London — When Fred Perry, born on May 18 1909, crushed the unfortunate Gottfried von Cramm to win the 1936 Wimbledon title little did he know he would be the last Briton to get his hands on the men’s trophy for 77 years.
Perry’s feats — eight Grand Slam titles — weighed heavily on those trying to emulate him, and on the administrators tasked with trying to reverse Britain’s decline as a tennis power.
It was not until 1984, however, that an elegant statue of Perry, forehand at the ready, was placed in the All England Club grounds as a reminder of his 1934, 1935 and 1936 triumphs.
Eventually, Scotland’s Andy Murray broke the spell, beating Novak Djokovic in the 2013 final, having a year earlier become the first British male to win a Grand Slam title since Perry when also beating Djokovic to land the US Open.
Had they ever met (Perry died in 1995) they would have got along — both sharing a stubborn, rebellious streak.
Perry, whose name is synonymous with the iconic clothing label, may have teased Murray over his appearance though, especially his shabby, floppy-haired early days. Apart from a razor-sharp game and his devotion to athleticism, Perry cut a dashing figure in his pristine long white trousers, linen shirts and slicked back hair.
“There was never a champion that looked more like a champion than Fred Perry,” American great Jack Kramer once said.
Perry broke the mould at a time when tennis was for the privileged few. Born in 1909 in a working-class neighbourhood in Stockport, his father was a cotton spinner turned Labour MP.
Having moved to Ealing in London in 1919, Perry’s initial sporting prowess was in table tennis. He won a world title in 1929 but it was tennis that fascinated him, both as a sport and a way of life.
During a family trip to Eastbourne in 1923 he was transfixed by the suave, wealthy players on the Devonshire Park lawns.
“I asked dad if all those big Daimlers and MGs belonged to the players and he said they did. ‘Then that’s for me,’ I said,” Perry later recalled.
He reached the third round of Wimbledon in 1929 as a qualifier with a backhand likened to a table tennis stroke. A year later he went a round further, beating Italian aristocrat Baron Umberto de Morpugo, a victory Perry described as “the beginning of my tennis career”.
Perry’s 1933 US Open triumph against Jack Crawford began a period of domination. In 1934 he became the first British man to win at Wimbledon for 25 years, beating Crawford again.
But praise for a player regarded as something of a brash upstart from the wrong side of the tracks was muted. After his victory, with Perry still in the bath, a club tie was left draped over his chair rather than presented in person.
“Some elements in the All England Club and the Lawn Tennis Association looked down on me as a hot-headed, outspoken tearaway rebel, not quite the class of chap they really wanted to see winning Wimbledon,” he later wrote in his autobiography.
Perry also won the Australian Open and a second US Open in 1934, and in 1935 he won at Roland Garros to become the first player to complete a career Grand Slam.
With no money in an amateur sport, by the time Perry thrashed Von Cramm in the 1936 Wimbledon final — the shortest in the 20th century — Perry’s sights were set on turning pro in the US — a move that saw him shunned by the establishment.
Away from the stuffiness of British elitism, he lived the showbiz lifestyle, mixing with Hollywood’s finest. After three divorces his fourth marriage, to Barbara Riese in 1952, lasted until he died in Melbourne in 1995. They had two children.
Perry returned regularly to Wimbledon as part of the BBC radio team during the championships, but it was 50 years after his first title that he finally felt accepted.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day when a statue was put up to the son of a Labour MP inside the manicured grounds of Wimbledon,” he wrote later.
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