During the Championships of 1984, the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) held a special ceremony commemorating the achievements of the best British tennis player since the First World War. A ¾-size statue of Frederick John Perry was unveiled, sitting proudly opposite the entrance to the Members Enclosure. The gates at the Somerset Road entrance were also dedicated to him, which rapidly earned the moniker, the “Perry Gates”. While the celebration of such an esteemed player, who went on to win eight major singles championships – including three-straight Wimbledon singles titles, from 1934-36, alongside four straight Davis Cup titles for Great Britain (1933-36) – is not unusual in the world of sports heritage, there are some interesting components to the story.

The AELTC, which held its first gentleman’s singles championship in 1877, was long a bastion of class privilege, and ranked alongside Ascot Racecourse, Lords Cricket Club and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club as social and cultural enclaves for “elite” society. Previous Wimbledon champions from Britain were typically gentlemen from elite society, having attended the best schools and universities, and upon winning the coveted singles championship were invited to become honorary AELTC members, allowing them to rub shoulders with the club’s regular membership, many of whom derived from the same class and excelled in any number of upper-middle-class professional occupations. Alongside appointing members of the officer classes of the armed forces within its various committees, the AELTC also had a long history of royal patronage, dating from 1907 when the Prince of Wales, the future King George V, accepted the Club’s invitation to become its esteemed president. From 1910, the reigning monarch has been the club patron.

As in other areas of British society, the interwar period marked a point of profound change in the class dynamics of tennis participation, as new clubs formed that enacted less stringent membership restrictions, and more established clubs and tournaments relaxed their entry requirements to afford access to members of previously excluded groups, notably from the lower-middle-class. The sport also opened itself up to becoming increasingly performance oriented, in the sense that clubs began to employ coaches to enhance the playing standards of its members for the burgeoning inter-club leagues and tournaments that emerged and developed during this period. The LTA, also keen to retrieve some of its lost glory after having fallen from its position of unchallenged dominance in the Victorian and early/mid Edwardian eras, also sought ways to improve general playing standards and produce more elite-level talent. They encouraged the development of coaches, offered coaching-professionals greater opportunities to compete amongst themselves and against the best amateur talent, instituted new inter-club tournaments, and encouraged public schools to build courts, hire coaches and compete in inter-school leagues. Despite these developments that seemed to indicate more openness toward and a greater acceptance of a more ruthless, driven type of British player, it was apparent that Fred Perry, upon his arrival on the British scene in the late-1920s, offered a formidable challenge to the sport’s established culture.

Young Perry was born in Stockport in May 1909 to Hannah and Sam. The latter, a trade unionist and active socialist on the political trail, moved the family down south and eventually earned himself a parliamentary seat in Kettering with Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government, in 1929. That same year, the nineteen-year-old Fred ventured to Budapest and captured a world championship singles title in his first love, table tennis. Perry senior soon persuaded his son to drop the smoke-filled table-tennis parlours for fresh grass courts, and within a year, Fred had made significant progress at the Herga Club in Harrow, where he became a member, and been spotted by the LTA. Under the tutelage of the great coaching-professional at the AELTC, Dan Maskell, Perry was invited to train with other young talented hopefuls. After making steady progress, in 1931, Perry earned himself a spot on the British Davis Cup squad and, alongside the Repton schoolboy prodigy “Bunny” Austin, they progressed as far as the Challenge Round, but were defeated in Paris by several of France’s formidable “four musketeers”: Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra, Rene Lacoste and Jacques Brugnon. Inspired by their success, the team knuckled down and eventually won, again on French soil, in 1933.

This success marked Perry’s arrival on the scene of British tennis, but from the very start he acknowledged several class barriers. Indeed, in the eyes of the British tennis establishment – within the corridors of the AELTC and LTA – Perry was considered an outsider, as his arrogance, ruthless determination and gamesmanship, which likely reflected his different class background, were not qualities befitting a true “gentleman-amateur”. He recalled in his autobiography, also published in 1984: “Some elements in the All England Club and the LTA looked down on me as a hot-headed, outspoken, tearaway rebel, not quite the class of chap they really wanted to see winning Wimbledon, even if he was English”.

This indifference to Perry was revealed in the now-infamous anecdote of when he received his AELTC members tie just minutes after winning his first title, beating the elegant Australian, Jack Crawford:

“Out in the dressing room, I overheard the distinctive voice of Brame Hillyard, Club committee man, talking to Crawford. ‘Congratulations’, said Hillyard. ‘This was one day when the best man didn’t win’. I couldn’t believe my ears. … Hillyard had brought a bottle of champagne into the dressing room and given it to Jack. … There, draped over the back of my seat, was the official acknowledgement of my championship, an honorary All England Club member’s tie. … Instead of Fred J. Perry the champ, I felt like Fred J. Mugs the chimp”.

After several unsuccessful attempts to persuade the LTA to find a solution to his need for better financial support as an amateur, Perry signed a lucrative professional contract in September 1936 and his AELTC membership was immediately rescinded. For some time, he harboured resentment at his treatment, and reflected on the AELTC’s somewhat ironic decision to erect the statue of him: “There will be a few former members of the All England Club and the LTA 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”.

Over time, not only has Perry’s status as a British sporting hero changed, but also the meanings and values associated with his statue. Beyond Perry’s successes, the fervent eulogizing of him partly reflects British post-war decline, both on and off court, and the felt need to accentuate a glorious past. His statue has developed to become a shrine of almost religious significance for British tennis fans and tourists, who take photographs by it in their thousands. Indeed, Andy Murray posed for several after he won Wimbledon in 2013 and became the first British male for seventy-seven years to become singles champion. The back cover of his autobiography, entitled Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory, shows a photo of him tightly hugging his Wimbledon trophy sat next to the Perry statue. Thus, the strength of Perry’s image and associated traditions – posing for photographs by his statue, mentioning his name in narratives around British tennis talent development (e.g. “finding the next Fred Perry”), and connecting his name with the AELTC and the Wimbledon Championships – has grown over time, as the values and meanings associated with his success during the inter-war “golden age” of tennis have increased in importance. Indeed, the site of him in full-length flannel trousers and plimsolls invokes nostalgia for the “good old days” of amateur tennis and British success: the characters, the rivalries, the “gentlemanly” spirit and the political significance of victories at a time when tennis ranked as a sport of real international significance.

Unquestionably, throughout the post-war period, the AELTC gradually became less elitist and eventually led the way toward professionalizing the sport through “open tennis”. However, it is likely primarily because of Britain’s post-war decline in particularly men’s on-court performance to a second-tier tennis nation – British women fared better in the 1960s and 70s – that Perry came to be afforded hero status. Thus, the tradition of eulogizing Perry at the AELTC has been conceived more recently as an “invented tradition”, to coin Eric Hobsbawm, as was the “imagined community” that formed around his public celebration, to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase.

The fact that many within the corridors of the AELTC disliked Perry serves as one of the greatest ironies in tennis history, and also highlights some of the key contradictions that plagued the British establishment throughout the post-war period, as they struggled to overcome some of the inveterate class struggles, snobbery and social exclusivity that has long characterised the sport and its culture.

 

References

 

Murray, A. Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory. London: Headline, 2013

Perry, F. Fred Perry: An Autobiography. London: Arrow Books, 1984.