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

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

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?