clayton

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