Perry the ladies' man who just loved to win

Bathing beauties and actresses were the off-court pursuits of a working-class lad from Stockport who became the last British man to win a Grand Slam, writes Nick Harris
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The Independent Online

In one of his Independent columns last year, the tennis coach Nick Bollettieri described Fred Perry as "in the nicest possible way, a shagger", but that label in truth barely scratches the surface of a flamboyant rebel who was avowedly a ladies' man and didn't give two hoots about the tennis establishment.

As Bollettieri said: "When most people think of Perry, I'm guessing they think of Britishness, or of his Wimbledon statue, or a sepia era, too long ago to be relevant now, when England last had a men's champion [in 1936]. But I knew Fred, and he was a character.

"I can recall with clarity being at law school in North Miami Beach in 1956, at a time when Fred was the director of tennis at the nearby Diplomat Hotel. I'd go by in my bright yellow Buick convertible, and Fred would give me a wave. 'I enjoy watching you drive past each day, Nick,' he once told me. 'Yeah, Fred, smart wheels, huh?', I replied. 'It's not the car, Nick,' he said. 'It's the fact that there's always a beautiful woman in the passenger seat!'"

Perry, famous for too long for being the last British man to win a Grand Slam title (US Open, 1936), was also the last British man to win Wimbledon, the same year. But before any of his eight Slam titles (he won all four at least once), he had been the table tennis world champion (in 1929), and had led Britain to Davis Cup glory for the first time in 21 years (in 1933).

Yet Perry, a working-class Stockport lad who was the son of a cotton spinner, Sam Perry (who became a Labour MP), could not abide the snobbishness that ran deep in tennis circles. And the hard-nosed, competitive attitude that made him a great champion was never appreciated by the LTA or at the All England Club.

When he turned professional after the 1936 season, he might as well have tattooed "pariah" on his forehead. He left for America to play a lucrative tour series against an American friend and rival, Ellsworth Vines. His first pay cheque of $52,000 (a huge sum) bought him a share of the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. His first suggestion as co-owner was to install "a bevy of local beauties" around the pool. Profits soared. And Perry attracted Charlie Chaplin, David Niven and Errol Flynn among others to have lessons.

Perry was married four times, always to actresses, or models. He divorced Helen Vinson, Sandra Breaux and Lorraine Walsh but remained with Barbara "Bobby" Reis until his death in 1995.

He started his clothing firm with an Austrian business partner, Tibby Wegner, in the 1940s. Initially, Perry wanted a pipe as his logo. "But Tibby didn't think the girls would go for that," he later said. The laurel from his Davis Cup blazer was borrowed instead.

"Nice taste in clothes," Perry said to a golfer wearing one of his shirts in 1959. John F Kennedy was his name.

1936 and all that

*Arsenal, who finish behind Brentford and Huddersfield in the league, win the FA Cup.

*Manchester United and Spurs are in the Second Division.

*Stress is recognised as a medical condition

*The helicopter, jet engine, sliced bread and the Zippo Lighter are invented.

*John McCain is born.

*England achieve first win over the All Blacks in rugby union.

*The summer Olympics, designed by the Nazis as a massive propaganda exercise, are staged in Berlin, with the first live television coverage of a sports event in history.

*King Edward VIII abdicates to marry Wallis Simpson.

Britain's record of success in Grand Slams revolves around Fred Perry, who won eight. The record of British men in major finals pre-Murray is:

Fred flies the flag Britain's Grand Slams

*1933 US Open Fred Perry beat Jack Crawford (Aus) 6-3, 11-13, 4-6, 6-0, 6-1

*1934 Australian Open

Perry beat Crawford 6-3, 7-5, 6-1

*1934 Wimbledon Perry beat Crawford 6-3, 6-0, 7-5

*1934 US Open Perry beat Wilmer Allison (US) 6-4, 6-3, 1-6, 8-6

*1935 Australian Open

Perry lost to Crawford 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4

*1935 French Open Perry beat Gottfried von Cramm (Ger) 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-3

*1935 Wimbledon Perry beat Von Cramm 6-2, 6-4, 6-4

*1936 French Open Perry lost to Von Cramm 6-0, 2-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-0

*1936 Wimbledon Perry beat Von Cramm 6-1, 6-1, 6-0

*1936 US Open Perry beat Don Budge (US) 2-6, 6-2, 8-6, 1-6, 10-8

*1977 Australian Open

John Lloyd lost to Vitas Gerulaitis (US) 6-3, 7-6, 5-7, 3-6, 6-2

*1997 US Open Greg Rusedski lost to Patrick Rafter (Aus) 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5