Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - Austin senses end to his long wait

Britain's last Wimbledon men's singles finalist is now 92 years old but he believes that he may soon lose that qualification. By Richard Eaton
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The Independent Online
HIS HANDS can now no longer grip a racket. His legs no longer carry him to the side of a court. But his eyes still see and his spirit is in some ways even stronger. Bunny Austin still waits for the British man who can follow him into a Wimbledon men's singles final.

If, during the next two weeks, Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski were to do so they would succeed a man in a wheelchair. Three years ago Austin had a fall at Wimbledon, and now he has to watch Wimbledon on television in his room, usually with pictures and books and his hall of fame award as company.

But watch he will, hoping to share the euphoria of the achievement once more. Hoping, as he has for 61 years.

Few statistics are more eloquent of the gulf British tennis still has to cross. Two years ago Henman and Rusedski became the first pair of British quarter-finalists since the Sixties and last year Henman emulated Roger Taylor's semi-final place of 25 years previously.

But if Henman goes one better this time he will be matching something last achieved in the year Hitler walked into Czechoslovakia, trenches were being dug in London parks, and the world was being shaken by the Munich crisis.

Austin is puzzled the chasm is unbridged. "They [the LTA] have got enough money, so I don't know what the reason is," he says. "But I think Henman and Rusedski are very good. Perhaps good enough to win Wimbledon."

It is what people want to hear, but Austin means it. Rarely has he been one for saying what is popular for its own sake. Repton and Cambridge though Austin was, pussycat of the establishment he was not.

He was the man who challenged sensibilities by becoming the first leading player to compete in shorts, a change which hastened a revolution, especially in the United States. And he lost his club membership because, it is said, All England members did not like his Moral Rearmament campaign during World War II.

Austin could be forthright about fellow players. Much as Henman and Rusedski have had their differences over playing for their country, so Austin and Fred Perry had disagreements about what had been achieved for Great Britain.

Last year, when Henman declined to play in the ATP World Team Championships, it brought the sharp edge of Rusedski's tongue, and Austin has on occasions been unafraid to give Perry a blagging.

The former Wimbledon champion tended, Austin says, to take too much of the credit for Britain winning the Davis Cup.

What hurt Austin more was that, after 25 years, when he re-applied for All England membership, Perry opposed it. "I understand why - Fred was concerned about getting his statue," says Austin, a view he has repeated often enough to want to qualify. "In fact, I admired Fred and we were close friends," he now emphasizes.

But Austin's feelings are not hard to imagine. His Davis Cup record was outstanding, and, as well as reaching two Wimbledon singles finals, he was the last Briton who could claim to be world No 1. Few would know it now. Perry's fame has tended to make Austin a forgotten man.

But, even at the age of 92, Austin remembers plenty about today's heroes. "Henman is a very fine player with wonderful strokes, but I don't know why he doesn't win more. Something just seems to happen," Austin says. "Rusedski is more limited, but he has such a serve, and I don't think it's beyond him to win the title."

Henman is already said to be worth more than pounds 10m; Rusedski a little less, despite the fact that during this Wimbledon an announcement may be made of a racket contract with Donnay worth seven figures. "I remember getting a pounds 5 voucher from Mappin and Webb for winning a singles tournament," smiles Austin.

Not surprisingly he disapproves of the huge sums which have come into the game, although he was ahead of his time in wanting tennis to go open. "I thought Dan Maskell [then a professional coach] should have been allowed to play at Wimbledon," Austin says.

But money was never a problem for Austin. He married a wealthy film star, Phyllis Konstam, became a journalist and an author, mixed with the rich and the famous from the entertainment and cultural communities, and, in his spiritual work, became the confidant of influential people around the world, including the Ghandis.

Austin is more animated when talking about this than about tennis. His spiritual beliefs, he says, gave him a new life, and in Konstam, who opposed them and almost ended the marriage before becoming converted, "a new wife".

Which may be why he takes pleasure from the clean-cut images of Henman and Rusedski. "I like them both very much indeed. They are a very good example. I like the way they conduct themselves."

But, should they reach a Wimbledon final, he is reluctant to suggest advice. Austin lost both of his, one to the German Gottfried von Cramm and the other to the American Donald Budge.

He did not, he says, feel either to be particularly different from matches earlier rounds. Though he lost to men who were legends of tennis, you sense he feels Henman or Rusedski might do well to adopt a similar view.

Of course, most people these days would reckon Fred Perry had been the last British male finalist. There are no conspicuous tributes to Austin, no mementos, no plaques. Nor has his name remained famous as has Perry's (though perhaps as much because it is a clothing brand name as for being Britain's last Wimbledon men's singles champion).

Austin has, nevertheless, been one of the greats of a golden age, and it is remarkable he is with us to reminisce. Were Henman or Rusedski to make it, Austin may get to join in many a looking-back, looking-forward story. And that could revive a name which, when compared with its achievements, has not quite had the celebration it deserves.