Fred Perry: Hero from the wrong side of the tracks
To mark the centenary of Fred Perry's birth, his daughter Penny speaks to Paul Newman about her father's bitter struggles with the Wimbledon establishment, and what he'd have made of Andy Murray
Saturday 16 May 2009
It is early evening on the final Sunday at Wimbledon and Andy Murray lies back in his bath in the locker room and ponders the enormity of his achievement. He has just beaten Rafael Nadal, the world No 1, to become the first British man to win at the All England Club for 73 years.
He hears the locker-room door open and recognises the voices of Wimbledon committee members. "Take this bottle of champagne," one of them says to Nadal. "We're only sorry that this was one day when the best man didn't win." Murray, hardly believing his ears, hurries out of the bath as the Wimbledon men leave and sees his All England Club tie, which goes with the membership granted to champions, draped over a chair. The committee members have not even had the decency to present it to him personally.
Impossible? At the enlightened Wimbledon of today, yes, but in 1934 that scene was played out for real. For Murray read Fred Perry and for Nadal read Australia's Jack Crawford. Perry had become the first British man for 25 years to win the greatest prize in tennis, but he was a northerner, had not been to public school and, most shockingly of all in the eyes of the All England Club's hierarchy, was the son of a Labour MP. Monday is the 100th anniversary of Perry's birth. It is more than 14 years since his death, but to his loved ones the anger over his treatment still runs deep.
"I think what happened that day went to the grave with him," Penny Perry, his only daughter, says. "When he talked about it in later years he would always say: 'What is done is done'. But even today when it's mentioned my hackles rise. I can just imagine how he would have felt and I'm sure it always grated with him."
Today Penny, who is 50, lives in Florida, near Boca Raton, where Bobby, her mother and Perry's fourth wife, celebrated her 90th birthday last Thursday. Penny is married to Drew Evert, Chris Evert's brother. "Being called 'Perry-Evert' has a great tennis ring to it, but I answer to all sorts of names," she says. "When I'm talking to people about Fred I'm Penny Perry. When I'm doing stuff with Drew I drop the Perry and become Mrs Evert. But my son, John Frederick [her father was Frederick John], is a Perry."
Fred Perry was one of the greatest players in history. He won eight Grand Slam titles and is one of a select group to have won all four Grand Slam trophies. He won Wimbledon three years in a row, the last man to do so before Bjorn Borg emulated the feat in 1978.
The 1930s, however, was a time when Wimbledon was at the centre of the society scene, when the higher levels of the game were dominated by the upper classes and when professionalism was a dirty word. Snobbery at the All England Club was such that a young man of modest means from Stockport, whose father was a prominent figure in the Co-operative Party, was regarded by many as an intruder.
"It was a time when somebody from north of Watford just wasn't expected to do what he did – which is at the heart of the whole problem we have had as a tennis country for years," Penny says. "He was simply from the wrong side of the tracks."
Perry's uncompromising approach did not go down well with the traditionalists. He became supremely fit by training with Arsenal's footballers, was a ferocious competitor and was not averse to using gamesmanship. Before a match he would shout "any time you're ready" across the net, indicating his own self-confidence, while he could infuriate opponents by greeting their winning shots with a sarcastic comment of "very clevah".
The final break with the establishment came in 1936, when Perry turned professional. The All England Club rescinded his membership. Perry's father had supported him financially, but he knew that he would eventually have to pay his own way in the world. The Lawn Tennis Association made vague promises to look after him, but nothing ever materialised.
Thereafter Perry played professionally in the United States. From his earliest visits he felt at ease with the American way of life. He enjoyed mingling with Hollywood celebrities and as a handsome man, always immaculately turned out, wooed some of the world's most beautiful women. It was not long before he took US citizenship.
Subsequently, Perry was never in Britain for more than three months of the year. In later life he always came to Wimbledon, where he was a stalwart of the BBC radio commentary team, but spent most of his winters in Florida, where he was the teaching pro at the Boca Raton Club, or in Jamaica, where he was director of golf at Runaway Bay.
Perry helped establish tennis in Russia, was a part owner of the Beverly Hills Tennis Club and a global ambassador for the Fred Perry Sportswear firm he had founded (and sold in 1961) and commentated on major tennis tournaments. He died in February 1995 in Melbourne, where he had been at the Australian Open.
Yet Perry was, in his daughter's words, "a Brit from start to finish". She explains: "Even after leaving Britain he never became anything else. I think that's why he felt so much resentment. It was like being stabbed in the back twice. He had done so much in the name of Great Britain and Great Britain was saying to him: 'Thank you very much, stick it, goodbye'. He obviously had to become an American to do what he was doing, but he would always say: 'I'm only an American on paper'. What was he supposed to do? He had the choice of sitting there and doing nothing or making a living."
In 1933 Perry famously helped wrest the Davis Cup back from the French, whose "Four Musketeers" had held it since 1927. He led Britain to three successful defences of a trophy they have never won since.
"For him the Davis Cup was all about the sheer honour of putting on your jacket and tie with a Union Jack on it," Penny says. "He always got very emotional about it. He said people who are genuinely patriotic will always play far, far better in the Davis Cup than their ranking would ever suggest. They're playing for their flag and he always said that was how it should be. He didn't understand how players could miss the Davis Cup. He would say: 'What do you mean, they're not playing?'"
Perry married Barbara "Bobby" Riese, who was 10 years younger and from a well-to-do British family, in 1953, when he was 44. Penny says: "Theirs was a relationship that absolutely stood the test of time, though I've always said to my mother that she wouldn't have looked at him twice in his twenties. A typical Stockport lad marrying my Belgravia mother just would not have happened at that time, though he mellowed a lot in later years."
Fred and Bobby spent much of their lives on the road. Penny was born in Fort Lauderdale, but at two was sent to Britain with her nanny, Eve Bishop, who brought her up at a house the Perrys bought in Sussex. The only time she spent with her parents was in Jamaica in December and January and an annual Channel Islands summer holiday.
Penny refers to her father as Fred as often as she calls him Dad. "I spent my whole life growing up with two people," she says. "One was Fred Perry and one was my father. The two never met. I don't think I ever sat down and talked to him about his playing days.
"I remember picking him up from the airport once. He said: 'Where are we going?' I said: 'We're going home'. He said: 'So where do we live?' He had never actually been to the house. Everything was done by my nan. When she passed away my mother was there at the funeral and I said: 'Well, this may upset somebody sitting in the congregation, but as far as I'm concerned I've just lost my mother'. My mother totally accepted that. I didn't say it out of any disrespect. That was just the way it was."
As for her father, Penny says: "He was a character. I've always said to anybody who never met him: 'I feel sorry that you didn't'. If you had met him for 10 seconds it would have been enough. He was low profile but made an immediate impact on people. He was a phenomenal story-teller and speaker, phenomenal with languages." Asked to sum up his character, Penny says he was "an egotistical maniac with a heart of gold". She appreciates that the Fred Perry she never knew – the champion she read about in the newspapers – was ruthlessly single-minded.
"He only achieved what he did because of his attitude," she says. "He had that winning mentality that we British have always had missing, which is why he's the only British man to have won Wimbledon in the last 100 years. If he had been in his playing days what he was like in later life – a diplomat to the game, adored by everyone – he wouldn't have achieved what he did."
Bridges were rebuilt in Perry's later life and he said the unveiling of his statue at Wimbledon in 1984 meant more than all the prize money in the world.
There would be no better way of celebrating the anniversary of his birth than with another British winner, particularly one wearing the shirts of the sportswear company that he founded. What does Penny think her father would have made of Andy Murray? "I think he might in his earlier days have said: 'Well, he's got some spunk'. But in later years he probably would have said: 'The skill's there, but this and that need doing'."
How would he have felt if he was no longer the last British man to win Wimbledon? "He would probably have had mixed feelings, though he always used to say: 'Records are made to be broken. I hope it happens. It would be good for the country'. Then under his breath he might mutter: 'Not in my lifetime'."
Would he have enjoyed seeing Murray wear a Fred Perry shirt? "Yes and no. Yes because it's a Brit wearing it and possibly no because Fred always thought that whoever wore his stuff always looked totally pristine, as though they'd just come out of a starch shop. Fred was always meticulous about his appearance and I don't necessarily feel that way about Andy. That's just a personal opinion. You think: 'Oh my goodness can't we clean him up a bit, he's wearing Fred Perry clothes!' That would be a gut reaction and I think Fred would have said the same."
'The Last Champion', Jon Henderson's new biography of Fred Perry is published by Yellow Jersey Press, priced £18.99
Perry from heaven: Fred's life and times
*Born: 18 May 1909, Stockport
*Died: 2 February 1995, Melbourne
*Marriages: Helen Vinson (1935), Sandra Breaux (1941), Lorraine Walsh (1947), Barbara 'Bobby' Riese (1953)
*Education: Wallasey Grammar School, Drayton Green Primary School, Ealing County School
*World table tennis champion: 1929
*Davis Cup winner: 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936
*Wimbledon champion: 1934, 1935, 1936
*Australian Open champion: 1934
*French Open champion: 1935
*US Open champion: 1933, 1934, 1936
*Turned professional: 1936
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