OBITUARIES : Fred Perry
Friday 03 February 1995
uring the Wimbledon Championships, Fred Perry, in his eighties, was to be seen standing beside his statue, being photographed with admirers. The statue, opposite the members' enclosure, was unveiled in 1984 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first of Perry's three consecutive singles titles won on the lawns of the All England Club. The gates at the Somerset Road entrance were also dedicated to the great man.
The memorials were hard-earned and richly deserved and they are intended to serve as an inspiration. But the statue and gates draw attention to the embarrassing length of time which has elapsed since Britain had a player of Perry's capability; or one with as determined a will to win, whatever the obstacles.
Perry's success at Wimbledon, plus his three victories in four years at the United States Championships, his one French and one Australian title and the crucial part he played in Britain's four consecutive Davis Cup triumphs from 1933, guaranteed him a prominent place in the history of the sport. The fact that he was the last Briton to accomplish any of these feats, plus the investment of his name in the sportswear industry, extended his importance beyond the parameters of his era. At every big international event he attended, Perry was a reminder that Britain once boasted the best male tennis player in the world, even though he was not always appreciated.
Perry's modest background, and a disinclination to touch his forelock, were not compatible with the snobbishness of the Lawn Tennis Association and the All England Club in an age when social demarcations were still in force. In his autobiography, published in 1984, Perry said of the memorials: ``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 tramli nes.''
He was born in Stockport, the son of Sam Perry, a cotton spinner with political aspirations. Sam Perry's work with the Co-operative Party led the family to move, first to Bolton, when Fred was three years old, then to Wallasey and finally to Ealing, in west London. In 1929, Sam Perry was elected Labour MP for Kettering.
Playing tennis did not enter Fred Perry's mind until he was 15 years old and watched matches at Devonshire Park, Eastbourne, during a family holiday. He had already gained a reputation as a table tennis player after joining the local YMCA, and developed his skills to the extent that he became the world singles champion at 20. ``Being self- taught, I learned to play table tennis in my own peculiar way,'' he said. ``From the very first day I picked up a bat, I held it with the old hatchet grip rather thanthe approved penholder style. Later on, when I took up lawn tennis, I just transferred the grip to my new sport and never ever changed it.''
He became a member of the Herga tennis club, in Harrow, and, on leaving Ealing County School, worked for a short time as a clerk in the tea department of the English and Scottish Joint Co-operative Wholesale Society before joining Spaldings, the sports goods company.
Perry's victory against the fourth seed, the Italian Baron Umberto de Morpurgo, a First World War air ace, in the third round at Wimbledon in 1930 coincided with a meeting of an LTA committee to select a team to visit the United States and Latin America.Perry was chosen to fill the one remaining place and considered this to be the launching of his career.
An admirer of Henri Cochet, Perry spent months learning to hit the ball early in the manner of the Frenchman, allying the technique to superior strength and speed. What evolved was Perry's distinctive running forehand, an impressive, but risky, shot which taxed would-be imitators. Cochet discovered first-hand how successfully the Englishman had adapted his style when France played Britain in the Challenge Road of the the Davis Cup in Paris in 1933. Perry defeated Cochet, 8-10, 6-4, 8-6, 3-6, 6-1, and then won the decisive fifth rubber, against Andre Merlin, 4-6, 8-6, 6-2, 7-5, as Britain lifted the trophy for the first time for 21 years.
In September of the same year, Perry won the United States Championship, the first of his Grand Slam titles, defeating the Australian Jack Crawford in five sets in the final. It was the first victory by a British player in the American showpiece for 30 years. Crawford, when leading by two sets to one, was tantalisingly close to becoming the first player to accomplish the Grand Slam, having already won the championships of Australia, France and Wimbledon. Perry gathered 12 of the next 13 games to deny him, winning 6-3, 11-13, 4-6, 6- 0, 6-1.
Perry went on to become the first player to win all four of the major championships, though he did not hold them concurrently. This distinction was first achieved by the American Donald Budge, who completed the Grand Slam in a calendar year in 1938.
Crawford, whose flat-top racket and flowing strokes prompted many observers to regard him as a throwback to an earlier era, was Perry's victim in two other major finals in 1934. He was defeated in straight sets in the Australian Championships in January,and then at Wimbledon Perry outplayed the defending champion to win, 6-3, 6-0, 7-5, to put a British name on the trophy for the first time since Arthur Gore 25 years earlier.
Perry recalled that there were tears in the eyes of Dan Maskell, who was Britain's Davis Cup coach at the time, and that his father and Anthony Sabelli, the LTA secretary, were also crying. But not everybody was pleased about Perry's triumph. The hero related how, as he soaked in the bath after the final, he overheard a member of the All England Club committee say to Jack Crawford, ``This was one day when the best man didn't win.'' The Australian was presented with a bottle of champagne, while the offic ial token of Perry's triumph, an honorary member's tie, was left draped over the back of his chair, without a word of congratulations. In an article for Esquire, John R. Tunis wrote: ``To put things bluntly, Perry is not a popular champion at home. He is n't happy with the Wimbledon galleries. Why? Simply because Wimbledon is the most snobbish centre of sport in the world. The members of that Holy of Holies seem to resent the fact that a poor boy without a varsity background should have yanked himselfto the front - even though in the process he yanked England back into the tennis picture from which she had been absent since 1909.''
Slights on the court were easier to avenge. After damaging an ankle during the second set in the quarter-finals of the French Championships in 1934, Perry tried to strike a bargain with his Italian opponent Giorgio de Stefani. Not wishing to default, Perry told Stefani that he would play on and allow him ``an honourable victory'' if he did not make him run too much. De Stefani dragged Perry all over the court before winning in four sets. Perry vowed to humiliate the Italian, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0, i n return and made good his promise when they met in the quarter-finals of the Australian Championships in Melbourne in 1935. ``That determination,'' Perry said, ``was part of my character.''
Though defeated by Crawford in the final of the Australian Championships in 1935, Perry did become the first Briton to win the French title, beating Crawford in the semi-finals and the German Baron Gottfried von Cramm in the final. Perry surprised even himself by producing consistently good form on the slow clay courts of Paris.
Von Cramm was Perry's opponent in the Wimbledon finals of 1935 and 1936, and on both occasions the German was defeated in straight sets. Perry's 1935 victory, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4, made him the first player to play through the championships and successfully defend his title since the abolition of the Challenge Round in 1922, before which the champion did not play until the final.
Perry said he had noticed that if Von Cramm was nervous his face would go white and pink spots would appear on his cheeks. The German was virtually beaten in the 1936 final before those distress signals were in evidence. He strained his groin during the lengthy opening game and was able to offer little resistance to Perry's shots, as the score, 6-1, 6-1, 6-0, shows. The only other men's final at Wimbledon to contain as few as 20 games was William Renshaw's victory against John Hartley in 1881.
Though Baron von Cramm's incapacity turned Perry's last singles match at the Wimbledon Championships into an anti-climax, it is worth recording that in the semi-finals Perry had defeated the emerging Donald Budge in four sets. Less than three months later, Perry defeated Budge again in a delicately balanced final of the United States Championships, 2-6, 6-2, 8-6, 1-6, 10-8, to become the first overseas player to win the title three times.
Perry had already decided to turn professional, ending two years of speculation, and this involved basing himself in the United States. Perry was comfortable with American attitudes and became a United States citizen in 1938. His first visit to California, in 1931, held particularly vivid memories. Perry and his British team captain, Pat Hughes, were invited to play in the Pacific Southwest tournament in Los Angeles. Asked about their ``personal terms'', they treated the offer as a joke. Hughes requested a date with a 21-year-old blonde millionaire and Perry said he was not interested unless his first date was with Jean Harlow. When the players were invited to a dinner at the tennis club on their first night in the city, the car taking Perry made a detour to a Beverly Hills mansion. Waiting there was Jean Harlow, who suggested that they skip the tennis club so she could show him the town. She signed the bills to Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Hughes also got his wish.
In 1937, Perry and Ellsworth Vines, the 1932 Wimbledon champion, invested their year's earnings from the professional game in the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. The membership included Errol Flynn, David Niven, Charlie Chaplin, Gilbert Roland, the Marx Brothers, Norma Shearer and Benny Goodman. Perry enjoyed the company of actors - he once took Loretta Young to the Wimbledon Championships - and revelled in the Hollywood scene.
His first wife was Helen Vinson, an American actress. They were married in 1935 and divorced in 1938. Two other failed marriages followed, to Sandra Breaux, an American model, in 1941, and to Lorraine Walsh, after the war. He married Barbara Reis, a Londoner, in 1952, having first met her at Wimbledon. She is the sister of the former actress Patricia Roc. Bobby was divorced and Perry adopted her son, David. Their daughter, Penny, was born in Florida in 1958.
Perry had long been associated with Slazengers, and after the Second World War the sports goods company initiated a tour of Britain in which he played matches with Dan Maskell. It was during this period that Tibby Wegner, a former Austrian footballer, approached Perry with the idea of marketing a sweatband, a notion which blossomed into Fred Perry sportswear. The laurel-wreath emblem was taken from Wimbledon, where it was worn as the badge of champions.
In 1961, Perry and Wagner sold out their financial interest in the company to Charles Mackintosh, and it was later acquired by the Figgie Corporation, of Cleveland, Ohio. Perry continued to be involved as a figurehead. It amused him that his name became known world-wide for his sportswear rather than his tennis; which was also true in the case of Rene Lacoste, one of the great French champions of the 1920s.
Broadcasting featured prominently in Perry's life after the war, and he was a member of the BBC's radio team at Wimbledon for more than 40 years. A resilient character, he had a happy knack of making light of illness, often with a stock answer: ``I have been to see the doctor, and he has told me to keep breathing in and out.''
Some great sportsmen receive knighthoods; Perry was passed over. His clashes with the tennis establishment did not help, nor did his actions in leaving the amateur game and in changing his nationality. During the Second World War he served with the United States Air Force, chiefly as a physical training and rehabilitation officer.
Reconciled with the tennis establishment in his later years, he was a charming and optimistic presence at the major championships; though his very presence challenged succeeding generations of British players to emulate his achievements.
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