“A Rebel From The Wrong Side of the Tennis Tramlines” – The Legacy of Fred Perry
Prior to Andy Murray’s triumph, Fred Perry was the last British man to win Wimbledon. He was also a libertine, an accidental fashionista, a socialist’s son, and much more.
When spectators enter the grounds of Wimbledon, flooding in from the eastern side of the ground, there is, on their left, a small bronze on a marble plinth. Stood as if in the middle of a brisk rally, tennis racket raised by his right side, the statue's face juts purposefully forward, looking through the beholder to an opponent who isn't there. The pointed, handsome features in bronze are those of Fred Perry, one of the greatest British tennis players ever to have lived. The statue is a fitting testament to his life and legacy. Few sportsmen have faced as many opponents, adversaries and antagonists as Perry, and even fewer have confronted them with the same hard defiance, the same cool, unflinching panache.
For those of a certain generation, Perry will always be known as the last British man to win Wimbledon. Nevermind that Andy Murray managed to end that barren era in the summer of 2013; for 77 years, Perry was an emblem of Britain's lost sporting supremacy. He was the stick with which the media beat Tim Henman, with his 1936 triumph the unattainable benchmark for success. The thoroughly decent Henman never managed to match the feat of his far steelier predecessor. Likewise, Perry's own legacy was clouded by the headlines, and for 77 years the nation struggled to look past his status as the homegrown hero never to be outdone.
Now that another British man has won Wimbledon, it's far easier to understand Perry's legacy in the clear light of day. He was a brilliant sportsman, granted, but he was also a man from the wrong background, at the wrong time. In his mid '30s heyday, Perry won the men's singles event at the Australian, French and US Opens, as well as Wimbledon. He triumphed at the latter two tournaments three times apiece, while also winning two major doubles titles and four titles in the mixed doubles, playing alongside Betty Nuthall. He was part of four Davis Cup-winning teams, and was ranked No.1 in the world for a significant spell. All in all, his achievements were quite astounding.
Still, in the eyes of the All England Club, he was simply not the right sort of chap.
In the 1930s, the world of tennis was an inherently privileged one. The class structure was shaken somewhat between the wars, and yet it still stood, monolithic as ever. Perry's successes coincided roughly with the Great Depression, during and after which the Conservative-dominated National Government made severe cuts to public expenditure as unemployment skyrocketed. There was a deep resentment building between the working classes and their supposed betters. That was perhaps part of the reason that the All England Club so resented Fred Perry, the son of a former cotton spinner from Stockport, and a child of the poverty-stricken north.
Having moved to Bolton and then Wallasey during his early childhood, Perry and his family were uprooted to London when he was 11 years of age. He was educated at the Ealing Grammar School for Boys, not far from the family home in Brentham Garden Suburb. It was there, in Ealing, that he first picked up a tennis racket. He learnt the game playing on public courts, only a short walk away from his local housing estate.
Perry's family had been uprooted when his father, Samuel, was chosen to be the first national secretary of the Co-Operative Party. He was a man of strong opinions, and a former cotton spinner who had experienced the injustice of contemporary industry first-hand. The Co-Operatives were strongly affiliated to the Labour Party, and Samuel Perry was a committed socialist. This was not the family background expected of a gentleman tennis player, as Fred soon found out to his cost.
From his earliest days as a tennis prodigy, Perry was marked as a misfit. Despite his enormous talent, he was always the working-class outsider, the man who didn't quite belong. His northern accent jarred with the tinkling King's English of the southern tennis clubs, while his habit of puffing away on a pipe set him apart from his fellow players. He was once asked where he went to school prior to entering a tournament and, having informed the presiding official that he went to a grammar school, was denied entry. Quietly raging, he turned to a fellow contestant to ask where they went. "Repton School" came the answer, and so he turned back to the official and said: "All right, I went to Repton."
Perry's approach to the game didn't help matters, of course. He was not averse to a bit of gamesmanship, and would make surreptitious efforts to put opponents off. He later referred to this as his own form of "psychological warfare", though it was doubtlessly tame compared to modern sporting standards. While such craftiness was largely forgiven among his upper-class contemporaries, it soon came to be another excuse for Perry's detractors to do him down.
British Pathé footage of Perry winning Wimbledon in 1934
Though he soon faced foes both on and off the court, he refused to be discouraged. Perry's success was the ultimate rebellion, and the powers that be could hardly bear it. When he won Wimbledon for the first time, an official with the All England Club gave his bottle of champagne to the loser, Australian champion Jack Crawford. As he soaked in the bath after the match, he overheard the same official saying that Crawford was "the better man."
Though the sporting establishment did their best to scorn and ostracise Perry, they could not stop him from winning. He dominated tennis despite adversity, and even won the World Table Tennis Championships along the way. Similarly, the establishment could not quell the admiration of his fellow players, with Crawford, Don Budge and Gottfried von Cramm amongst them. He bested all of his rivals in major finals, beating Von Cramm to Grand Slam titles on four separate occasions. He gained huge admiration from the public for his endeavours, even if the tennis hierarchy could never accept him as one of their own.
Despite all that, Perry was more than just an emblem of class struggle in sport. He lived the life of a maverick, and became the celebrity media sensation of the day. He was romantically linked to film stars and socialites, German actress Marlene Dietrich among them, before marrying and speedily divorcing three different women in little over a decade. He was an inadvertent darling of the gutter press, and that only enraged the tennis establishment further.
If Perry was an unwitting celebrity, he was also an accidental fashionista. Having finally bowed to his disillusionment with British tennis, he turned fully professional – gentleman tennis players were almost exclusively amateurs at the time – and moved to the USA in late 1936. Having become a naturalised US citizen in 1938, and having been drafted into the US Air Force on America's entry into the Second World War, he had lived an intrepid life overseas by the time he met Tibby Wegner in the late 1940s. Wegner had invented an anti-perspirant device to be worn around a sportsman's wrist and, with a few tweaks from Perry, the pair created the first sweatband.
The Fred Perry clothing label came off the back of this, with Perry and Wegner collaborating on the classic short-sleeved tennis shirt which has been a feature of world fashion ever since. It was launched at Wimbledon in 1952, and became an instant hit. The logo for the brand is a laurel wreath, based on the original emblem of Wimbledon. It's hard not to feel that this was an act of defiance on Perry's part, a way to take ownership of the competition and fly in the face of those who felt he didn't belong.
It is perhaps apt, then, that Perry's success off the court seemed to turn a new page on his relationship with Wimbledon. Much of his fame and recognition came in the wake of his growing clothing label, and he was soon admired by a younger generation of fans. As the post-war class structure weakened and cracked and the decline of British tennis put his achievements into context, he became something of a national treasure. He began to appear at The Championships more often, though his bronze was not commissioned until 1986, when he was 75 years old.
After the unveiling of his statue, Perry wrote: "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. There will be a few former members of the All England Club and the Lawn Tennis Association revolving in their graves at the thought of such a tribute, paid to the man they regarded as a rebel from the wrong side of the tennis tramlines." Nobody could have put it better than that.
By the time of his death in 1995, Perry was rightly regarded as a tennis icon. His legacy is one of a brilliant sportsman who defied the class system, but also a sporting subversive, a man who lived a tumultuous life and nevertheless became a true great. In some ways he was a man of his time, and in others he was impossibly far ahead of the curve. Once scorned by Wimbledon, he is now a part of its physical fabric. He was undeniable, and is a part of the national consciousness to this day.