Working-class hero

"I'd always been regarded as an upstart who didn't really belong in such exalted company." — Fred Perry

GULU EZEKIEL

WHO was the last Englishman to win the Wimbledon men's crown, the only sportsperson to win all four Grand Slam titles and the world table tennis title and the only one to have his statue erected outside the Wimbledon gates?

The answer to all three of the above questions is Fred Perry, one of the finest players of the pre-Open era (before 1968) and the last man to claim a hat-trick of Wimbledon crowns, until Bjorn Borg achieved the feat nearly 50 years later.

Till he turned professional in late 1936 — which meant he was automatically debarred from the Davis Cup and all the major championships — Perry had ruled the tennis world and came close to becoming the first to pull off the Grand Slam in 1934 when he only failed to win the French Championships. Between 1933 and 1936 he was at the forefront of Great Britain's magical four-year streak in the Davis Cup — and they have not even come close to winning tennis' ultimate team title ever since.

Perry's Wimbledon hat-trick came from 1934-36 and if he had not turned pro, he would surely have continued piling up Grand Slam crowns. By the time the decision to turn pro ended his `official' career he had done it all — three Wimbledon titles, four Davis Cup crowns, three US Championships and one Australian and French title. In 1935, when he won at Roland Garros for the first time, Perry became the first in tennis history to win all four Grand Slam titles, though not in the same year.

It was an amazing rise for the son of a Labour Party politician. Born in 1909, he rose to become one of the most famous of sportspersons, someone who in the 1930s and 40s rubbed shoulders with the greats of Hollywood and became a millionaire thanks to his range of `Fred Perry' sportswear.

A versatile sportsman in his youth, the young Perry excelled at table tennis and it was not till he was 15 that the glamour sport of tennis attracted him. But it was table tennis that first projected the Perry name onto the world stage. At the age of 20 he broke the Hungarian hegemony when he won the world singles title at the 1929 World Championships in Budapest. In fact, it was a significant year for another reason — he also qualified for Wimbledon for the first time, but lost in the third round.

It was his father Sam (who was also a Member of Parliament) who persuaded Fred Perry to drop table tennis and stick to tennis. It was a decision he would never regret, as it was tennis that brought him worldwide fame and fortune. "If you are going to be a Jack of all trades, you cannot be master of one", was the father's sage advice.

Perry began to make people sit up and notice in just his second Wimbledon when he scalped the fourth seed in the third round before losing in the next match. The same year he travelled to New York for his first US Championship where he reached the last 16. The journey had well and truly begun. Pundits were now convinced he was one for the future. It did not take Perry long to prove them right. His breakthrough year came in 1933. In Paris, he spearheaded Britain's challenge as they beat France and lifted the Davis Cup for the first time in 21 years. Perry defeated first Henri Cochet and then Andre Merlin in the decider and suddenly at the age of 24 he found himself the toast of the tennis world.

Later that year, at Forest Hills, came his first Grand Slam title. The Australian Jack Crawford was on the verge of clinching the unprecedented Grand Slam, having won at the Australian, Wimbledon and French. In the final he led by two sets to one before Perry stormed back to take the last two 6-0, 6-1.

Just a few months later, in January 1934, there would be a repeat of the US final at Melbourne though this time Perry mastered Crawford in straight sets. But it was the Wimbledon crown that mattered the most. Perry's working class roots, the family's left-wing politics and his lack of a `posh' education meant that he was always treated as an outsider in the stuffy and snobbish environs of Wimbledon. Further, he had earned a reputation as something of a rebel with a short fuse to boot.

Perry had suffered an ankle injury earlier in the year in Paris which prevented him from playing at his best. But by the time Wimbledon came around, he was in peak form and fitness. He reached the final after beating Sidney Wood in the semis and once again came up against old rival Crawford in the final.

With the confidence of having beaten him in the previous two major finals, Perry was unstoppable. It took him only 70 minutes to crush his rival 6-3, 6-0, 7-5. There were no rests between games in those days which accounts for the double-quick time the match was over in. The match ended with a Crawford double-fault and the ecstatic Perry did a cartwheel before vaulting the net. He was the first Englishman to win the title in 25 years, but sadly his triumph was not well received.

"I'd always been regarded as an upstart who didn't really belong in such exalted company," Perry wrote in his autobiography with a trace of bitterness. "I was someone who did not have the right credentials for this noble game."

There was no presentation ceremony those days, no fanfare. It was all a bit anti-climactic though Perry's celebrations lasted the whole night. Rumours had been around for sometime that Perry would turn pro and these began to fly thick and fast after his triumph. Pressure began to grow from sponsors and promoters. But Perry's thoughts soon turned to Britain's defence of their Davis Cup title a few weeks later.

The Challenge Round final match against the United States (the holders got a bye to the final) also at Wimbledon once again saw Perry flying the flag high. The score was 2-2 when Perry took on Frank Shields in the decider. It was a titanic tussle. Hampered by twisted back sinews, Perry fought back time and again and finally clinched the fifth set 15-13.

There was another close shave in the final of the US Championships. Perry took the fifth 8-6 against Wilmer Allison. And the next year he won the French title, the first Englishman to do so. By the time it came for Perry to defend his title at Wimbledon, he had emerged as the best player in the world. The final was a cakewalk with the German Baron Gottfried von Cramm beaten in straight sets. The Baron was once again swept aside in the 1936 final and now Perry had completed the coveted hat-trick.

That year he won the US title for the third time at Forest Hills, New York. It would be the last time he would be seen in amateur tennis. He had achieved all there was to achieve. Now the lucrative offers were too tempting to resist. New York was also the city where he signed his pro contract on November 6, 1936. He already had the fame, now the riches would follow.

Over the years Perry's rift with Wimbledon would be healed. The final reconciliation came in 1984 on the 50th anniversary of his first title with the naming of the Fred Perry Gates and the inauguration of his statue.

For tennis' first working-class hero, life had come a full circle.