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Andy Murray can learn from the 1936 Wimbledon champion Fred Perry

8th July 2012

Britain’s last men’s singles winner was not an establishment favourite but he was supremely confident on and off court

Were Fred Perry still with us, he would have had the right words to say, and quickly, in support of Andy Murray’s attempt to render redundant his own long-lasting mark of being the last British man to win the Wimbledon men’s title.

That was 76 years ago and, though Fred was immensely proud of the fact that he had become so famous that they put up a statue of him, he knew the day would eventually come when his mark of winning three times in a row, and for the last time in 1936, would be erased.

That the record is still extant would have produced a trademark chortle and massive smile because that was the way Perry was, larger than life all of his life, someone who was cut out by his gregarious nature to go to Hollywood and mix with the greats of the screen in those carefree, pre-war days.

Born in Stockport in 1910, the son of Sam Perry, a trade union official who went on to become a Labour MP, Fred was always conscious of the snob element rampant in British tennis in those days, when he was regularly regarded as someone who came from the wrong side of the tracks.

The most cutting example of this came in 1934, after he won his first Wimbledon title by defeating the Australian, Jack Crawford. While he was in the bath afterwards he heard a Wimbledon committee man, Commander George Hillyard, enter the dressing room and commiserate with Crawford, handing the Australian a bottle of champagne and telling him: “Today the best man lost.”

When Perry went back into the dressing room he found his honorary All England Club member’s tie, the official acknowledgement of his championship performnance, had been draped over the back of his seat. When I did a series of interviews with Fred to ghost his autobiography in 1983, soon after he had suffered a heart attack – fortunately while in hospital at the time – he was still bitter almost 50 years on about that incident.

“Nobody said: ‘Here’s your tie, Fred. Welcome to the Club.’ Nobody even said ‘Congratulations’. The tie was just dropped there for me to find when I came out of the bath. Instead of Fred J Perry the champ I felt like J Fred Muggs the chimp. The Perry balloon was certainly deflated.”

It was after that Wimbledon win that Perry began his love affair with American showbiz and all who lived in it, dating famous film stars like Jean Harlow and Loretta Young and playing tennis at the Beverly Hills Club with Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx. It was Groucho’s “silent” brother, Harpo, who questioned his life as an amateur sportsman by telling him, “You can’t buy groceries with glory. Why don’t you turn pro and cash in?”

“Because,” Fred replied, “I can’t let England down.”

That loyalty lasted for what became the four or five peak years for British tennis as a Perry-inspired Davis Cup team won the trophy four years in a row and Perry captured Wimbledon three times. But by the summer of 1936 he had had enough of the attitude of the establishment.

“I deeply resented not being accepted by officialdom at home,” he said. “I was from the North Country rather than old-school-tie country. I always had the feeling I was tolerated but not really wanted. I had forced my way in. I was simply never part of the establishment end of British tennis … so there was always a rough edge when we were in contact.”

Though Murray has had differences of opinion with the Lawn Tennis Association, particularly in his early teenage years when he preferred to live and learn tennis at the Sánchez-Casal academy in Barcelona, such outright snobbery is long in the past. But it was what clinched Perry’s decision to turn professional later in 1936 after he had won the US title for the third time by beating Don Budge, who would become, in 1938 and with Perry safely gone to the professional ranks, the first man to do the Grand Slam by winning all four major titles.

The massive improvements in racket technology and overall fitness have ensured that old footage of tennis in the Perry days of the Thirties seems to show the sport as slow and tame. But the same might be said of pictures of tennis just 20, rather than 70 years ago. It was enough that Perry, with his mighty, smiting forehand, came to dominate the ranks of those amateur days.

“When they put the ball on my forehand it was point over,” he told me during our interviews. That was not boasting but Fred’s self-confidence asserting itself. He had other ways of doing that, being one of the first in tennis to make use of gamesmanship to keep him at the top of the sport. For instance, after winning a match he used to vault the net rather than just walk to it to congratulate his beaten opponent, thus showing that he had bags of energy still left.

He would sometimes keep a ball in his pocket for a couple of games, letting it warm up until he was ready to unleash it at a faster speed on a key point. And he was fond of strolling into a dressing room and announcing to all within hearing: “I would hate to be playing me today.”

If he was resented by the establishment, Perry was adored by the general public, especially during the days of Davis Cup triumphs against nations such as France, the United States and Australia. But that very success tended to provoke the odd spot of jealousy among team-mates. I interviewed Bunny Austin, Perry’s partner in Davis Cup excellence, shortly before his death in 2000 and, when I asked if he sometimes felt overshadowed, he said he was upset by the newspaper placards on London’s streets. “They carried the message “Fred! Fred! Fred!” But it was never “Bunny! Bunny! Bunny!” © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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