Fred Perry, Bunny Austin and the golden age of the British game...

 

At lunchtime yesterday, a steady succession of people paused to have their photo taken next to the statute of Fred Perry. It stands in the shadow of Centre Court, its plinth rising from a small flower bed. "Please do not sit on the plants," says a sign. "Otherwise you will be sitting on Fred," it might have added.

Perry's ashes lie beneath the statue, a three-quarters life-size representation of Britain's greatest tennis player. The quest to succeed him as a homegrown Wimbledon champion is the greatest saga in British sport.

Perry's prime was the prime time of British tennis. In 1933, after Perry and Bunny Austin, the last British man to contest the singles final here, earned Britain the Davis Cup with victory over France in Paris, the pair were met at Victoria station by large crowds who carried them from the train.

The two were gloriously contrasting men of their age. Perry, with his three Wimbledon wins and eight majors, was comfortably the better player. He was the son of a cotton weaver turned politician who moved south from Stockport to further his political ambition. It was this working-class background, and rapid success after taking up the sport aged 15, that made Perry an unpopular figure among members of the Wimbledon hierarchy. He was described as a "bloody upstart" when first picked for the Davis Cup and, after his first Wimbledon win, he overheard a committee member informing Jack Crawford, the beaten Australian, that the wrong man had won.

From 1934, Perry won three successive Wimbledon singles titles. In 1937, he left Britain for the United States and turned professional. Perry based himself at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, whose members included Errol Flynn and Charlie Chaplin, and revelled in the Hollywood lifestyle.

It was not until 1984, half a century after his first win, that his achievements were recognised at Wimbledon with the statue installed near Gate 5. The building of the roof on Centre Court saw it, and him, moved to its current home.

Austin – known as Bunny after a children's comic strip character – lost twice in the Wimbledon final, in 1932 and 1938. Perhaps his lasting impression on the sport was to become the first man to wear shorts. "I found sweat-sodden cricket flannels were weighing me down, so my tailor ran up some prototype shorts," he said.

As a public school boy and Cambridge graduate, his background was markedly different to Perry's but he too was long ignored by the All England Club after being accused of being a "conscientious objector" during the Second World War. His membership was not restored until 1977. Austin died in 2000, five years after Perry.

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