Time, Gentlemen please! It's 1938, and Bunny is the great British hope

 

It is Friday 1 July 1938, and we are entering the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. In the distance, the Riviera Express can be heard sounding its whistle as it steams through Wimbledon station; while all around us there is the noisy clatter of excited crowds arriving at the club's gates. We have just stepped from a London taxi, giving the driver half-a-crown – an extravagant tip, perhaps, but we are in festive mood. This afternoon, at 10 minutes to two, Donald Budge of the United States and our own British hope, Henry "Bunny" Austin, will walk out on court to contest the final of the Gentlemen's Singles.

Budge, aged 23, from California, and the son of a Scottish immigrant who played football for Rangers, is favourite; he is the defending champion, and, having just won the French Championship, holds all the world's big titles. Nor has he dropped a set this Wimbledon, and he certainly never looked like doing so against his first-round opponent, Britain's Kenneth Gandar-Dower. He's that explorer fellow who caused a kerfuffle when he brought a cheetah on a leash into the Queen's Club bar.

Austin, at 32, has never won a major singles title. He did make the final in '32, several years before Fred Perry, our triple champion now in California, having turned professional. But Austin, throughout the Perry years, has been nothing if not dogged, and this year is the ninth time he has reached the quarter final or better at Wimbledon. Articles in the press perennially describe him as the backbone of our Davis Cup team. A stalwart, then, rather than a champion. Let us hope that changes this afternoon.

Heaven knows we could all do with a lift, what with Hitler entering Austria, and everyone being told to get measured for gas masks. Wish I could be as optimistic as the chap I met on the train the other day. We discussed the news in the lazy-with-facts way that strangers do, and he was definitely not one of the worriers. "See," he said, pointing to his Daily Express emblazoned with its slogan 'There will be no war'. "These chaps in Fleet Street. They know." I'm not so sure.

An hour or so to go. Lunch. We can't afford the prices in the refreshments tent (I'm surprised anyone can after the Budget raised the top rate of income tax to 5s 6d in the pound), so we walk down to the outside courts with our knapsacks to have our sandwiches and tea. They're rather good, these new Thermos flasks – they keep a drink warm for hours. As we eat, we watch the crowds. Some are strolling about, anxiously looking up at the greyish sky every so often to check for rainclouds; but most are lolling on the grass. There's a woman perched on a shooting stick who's wearing trousers. Some people are tutting and pointing, but I'm easy about such things. She does, however, look out of place among the summer dresses. Next to us is a chap who wouldn't notice if she was wearing nothing at all. He has his nose in the latest Agatha Christie. Appointment with Death. I'm more of an Evelyn Waugh man myself.

As we walk towards the centre court, I get talking to a chap about what a splendid sporting summer it's been so far: our footballers going to Germany and winning 6-3 (although I'd sooner they'd lost than give the Nazi salute, as they did); young Denis Compton getting a century against the Australians at Trent Bridge; and our golfers beating the United States at the Walker Cup match. Now all we need is for Bunny to triumph, and for Hutton's team to regain the Ashes.

We take our seats, and the players come out in their long whites, Budge the taller and more broad-shouldered, Austin looking a little edgy, as well he might. Budge's serve is hard to see, never mind return. He's six foot one, and the power he delivers gives the ball a kick that Austin can't handle. The American takes the first set 6-1, the second 6-0, and the third 6-3. Almost before we, and Austin, know it, Budge is being presented with the gold cup. If only he'd turned professional last year, as he apparently thought of doing.

Ah well. He'll probably leave the amateur ranks after the US championships later this year. That'll leave the field clear for Austin and those other promising young Britons. Shouldn't be long before we have a home champion once again.

Postscript

Bunny Austin was seeded No 1 in 1939, but lost in the semi-finals. Fred Perry, lacking the connections to amuse himself with a little light stockbroking, as Austin did, played lucratively in the States, owned and ran the Beverly Hills Club, became a US citizen, taught stars such as Bette Davis and David Niven how to play a deft backhand, had an affair with Marlene Dietrich, served with the US army, started his sports clothing firm with its laurel-wreath logo, and married four times.

Austin became a leading light in Moral Re-Armament, a Christian movement that did (and continues to do) much good work, but which contained a staunch pacifist element. In 1940, Austin and his wife, a former actress, went to the US to spread their message. They stayed, Austin became a US citizen, and was conscripted into the army.

In 1961, the Austins returned to Britain. On trying to revive his membership of the All England Club, Bunny ran into allegations that his wartime departure for the US and Moral Re-Armament work made him a "bolter", or even a "conchie". He was blackballed, and was only reinstated in 1984. He died in 2000, on his 94th birthday.

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