Fred Perry: player and gentleman

Bud Collins remembers a rare champion who ruled the tennis world
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The Independent Online
Even IF the Empire came apart a long time ago, a last enduring shard seemed to remain, yet glittering, in the elegant, insouciant person of Fred Perry. As long as he was around, Fred unmistakably carried the aura of long victorious afternoons in long flannels when the English, who conceived lawn tennis, could actually play it. Seldom was there anything but honey at tea-time for his countrymen when Fred was playing between 1933 and 1937. But now this last vestage of empire, when a Brit ruled the world with a racket as sceptre, is gone. Dead in a far off land in his 86th year, Fred would appreciate the neat full circle. On his first visit to Australia 61 years before, he had won the second of his eight major titles, and he always had a fond spot in his heart for the Australian championship. It had something to do with being the outsider, the Pom, making the endless sea voyage down under to show the colonials that their best boy, Jack Crawford, couldn't handle Fred, even on his home turf.

He might have had a grand slam in 1934 - it would have preceded Don Budge's original by four years - except for an Italian named Giorgio di Stefani, of whom he fell foul at the French. "Giorgio was an odd character," Perry recalled over dinner in Melbourne days before he died. "No backhand. Ambidextrous. He switched the racket from hand to hand. Very good on clay. I hurt my leg, so I don't think I would have won the tournament. When it became clear he was going to beat me, I asked him not to make me look bad. But he did. `All right, Giorgio,' I told him as we shook hands. `You won't get a game next time we meet.' And he didn't: 6-0

6-0 6-0 at the 1935 Australian."

Wimbledon of 1934 was the start of Fred's three straight All England titles. Then he won the second of three US titles. The following year he got the French, becoming the pioneer among four men who captured all four majors. Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson would follow.

Not to the tennis manor born, as the son of a Labour politician, a late teen starter but an athletic, quick learner, Fred seemed, to the establishment, abrasive, not properly respectful. That's probably why he took to Jimmy Connors. "You're one of us now," he said as he put his arm in fatherly style around Connors following the brash basher's 1974 Wimbledon triumph that humiliated the beloved elder Ken Rosewall. He didn't hesitate to defend Connors against those appalled by Jimmy's wrong-side-of-the-tracks persona.

Perry spoke his mind, too, and often. Like many of us, he believed that the high-tech rackets have taken a lot of enjoyment out of watching the game. At the dinner table he repeated his simple, sensible solution to counter overpowering serves, a rule change that would interfere not at all with the essence. "It would be helpful to return to the foot fault rule of my day. You must keep the forward foot on the ground or it's a foot fault. The players and rackets are bigger and stronger now, but anchoring the server's front foot - allowing no more leaping into the court - would aid the receiver."

He also felt, with reason, that "the players don't have as much fun as we did". On induction to the tennis hall of fame at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1975, he looked around the Casino, one of his old haunts, and grinned: "Ah, if this shrubbery could talk,we'd all be in trouble."

He recalled a time in a Boston hotel when he and an American, Bill Fiebleman, like jail breakers, tied together a rope of bed sheets in order to pay a social call on a couple of female players residing on the floor below. "I shiver when I think of that climb," he said, the memory still warm.

Hollywood had a love affair with tennis in the Thirties, and he dated such stars as Jean Harlow. Britain, of course, had a love affair with Perry from 1933 onwards. By beating Andre Merlin in the decisive fifth rubber, he ended France's six-year hegemonyin the Davis Cup. Unbeaten in singles thereafter, he kept English mitts on the Cup until he turned pro in 1937, removing himself from the traditional scene. If there had been open tennis then, there's no telling how many more majors Fred might have won."What I remember best was the front page of the Express when we returned from Paris with the Cup. Just one word in big black type: FRED." That was all you had to know about British tennis in the days when it mattered.

"It makes me feel a little strange to come into the Wimbledon main gate, and see myself on the right," he chuckled, acknowledging the nine-year-old life-sized bronze of himself. "But it serves a purpose. People say: `Meet you at Fred'." The Wimbledon landmark for more than half a century is no more. But the bronze Fred remains to remind us of the wonderful guy who created a golden age for his island tribe.

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