Britain's Fred Perry: A Rebel Who Did It His Way
When the Scot, Andy Murray, beat Novak Djokovic of Belgrade in a record-tying, four-hour-54-minute final match for the U.S. Open tennis championship last Monday, all of Great Britain celebrated the end of one of the longest droughts in modern sports history.
This was the first time in 76 years that a British man won any of the four Grand Slam tennis titles.
Murray had given his fellow Brits reason to celebrate earlier this summer when he beat Roger Federer for the Olympic men’s singles gold medal at Wimbledon.
Because of these two big triumphs, this has been Murray’s and Britain’s greatest year in tennis since an iconoclast from England’s labor ranks, Fred Perry, was the best in the world during the mid-1930s.
The son of a cotton spinner in Stockport, which is a suburb of Manchester in northern England, Perry never took to the highfalutin snobbery that dominated the social structure and rituals of the All England Tennis Club and the United States Lawn Tennis Association in those days.
Yet he was master of their courts at Wimbledon and Forest Hills in the borough of Queens, New York, 1933-1936.
Perry won the All England title at Wimbledon 1934, 1935 and 1936 and was the champ at Forest Hills, 1933, 1934 and again in 1936, when he won the last of his eight Grand Slam crowns.
Perry became the first man to win all four Grand Slam titles during a career as he took the Australian men’s singles crown in 1934 and then the French title in 1935.
He was the No. 1 tennis player in the world between the time Bill Tilden was top man and when Don Budge took over as king of the courts immediately preceding World War II in the late 1930s. Perry played against both of those American tennis stars and defeated the up-and-coming Budge in the Wimbledon semifinals of 1936.
Just a few weeks later, Perry and Budge went at it in a lengthy, thrilling U.S. Championship final at Forest Hills with the Englishman winning again, 2-6, 6-2, 8-6, 1-6, 10-8.
That was Perry’s eighth and final Grand Slam title and the last one for a British man until last Monday. No wonder they are still celebrating in England and Scotland.
That ‘Basement’ Game
Before he was 10 years old, Fred Perry’s father, Samuel Perry, moved the family around England from Stockport to Bolton, to Wallasey, to Blackpool and finally to the West End of London as Sam pursued political ambitions.
This was no fancy tennis club background for the young Fred, who took to the indoor, playroom net game we call pingpong.
It was not until he was 15 and living near some public park courts in London that Fred began playing tennis. But he stuck to pingpong, and at age 20 Perry won the 1929 World Table Tennis Championship at the annual tournament in Budapest.
That same year, his father was elected Labour MP for Kettering.
Upon his arrival home from Budapest, Fred was told by his father that he should abandon “that basement game” and stick with tennis even though Fred was a newly crowned world champion in “that basement game.”
Fred Perry took his father’s advice. With his assertive approach to life and tennis, Perry tried to model his game after the aggressive, charge-the-net style of France’s Henri Cochet. This approach began paying big dividends when the two tennis stars met in the 1933 Davis Cup finals between Great Britain and France.
Perry beat Cochet in five sets in the opening singles in Paris and the next day won the deciding singles match against Andre Merlin in four sets.
That was the first Davis Cup triumph for Great Britain in 21 years, and the first of four consecutive Davis Cup victories for Perry and his British teammates.
Following that initial Davis Cup success for Perry and friends, he won the 1933 U.S. Championship for his first Grand Slam title.
But all the while, Fred had little but contempt for those upper class people who dominated the worlds of tennis, golf and British high society. The feeling was reciprocated.
Back when Perry won his three Wimbledon titles, the All England Tennis Club did not make any fancy presentation of a trophy to the champion. He was simply hunted down in the locker room and given a striped tie denoting his membership in the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
In Perry’s case, they didn’t even hand the tie to him in person when he won his first Wimbledon title in 1934. The tie was hung over his locker door while he took his shower, and no one in the club even congratulated him.
Half a century later, the All England Club finally gave in and recognized the greatest native son to play on its courts at Wimbledon by placing a statue of Fred Perry outside the famed center court stadium in 1984.
Perry then wrote in his autobiography, “There will be a few former members of the All England Club and the LTA revolving in their graves at the thought of such a tribute paid to the man they regarded as a rebel from the wrong side of the tennis tramlines.”
Knew He Was One of Them
But when Perry ruled the grass at Wimbledon, he was adored by the great majority of his countrymen, particularly factory workers.
They knew Perry was one of them and was the man who whipped Hitler’s tennis star, Baron Gottfried von Cramm, in three of his eight victorious Grand Slam final matches.
He first defeated the German on the clay courts of Roland Garros to take the 1935 French Open title.
A few weeks later he whipped Baron von Cramm in straight sets to win his second of three consecutive Wimbledon titles and followed it up the next year with a real trouncing of the German for the 1936 All England championship.
Baron von Cramm apparently strained his groin during a lengthy opening game of the match. Perry, possessed of a killer’s instinct, took full advantage and annihilated von Cramm, 6-1-, 6-1, 6-0. Only one other Wimbledon final had as few as 20 games, and that was when William Renshaw beat John Hartley in the fifth All England final in 1881.
After Perry defeated Don Budge in the 1936 final at Forest Hills for his last Grand Slam crown, the Englishman turned professional. That was a no-no for the members of the All England Club and LTA, since tennis Grand Slams in those days were “amateur.”
The open era with pro tennis players in Grand Slam events did not begin until 1968.
Because he turned pro, Perry was dropped as a member of the All England Club. He then turned his back not only on Wimbledon and its pompous mannerisms, but on his homeland of England. Perry became a citizen of the United States in 1938.
He had traveled to America in 1931 and was smitten by the lifestyle of Hollywood movie stars.
His first of four marriages was to an American actress, Helen Vinson, in 1935. They divorced in 1938. Perry and the American tennis star, Ellsworth Vines, pooled their earnings from the 1937 pro tennis exhibition circuit and invested in the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, whose members included Errol Flynn, Charlie Chaplin, David Niven, the Marx Brothers and Benny Goodman.
When the United States entered World War II, Perry was drafted into the Army Air Corps.
Following the war, he continued his association with the clothing and sports equipment company Slazenger. Then in 1950 he founded Fred Perry Sportswear, which is to this day one of the leading brands in sports apparel.
Returning to England, Perry took to radio broadcasting and was a BBC commentator for the Wimbledon tennis matches for more than 40 years before his death in 1995 at age 85.
Each time Andy Murray came close to winning a Grand Slam title in recent years only to fall short, his fellow Britons cheered a little and then cried a lot, as they all wanted a return of Fred Perry.
Now that Murray has finally achieved a Grand Slam title he will be forever remembered along with Perry, the rebel who did it all and did it his own way.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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