Britain dominated the world of lawn tennis in the mid-1930s thanks largely to Fred Perry. For three years he was the undisputed world number one, winning a string of major titles and making a vital contribution to Britain’s domination of the premier international competition in tennis, the Davis Cup.
His legacy remains powerful today. Visitors to Wimbledon often stop to peer at the three-quarter-life-size statue of Perry, unveiled 50 years after his first victory at the Championships, showing him smartly attired and hitting his famous forehand drive.
Today Perry has iconic status, but it was not always so: this champion was once Britain’s unsung tennis hero. A hundred years on from his birth, it should not be forgotten that in his prime playing days, and for many afterwards, Perry was acclaimed across the tennis world but was not universally admired in his homeland.
Top, but not ‘the best’
Journalists watching him defeat the Australian Jack Crawford to lift the Wimbledon crown in 1934 commented on the “strange lack of excitement” among spectators, and one American magazine went as far as to say: “Perry is not a popular champion at home”. In an incident that rankled for the rest of his life, Perry’s elation at taking the title turned to anger when he overheard a Wimbledon committee member saying to Crawford in the dressing room after the final that this was one day “when the best man didn’t win”.
A major factor in explaining this coolness towards Perry was his social background. The Perry family had northern working class roots and Fred only had the chance to take up tennis when his father, developing a career in left-wing politics, moved after the First World War to an area of London where suburban tennis clubs were expanding rapidly. Instead of being confined exclusively to the rich, tennis was becoming an option for aspiring families such as the Perrys.
But as he sought to make his way in the game, Fred Perry faced many who saw him as not ‘one of us’ – the traditional public-school educated middle classes who still dominated British tennis as players, administrators and officials. One insider summed up the attitude towards Perry when he first won a place on the Davis Cup team by saying: “as we’ve got to have the bloody upstart, we might as well knock him into shape and try and get the best out of him”. As the dressing room episode in 1934 illustrated, even winning Wimbledon did not remove all traces of social prejudice.
Perry was not entirely a passive victim of the class distinctions in British society between the wars. His abrasiveness and refusal to “let people tell me what to do or order me about” made him enemies in tennis circles. Players in the 1930s were expected to behave with decorum; ‘gentleman Jack Crawford’ was known for his exemplary court manners. Fred Perry, by contrast, possessed a ruthless streak, refused to conceal his ambition and indulged in gamesmanship such as making offensive personal remarks to opponents.
Despite dominating the world scene he offended the sensibilities of well-to-do Wimbledon spectators because his court persona was so much at odds with the ethos of the day.
It also mattered that tennis remained firmly wedded to amateur principles. The idea that the game should be played for pleasure not profit – and in the right spirit – had been rigorously enforced since the Victorian period by the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA). Lacking the pedigree and temperament of traditional gentleman amateurs such as Crawford, Perry clashed with the authorities and was increasingly tempted to cash in on his global fame.
Simmering difficulties with the LTA continued until, at the end of 1936, he left Britain to join a small professional circuit living and touring mostly in the USA. This move enabled him to make large sums of money but meant he was banned from the world’s top amateur events, including Wimbledon and the Davis Cup.
At the start of 1937, Perry thus found himself a sporting outcast in his homeland. He was relieved of his honorary membership of the prestigious All England Club – awarded to him as Wimbledon champion – and when his professional tour visited Britain he was barred from appearing on the courts of any LTA-affiliated club. There was no campaign in Britain in the late 1930s to find and cultivate new champions in Perry’s wake. Instead, the most successful player the nation had produced became almost a non-person in the eyes of the tennis establishment.
After the Second World War, Perry built a new life based around business enterprises (notably the famous Fred Perry sportswear label), coaching and commentating. Based mainly in the USA, which he found less hidebound than Britain about social distinctions, his frosty relationship with the All England Club and the LTA improved slowly over the years, especially when tennis finally embraced professionalism after 1968.
Even so, it was only towards the end of his life that reconciliation became complete. The same bodies that once shunned him were ever more anxious to honour Perry, in part because his reputation soared as the years passed in which no British man was able to match his success. His appreciation of the unveiling of the statue in 1984 was enhanced when the All England Club chairman said he hoped that Fred agreed Wimbledon was “today the most hospitable of clubs”, in contrast to the unfriendliness of earlier times.
In the same year, a quarter of a century ago, Perry was the only tennis player listed in a survey of 2,000 Britons aimed at finding the ‘Best of the Best’ British sportsmen of the 20th century. At long last, Fred Perry was no longer Britain’s unsung tennis hero. His place as a domestic sporting legend was secure.
Frederick John Perry
Born: 18 May 1909, Stockport Died: 2 February 1995 in Melbourne, attending the Australian Open
Claims to fame: Won Wimbledon on three successive occasions (1934, 1935 and 1936); the first man to win all four ‘grand slam’ titles – Wimbledon, Australian, French and American championships – though not in the same year
Playing style: immensely quick, with all-court ability; trademark shot a deadly ‘early-ball’ running forehand
Wimbledon record: reached semi final once in five attempts before 1934 and won mixed doubles twice
Other achievements: won a total of eight grand slam titles, three in the USA and one each in Australia and France. He also played a pivotal role as Britain won the Davis Cup four years running (1933–36)
British players at Wimbledon
Since Fred Perry’s last victory in 1936, four British women have won the singles title:
Dorothy Round (1908–82)
Claims to fame: one of only two British women since 1920s to win Wimbledon twice; refused as a Christian to play on Sundays
Playing style: all rounder comfortable both at baseline and net Wimbledon record: reached quarter finals four times; lost in final 1933; took title in 1934 and 1937; won mixed doubles three times, twice with Perry
Other achievements: won Australian championships (1935)
Angela Mortimer (born 1932)
Claims to fame: triumphed in first all-British Wimbledon final for nearly 50 years; built successful career despite being partially deaf
Playing style: fast around court and particularly stinging forehand
Wimbledon record: lost in one semi final and one final before beating Christine Truman in tight 1961 finale
Other achievements: won two other grand slam titles, in France (1955) and Australia (1958)
Ann Jones (born 1938)
Claims to fame: first left-hander to win women’s singles at Wimbledon; like Fred Perry, competed in world table tennis championships before concentrating on tennis
Playing style: consistent, penetrating ground strokes and tough competitor
Wimbledon record: lost in semi finals six times and final once before famous three-set victory over Billie Jean King (1969)
Other achievements: won French championships twice (1961, 1966); runner-up in total of six grand slam finals
Virginia Wade (born 1945)
Claims to fame: triumphed at Wimbledon’s 1977 centenary championships in front of Queen Elizabeth, attending during her Silver Jubilee; first woman elected to committee of All England Club
Playing style: athletic all-court game built on strong serve and volley
Wimbledon record: 1977 win over Betty Stove was one of over 20 appearances
Other achievements: remarkable 55 singles titles in 26-year career, including grand slam events in USA (1968) and Australia (1972)
Before Andy Murray’s victory at Wimbledon, few British men have even come close to taking the singles crown since Perry:
HW ‘Bunny’ Austin (1906–2000)
Claims to fame: last British man to reach Wimbledon singles final; among first to wear shorts on the famous grass courts
Playing style: elegant baseliner, renowned for accuracy
Wimbledon record: reached latter stages several times; soundly beaten in final by Americans Ellsworth Vines (1932) and Donald Budge (1938)
Other achievements: superb British number two to Perry in Davis Cup; reached final of French championships (1937)
Mike Sangster (1940–85)
Claim to fame: first British man since Bunny Austin to reach last four at Wimbledon (1961)
Playing style: built around one of the fastest serves in the modern game
Wimbledon record: aside from 1961, never progressed beyond third round in ten attempts
Other achievements: strong record in grand slams, reaching quarter finals in Australia twice and semi finals in United States (1961) and France (1963)
Roger Taylor (born 1941)
Claims to fame: reached semi finals at Wimbledon three times (1967, 1970, 1973), on last occasion beating youthful Björn Borg en route; good looks made him one of so-called ‘Handsome Eight’ of touring professionals in late 1960s
Playing style: rugged left-hander with wide variety of shots
Wimbledon record: never went beyond second round except in his three best years
Other achievements: won six singles and eight doubles titles, including United States doubles twice (1971, 1972)
Tim Henman (born 1974)
Claims to fame: within two points of reaching Wimbledon final before losing to Goran Ivanisevic in 2001; inspired and frustrated legions of British tennis fans, including those on ‘Henman Hill’ at Wimbledon
Playing style: one of the last instinctive serve-and-volleyers
Wimbledon record: four-time semi-finalist (1998, 1999, 2001, 2002), on each occasion losing to eventual winner
Other achievements: won 11 singles titles; reached world ranking of four
Kevin Jefferys is professor of history at Plymouth University. His publications include Finest & Darkest Hours (Atlantic, 2002) and Politics & the People (Atlantic, 2007)
This article was first published in the June 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine