Tennis: The last all England hero; Interview - Bunny Austin

Ronald Atkin visits a Davis Cup legend who at 92 is still keen to step out of the shadow of Fred Perry
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The legs which bestrode Wimbledon's Centre Court are folded beneath him now, beyond functioning. The hands which bore a racket into three Grand Slam finals are painfully shrivelled and bent. But Bunny Austin seems to fill the simply furnished room of a Surrey nursing home with his shining eyes, sharp wit, keen mind and hearty humour.

Henry Wilfred Austin, known as Bunny since his Repton schooldays, is 92 now but he still follows with great interest the sport in which he became a Thirties British hero. He has been on TV watch this weekend as Britain tackle the United States in the Davis Cup, a competition in which he represented his country from 1929 to 1938. Austin was a member of the team who won it four years in succession, 1933-36, and who collected Britain's last victory over the Americans in the 1935 final.

Austin and the doubles player Raymond Tuckey are the only pair from that 1935 team still living. "Tuckey is a delightful fellow," he says. Bunny Austin is of the breed and the generation which find everyone "delightful" and "charming". Don Budge, who destroyed him 6-1 6-0 6-3 in the 1938 Wimbledon final, is "a wonderful chap". Likewise Fred Perry, in whose considerable shadow he dwelt for most of his career, although Fred does not completely escape the sharper edge of the Austin tongue.

"When Fred talked about the Davis Cup he only talked about himself and gave the impression he won it off his own racket, which of course was impossible because you have to win three matches and he only played in two. I was very fond of Fred but he was terribly self-centred, although that didn't matter at the time. We wanted him to win and he won. He was a great, great player, undoubtedly the best of my time. But it will be nice to see my name in the paper again because of this interview. It's not conceit, just satisfaction that you're not forgotten.

"When people recall the Thirties it's Fred, Fred, Fred. Bunny, Bunny, Bunny doesn't get much of a mention. They forget I was playing then and that I was pretty damn good too, but not as good as Perry. I have been in his shadow all my life, but it doesn't grate because I look back with pleasure on my career."

Of the present crop Austin rates Pete Sampras top. "I used to go to Wimbledon every year until three years ago when, visiting my sister, I fell down the stairs and couldn't walk afterwards. The last final I saw was Sampras playing that tall left-handed Croat [Goran Ivanisevic]. He's a character, isn't he? Apparently a delightful fellow but he loses his temper, that's the trouble. Sampras is a worthy champion and a model gentleman, but I think he is past his best now."

Austin is puzzled by Sampras's refusal to play Davis Cup this year. "The highlight of my life was Davis Cup, more than Wimbledon. It's a great pity they aren't fielding their best team. Oh Lord, we're only playing a second team, aren't we?" Though Bunny has never met Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski he is well aware of them through his TV scanning. "Henman seems to have sort of dull patches suddenly. Going great guns and seems to collapse. But I think he'll be all right. Rusedski is Canadian, isn't he? In my days we didn't need to import anybody, we were good enough ourselves, English and proud of it. It is also very sad we only have two good players. Relying on just two people is very dangerous."

In Austin's room at Woodcote Grove House in Coulsdon there are only two tennis mementoes. One is a framed article about him, "England's Lawn Tennis Hope" from All Sports Weekly. The other, hanging over the bed head, is his membership of the International Hall of Fame. "I think that's rather important so I've hung it up. When I saw a list of those in the Hall of Fame I was a bit annoyed because it included Wilmer Allison and Sydney Wood, people I had beaten who had never beaten me. So I thought `Why aren't I in there?' Eventually they elected me. I couldn't walk by then but my daughter Jennifer and son John went to the ceremony at Newport, Rhode Island."

In addition to 1938, Austin also lost the 1932 Wimbledon final in straight sets to Ellsworth Vines and the 1937 French final to Germany's Henner Henkel. So it is perhaps not surprising that he is better remembered as the first man to wear shorts at Wimbledon. "I found it so hot in long trousers, especially in America. I would come off court and they would be soaked. The thought of carrying all this extra weight around bothered me because I hadn't got a great deal of energy, with jaundice problems and a thing called Gilbert's Syndrome which weakened me at times. You can't imagine wearing long trousers today, can you? So I was a pioneer, I suppose. I thought Wimbledon would object but they didn't say a word."

After the 1938 loss to Budge, Austin turned away from tennis to pursue the cause of Moral Rearmament. He was never tempted to follow Perry and join the burgeoning band of professionals because he never needed the money. "First of all I worked on the Stock Exchange for five years. Then in 1931 I married Phyllis Konstam, an actress who was very well off, so we didn't need to worry about money at all. Anyway, I didn't want to be a professional. It was hard work in those days and they really went through it, those pioneers."

Austin still espouses the Moral Rearmament principles. "It is not a pacifist movement, very much the reverse," he explains. "Many of our members were killed in the war. You know the bit in the Lord's Prayer where it says `Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?' That's our aim. We have no political stance, the thing is totally above politics.

"All of us got pushed into the services in America because they thought we were draft dodgers, when all I wanted to do was get back home to do my bit. So I spent the war years in the US Air Force and because of my jaundice I was disqualified from overseas service. And because I was in America during the war they got rid of my All England Club membership in 1941."

He did not get it back until 43 years later. "Some friends wrote round to 150 members asking if they wanted Bunny back; 148 said yes and two said no. One of the two was my old friend Fred Perry. They were putting up a statue of him, see, and he didn't want anything interfering with his statue. I wrote to him and he wrote back apologising for not supporting me. But we remained friends.

"I was joyfully received at Wimbledon when I went back. People came rushing to see me. It was very exciting, very moving. I was very popular there."

(Austin lifts a claw-like hand towards his mouth and whispers in an aside "Says he immodestly".)

He continues: "Forty years in the wilderness was a long time but as I was out of the country travelling the world, I didn't really realise."

Despite his protestations about a lack of Fred-like fame not grating, the resentment seeps out occasionally. This is the man with more Davis Cup singles victories (won 36, lost 12) than any other Englishman, Perry included. It got to him most of all when he went to Laurence Olivier's memorial service at Westminster Abbey. "I was wearing a full morning suit because it was the Abbey, though other people came in any old thing. Afterwards I walked right through the crowd and nobody recognised me, not a soul."

Bunny Austin's greatest sporting moment involves not tennis but cricket. "I ended my school career with 102 not out for Repton against Malvern. The end of my tennis career was to be beaten very easily by Don Budge, which was very sad. If I had had a great final it would have been different."

Austin also finds it sad that, because of the state of his hands, he can't oblige people who still occasionally write seeking an autograph. "But apart from being stuck in one room I'm really very, very lucky. Sounds a funny thing to say, doesn't it, but it's true."