Join Date: Jul 2009
Magda Rurac - One of Romania's Greatest Sports Stars
By Mark Ryan
Magda Beretki was born in the city of Oradea on 11 July 1918, exactly four months before the end of the First World War. Today, Oradea is a city located in the north-west of Romania, in the region of Transylvania, close to the border with Hungary. In 1918, Transylvania had united with the Kingdom of Romania; up until then it had formed part of the now defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the period between the two Great Wars, Oradea maintained itself as a powerful industrial and commercial centre.
Virtually nothing is known about Magda Beretki’s early life, though it appears that she was the daughter of a tobacconist and one of nine children. Magda’s family name sounds more Slavic than Romanian, though in that region at that time Hungarians were in the majority (in 1920, the Treaty of Trianon officially awarded large parts of what was then Eastern Hungary, including Oradea and Transylvania, to the Kingdom of Romania without plebiscite for the area’s huge Hungarian majority). Magda is probably the short form of either Magdala or Magdalena.
From later developments it can be surmised with great certainty that Magda took to sport at an early age. She proved to be proficient not just at tennis, but also at table tennis, golf, cycling, fencing skating, swimming and even soccer. At some point she seems to have left Oradea and moved to the capital, Bucharest. This would have been a logical step for someone with sporting ambitions. It is likely that she did so in her mid-teens or a little later, when she was 18 or 19, in other words in 1936 or 1937.
It may not be wrong to also surmise that, not long after making this move, she met her future husband, Vinicius (“Vini”) Rurac (b. 1920), one of Romania’s top male tennis players. It is likely that they first met while participating in the same tournament, possibly in Bucharest. Rurac is not a very common surname in Romania and most people with this surname come from the east of the country, and from the present-day Republic of Moldova.
Neither Magda nor Vini Rurac appears to have played competitive tennis outside Romania before the outbreak of the Second World War, and this turn of events probably had a negative on the development of their careers as tennis players, as it did on the careers of tennis players from other countries. The Ruracs seem to have spent the duration of the war in Bucharest. For most of this period, Romania, under the dictatorship of Ion Antonescu, fought on the side of the axis powers, including Nazi Germany. One eye-witness has described the Bucharest of this time as “a sad, poor place, under a blackout… There was a feeling of oppression… The Russian threat was becoming clearer”.
Nevertheless, life went on and so did a number of sporting events, including the Romanian Table Tennis Championships, and it is here that Magda Rurac appears to have enjoyed her first significant sporting success. According to the records of the Romanian Table Tennis Federation, Magda won the national singles title in 1942 and 1943, the women’s doubles in 1943 (with P. Comanescu) and 1945 (with L. Cojescu), and the mixed doubles in 1942 (with S. Sadeanu) and 1943 (with S. Sighisoreanu).
In August 1944, a coup d'état led by King Michael I deposed the Antonescu dictatorship and put Romania on the side of the Allies for the remainder of the war. However, this did not prevent the ultimate occupation of Romania by Soviet forces and, like a number of its nearest neighbours, its gradual transformation into a “socialist” or communist country.
During this new period of upheaval for their country, Magda and Vini Rurac began to travel abroad to participate in foreign tennis tournaments. In 1946, Magda won the Czechoslovak International Championships, while in 1947 she had arguably her greatest triumph when she beat Pauline Betz, then the Wimbledon and US Nationals champion, in the semi-final of the Monte Carlo tournament by a score of 4-6, 8-6, 6-4.
Magda enjoyed additional success on the French Riviera that season, winning the singles title at Nice and the Cannes International, both in April. At this point in time the Romanian Tennis Federation appears to have requested that Magda return to Romania, a request she seems to have complied with. There may have been rumours of an attempt by Magda and Vini to leave Romania definitively for the United States, which is what they eventually did.
However, before doing so Magda played at the 1947 Wimbledon, where she reached the fourth round on what was probably her weakest surface, grass (she lost 6-4, 8-6 to Doris Hart, the eventual runner-up). In 1947, the French Championships were played after Wimbledon. In Paris, Magda bettered her performance at Wimbledon by reaching the quarter-final, where she again lost to Doris Hart, this time 6-3, 6-4.
The French Championships ended on 21 July 1947, and on 2 August the following article appeared in the Australian newspaper “The Canberra Times: “Romanian tennis stars Vinicius Rurac and Madame Magda Rurac have been disqualified for life by the Romanian Tennis Federation. Both played in the recent French and Wimbledon tennis championships. The official announcement said that they did not return to Romania after leaving Paris, but went to the United States. Reuters recalls that Madame Rurac in May, during a visit to Britain, received two warnings that she would be suspended if she did not return to Romania to play in international matches. She flew back to Romania after the second warning, but returned to England to compete at Wimbledon.”
The Ruracs’ visa application appears to have been speeded up because of their links to American tennis players. At that time there was no specific organisation in France for persons wishing to defect. In later life, Vini Rurac was to recall how he and Magda held hands in a dank hotel room in Paris to hide their fear as they awaited the word that would start them on their way to the United States and freedom. When word did come, they hurried to the railway station, took a train to the coast and then a boat to Southampton, England, before journeying across the Atlantic. When they arrived in the United States they never thought they would see Europe again.
Both Magda and Vini next come under the radar at the 1947 US Nationals, held in those days at Forest Hills. In the singles event Madga went all the way to the quarter-finals before falling to top seed Margaret Osborne, 6-4, 6-4. In the men’s singles, Vini lost in straight sets in the second round to the Australian Dennis “Dinny” Pails.
Over the next few years Magda was to enjoy sustained success in American tennis tournaments, especially those held on clay. In parallel to her success on the tennis court Magda also competed in a number of table tennis tournaments. Where the latter tournaments are concerned, Tim Boggan’s “History of U.S. Table Tennis (Vol. II)” is a reliable source. The following excerpts are taken from that volume:
“The Greater Los Angeles tournament, held Nov. 26-27  at Chuck Feldman’s California T.T. Centre on North Highland (‘showers in the men’s lockers…the whole club from one end to the other so nice and clean’), was given recognition in ‘Topics’ not only with the printed results, but with a write-up by LATTA President Abbott Nelson. Abbott’s article was historically unique in that almost an entire page of the magazine was devoted to just the one match he described in detail—the women’s final between Magda Rurac and Tiny Moss. Rurac, said Nelson, ‘was a rather well-known international figure’: a Romanian who in tennis had beaten the likes of Pauline Betz and Gussie Moran, and who had been ‘Romania’s champion in cycling, swimming, fencing, and…table tennis, having once beaten ([Austria’s 1938 World Champion] Trude Pritzi)’. Faced with such an opponent, Moss’s credentials in comparison were, well, tiny?
“Magda, who had ‘a steady accurate forehand, often with a final smash as hard as most men hit’, had no trouble winning the 1st game. In the 2nd, ‘Tiny dug in, began returning Magda’s hardest drives’—quite successfully. Match all even. In the 3rd game, Rurac, using ‘many more well-placed drop shots and short angle shots, brought Tiny close to the table and then hit hard shots past her on either side or directly to her middle’. 2-1 Magda. The 4th game saw Moss ‘scampering around after Hazi’s blistering shots and when close to the table… [taking] advantage of every opportunity to drive the angle shots which Magda had used so effectively’. Match again all even.
“And still about as even as you could get at the 5th-game turn. ‘Originally they had come out looking very cute and pretty with their hair perfectly combed, and neat white shorts and short white skirt. Now perspiration was rolling down their faces and their hair was in disarray. For once, however, we didn’t think they cared and certainly no one else did.’
“…At 19-all, Magda ‘hit a whole barrage of forehand drives and finally ended up with a smash that brought the house down’. Down match point, and with the spectators giving her a very tense, quiet moment, Tiny ‘received the next service, got in with a couple of offensive shots, was forced back again on defence, brought up to the table with a drop shot, leaped back to return a beautiful hard drive, and watched Magda’s next drive go off the table—deuce’. Then ad to Tiny. ‘The final point saw Magda again driving. Then she put a drop shot slightly too deep and Tiny came in fast to hit a backhand. She followed this with a forehand smash that appeared to end the match, and the applause started to rise. Magda, however, had dashed back, made a tremendous stab at the ball and somehow it came back very high on the table. Tiny was amazed, and if you play much you know how easy it is to miss a high deep ball with no chop that you didn’t expect to see coming. However, Tiny was very cool, saw Magda was completely out of position, did not swing wildly, but firmly hit the ball on an angle that was impossible for Magda to reach. As Tiny, almost completely exhausted, ran over to shake Magda’s hand, the clamour was terrific, and continued for 5 full minutes’. […]
“At the Pacific Coast Table Tennis Championships, held Mar. 5-6  in the Municipal Auditorium in Long Beach, the Magda Rurac-Tiny Moss rivalry continued—with Magda losing the close games but winning the match. […]
“The 36-entry women’s singles [for the 1950 US National Table Tennis Championships (31 March-2 April)], minus 1948 champion Peggy McLean Folke, who was expecting this April, had very few contested matches. In one of the most significant, Magda Rurac, identified in the press as a U.S. citizen and National Clay Courts Champion (she’d won in ’48 and ’49 but would lose in ’50), beat #4 seed Mae Clouther from down 2-1 and 21-all in the fourth (Rurac drove consistently, but Finkenbinder said that Mae’s steady blocking ‘practically wore Magda out’). Rurac then rallied again, from down 2-1, to eliminate Ichkoff. In the semis, Rurac fell three straight to Lea Thall Neuberger, but the last two games went to deuce. […]
“The California State Championships (a.k.a. Golden State Open) were held May 26-28, 1950, in the ballroom of the Kaiser-Kabat Institute (formerly the Ambassador Hotel) under the direction of Austin Finkenbinder. In the women’s event, Magda Rurac’s almost benign attack was met by Moss’s counters and she fell 2-1 behind, but then Magda’s ‘aggressive top-spins and smashes over-power[ed] Tiny’s tight defence’.
“Magda didn’t play the Women’s Singles at the Long Beach Championships, held from 11-12 November 1950, so Tiny Moss Eller needed only the minimum effort to defeat Diane Levinson Abrams. Why Rurac didn’t play singles, I don’t know—perhaps she was just tired of playing Eller. Back in August, for a local exhibition with Choi, Moss, and Lee Freeman, Rurac hadn’t participated, and so tennis champ Pauline Betz, who that summer had played table tennis on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ with Sandor Glancz, had been brought in.
“In California, the Long Beach TTA ran the Mar. 17-18  Golden State Championships. Tiny Eller, after a shaky 23, -17 start, won the women’s comfortably from defending champion Magda Rurac.”
Magda’s success in these tournaments, and in the tennis tournaments in which she was almost simultaneously participating, is all the more remarkable when it is considered that on 11 July 1948 she turned 30, an age when most, if not all, players are deemed to be veterans.
As already stated, most of Magda’s success in tennis tournaments in the United States came, not surprisingly, on slow clay courts, which are common in her native land. In 1949, she won the prestigious Tri-State event, held in Cincinnati, Ohio, beating Beverly Baker 6-4, 2-6, 6-0 in the final. She lost narrowly to the same player in the final the following year, and in 1951 was runner-up again at the same tournament to Patricia Todd.
Magda won the US Clay Court Championships in both 1948, defeating Dorothy Head 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 in the final, and 1949, when she beat Beverly Baker 2-6, 9-7, 6-3 in the final. Both scores indicate that Magda was a very tough competitor who was able to come back from seemingly hopeless positions on more than one occasion. In 1949, Magda also won the Middle Atlantic tennis tournament in Washington. This was a minor tournament, but it represented a notable victory for her because it was held on grass. In the final Magda beat the unheralded Ann Gray 6-3, 6-3. Magda also enjoyed some success in women’s and mixed doubles during these years.
In 1950, Magda was runner-up to Patricia Todd at the prestigious Pacific Coast Championships, held on hard courts in Berkeley, California. The final score was 6-2, 6-1. In 1951, Magda enjoyed an excellent run to the quarter-final of the US Nationals at Forest Hills, where she fell 6-2, 6-3 to Jean Walker-Smith of Great Britain.
However, 1952 was Magda’s best year as far as tennis is concerned. She won an impressive number of tournaments consecutively, including seven events in Florida. Among these were the Dixie International in Tampa, the Florida West Coast Championships in Saint Petersburg, the Miami Invitational and the Good Neighbour event, also held in Miami. In this last event, held in April, Magda, then aged 33, beat Althea Gibson, then aged 24, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 in the semi-final. In the final Magda won when Patricia Todd retired due to leg cramps with the score tied at one set apiece.
Towards the end of April 1952, Magda participated in an event held in Cuba and was runner-up there to Melita Rameriez of Mexico, who won the final 6-3, 6-3. It is clear that soon after this point in time, probably later in the summer of 1952, both Magda and Vini turned professional.
The Ruracs had been travelling around the country a lot since their arrival in the United States. However, a newspaper report in July 1949 stated that they were then living in Los Angeles and they seem to have set up home in California at some point. Nevertheless, it is evident that they went wherever there were tournaments to be played, initially amateur, then professional ones, and in Magda’s case, tennis and table tennis events and, as it turns out, also golf tournaments.
On 9 March 1954, the “Los Angeles Times” reported that Magda, whom it says is a tennis “pro” at Palm Springs, Cal., is taking up golf. The following reports from the same newspaper indicate that Magda played this additional sport with some success:
“16 April 1959: Mrs. Damerel Wins Desert Golf Tourney; second was Magda Rurac of Indian Wells, a former tennis star. She had 154.
“12 April 1962: Magda Rurac and Mrs. Marge Kanrich captured the fourth annual ladies invitational golf tournament Tuesday at Indian Wells Countrv Club with a 36-hole victory.
“11 March 1965: Mrs Gilliam Defeats Defending Golf Champ – Mrs Lew Gilliam of California Country Club continued to dominate the 40th annual women’s Mid-Winter Invitational golf tournament at Los Angeles Country Club Wednesday. The state champion, who shared medallist honours, eliminated the defending champion, Mrs Ruth Muller, also of California, 5-3, in the second round. Today she will face Mrs Dale Dynes of Mesa Verde, who defeated Mrs Vini Rurac of Indian Wells, 5-4, Wednesday.”
It is worth noting that Magda would have been 46 years and 8 months old while participating in the golf event held at the California Country Club in March 1965. Her competitive spirit and enthusiasm seem never to have dimmed.
By the early 1950s, both Magda and Vini had obtained American citizenship. They were both proud to have done so. At a later stage Vini had the idea of setting up an international tour, whereby he would take around twenty “average” players around the tennis clubs of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, thereby improving relations between players and clubs in those countries and in the United States. The tour proved to be a big success and by 1968 was in its seventh year. It is not known if Magda accompanied Vini and the other American players on these tours, but it is likely that she did, at least on some of them.
By January 1968, Magda, now 49, was teaching tennis at a California club, while Vini was working at the Concord Club in Kiamesha Lake, New York, putting on exhibitions and staging tournaments with the world’s leading players on the new indoor courts. Magda was planning to join him in the summer, when she would be teaching tennis at the Shelter Rock Club in Manhasset, Long Island. At this point she disappears completely from the radar, but Vini does not.
On 12 February 1981, the “Los Angeles Times” carried the following report: “Vini Rurac is the new tennis pro at Chaparal County in Palm Desert. Chapparal has eight lighted tennis courts, two of them championship. Romanian born, Vini has a distinguished record in teaching and has played at both Wimbledon and Forest Hills. His unique approach to improving a player’s game includes a personalized Tennisimo analysis. Vini also gives professional clinics and private lessons. He has taught in Monte Carlo, Marbella, Hong Kong as well as Santa Barbara, Southampton and Denver.”
In February 1981, Vini Rurac was 60 or 61, while Magda was half-way towards her 63rd year. Both of them would have been close to retirement age, but it is difficult to imagine that either of them voluntarily retired from activities, or professions, which they must have loved.
One final source states that Magda Rurac died on 9 May 1995 and that her residence at death was Jamaica, Queens, New York. She was 76. By this point in time Romania had been freed from the shackles of communism for the preceding five-and-a-half years. Had Madga or Vini been tempted to return to their country of their birth during her final years for one last visit? Did they in fact do so?
It appears that Vini outlived Magda. It is not known if they had any children.
Last edited by newmark401 : Oct 22nd, 2009 at 04:58 PM.