Captain Moonlight: A grand old champion

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The Independent Online
FRED PERRY, sitting in Saltdean, waiting for Wimbledon. Frederick John Perry, 85, The Last Englishman To Win Wimbledon, three times on the trot, the first 60 years ago. He smiles a lot, in deep furrows round that big nose, uses his big, graceful hands a lot, and talks in that odd and easy transatlantic drawl, the one familiar from the years of radio that will be heard again this week, on Radio 5 Live.

Fred tells jokes, talks about the current players, agrees, if pushed, that the game is getting a bit boring, lacking characters, and blames it on big serves, big rackets and big money, which have taken away the pride and the fun. Fred fingers one of his old rackets, an Australian Open winner, an unremarkable thing of wood. Fred talks touch, and guile: 'They've taken away the 'heady' part of the game. You could use your noggin a little bit more than you can now.'

Then I ask him The Question. No, he doesn't know why an Englishman has never won Wimbledon since. 'I still don't know. Somewhere, some place, there must be somebody, but where I don't know. I'd like to see it, I really would. If it happens, I suppose in one respect I'm out of a job, but at least they wouldn't keep asking me any more.'

So there we are: another grand old champion, another genial old cove remembering how much better and finer it all used to be; another Corinthian fragment. Except that Fred wasn't quite like that. Fred was from Stockport, the son of a Labour MP. 'I was this kid from the North coming into a game which was high level, top drawer stuff. Most of the players playing for Britain were Oxford or Cambridge. I wasn't, but, inconveniently, I could beat them. They hadn't had an English winner at Wimbledon for 25 years, and when they got one he wore the wrong tie.'

After his first win, Fred was in the changing room, in the bath, when he heard a Wimbledon committee man saying to his opponent, Jack Crawford, the Australian, who had received more applause: 'Congratulations. This was one day when the best man didn't win.' Fred got the right tie, an honorary All England Club one, draped over his chair without comment and a pounds 25 voucher redeemable at Mappin & Webb. When he turned professional and went to the United States in 1936 he had won enough vouchers to get him two-and-a- half plates of a silver service.

Still, you can see why Fred might not go down that well. Fred liked winning. He didn't believe in congratulating an opponent on a good shot, or correcting a favourable bad call. 'I didn't aspire to being a good sport. Champion was good enough for me.' Before his third win, Fred managed to draw out of the Wimbledon masseur that his opponent, the German Baron von Cramm, would have trouble stretching out to the right because of a groin strain. Fred went for him and won in 40 minutes.

'I was a son of a bitch,' says Fred, happily. 'People think I was a little faster, a little fitter, that I hit it off the ground a little quicker than I really did and that I was a much nicer guy than I really was, and I'd like to keep it that way.'

He became an American citizen, serving in the US Air Force in the Second World War. He ran and owned the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. Mention of Bette Davies, Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich produces more of the furrowed grin. Fred has been married four times, the last for 42 years. In 1941, a few days after Pearl Harbor, he smashed his right elbow playing at Madison Square Garden and was never a serious player again. Regrets? 'It's not going to do me any good if I have.'

His sportswear company, which he started up in the late Forties - Wimbledon let him have the laurel logo for free - is now owned by an American corporation; Fred still does his bit as 'chairman of the friendship and bullshit department'. He divides his time between Florida and the South Coast. His statue has stood at Wimbledon for 10 years now. The thing you remember most about meeting him is that he is still really upset about losing his matches in the Davis Cup in 1931 and 1932.

(Photograph omitted)