We all know the name. Some of us wear it and some of us dread listening to Andrew Castle refer to him for a whole fortnight at Wimbledon. But how much do we really know about the man himself?
Born in 1909, Perry finished his career having won eight grand slam titles and to this day, is the only Brit to have ever completed the career Grand Slam, that is, winning all four major trophies. Of course his most famous win was taking the Wimbledon title in 1936, the last time a British man has done so as we are so often reminded. His success on the court was heralded around the word and yet not in Britain, his home country. Despite leading his country to four successive Davis Cup titles from 1933, he was never popular with the Lawn Tennis Club.
So despite all his achievements and the adoration of the fans at Wimbledon, why was he so unpopular with the people who ran the game in England? Much of this is to do with his background. Born in Stockport, he moved to London at the age of nine when his father became involved in politics. It was here that he first began to play tennis. His background did nothing to endear him to the game’s elite at a time when the sport was played by the wealthiest people and was dominated by public school men. It is said that he was once denied entry to a tournament on the grounds that he was not educated at a public school. In his first Wimbledon final, he beat the Australian, Jack Crawford, but the champagne bottle went to Perry’s opponent for the reason that Perry himself overheard: Crawford was deemed ‘the better man’.
Biographers have noted that it was the inherent elitism of the game that gave Perry the drive to be as successful as he was. Disillusioned by the state of the game in Britain, he moved to America and gained citizenship there serving in the US Air Force during the Second World War. Perry then began to make money on the US tour playing against the best players abroad. The public have now generally forgotten that he took American citizenship, largely because of the lack of quality in British men’s tennis ever since, with Andy Murray the first man to win a grand slam since Perry’s era of dominance.
His off the court antics didn’t particularly help his popularity in the British game either. Fred Perry was the first to employ certain gamesmanship tactics against his opponents, often shouting out sarcastic comments when his comparatively weak backhand was exploited. His relationships were very well reported in the media as well. Perry was often seen dating the successful actresses and models of the time and in total, married four times, his last marriage lasting over forty years until his death in 1995.
Fred Perry lives on culturally. He launched his polo shirt at Wimbledon in 1952, which became extremely fashionable in the 1970s and remains so until this day. His clothes line has ensured that his cultural significance is immeasurably bigger than his sporting impact.
Despite this, Perry did leave a sporting legacy. He trained intensely and worked on his fitness with Arsenal football club, the only player at the time to train in this manner. Physically strong, his technique was revolutionary with his forehand unlike that of any other player of the time. Today, he is considered one of the best to ever have played the game and his records still live on. His tactics and gamesmanship drove his opponents crazy but he was certainly a character and gave tennis worldwide media attention.