Gary Burns takes a look at Wimbledon and British tennis past, present and future and asks if we can host the finest Grand Slam why can’t we win it?
Stockport-born Fred Perry took up tennis fairly late at 18 but by the age of 26 he’d won the Career Grand Slam of English, French, US and Australian championships and is still the youngest player ever to do so. His father, Samuel Perry – Labour Party MP for Kettering – apparently could have raised the the question of a Brit winning Wimbledon in the House without so much as a suppressed giggly. Duly, his son took the title three times in three years, beating Australia’s Wilmer Allison in 1934 and Nazi Germany’s Gottfried von Cramm consecutively in 1935 and ‘36. Fred Perry was unconventional. He’d fashioned a tennis game from his time as a ping-pong champion in his teens; using a continental grip and striking the ball as it rose. His timeworn legacy, quite apart from the iconic polo shirts, shorts and wristbands with the stitched laurel logo (which he took from the old Wimbledon crest) is simply the stuff of legend; Fred Perry is English tennis.
Which, conceivably, explains one or two things. Not to decry the man or his achievements but he last won the title over seventy years ago. He was immortalised in 1984 within Wimbledon’s All England club, a statue of Perry stands inside the Church Road gate marking the 50th anniversary of his first singles championship. That his part in the formative years of the sport in this country are recognised is only right and proper. That the repercussions of his brief period of dominance are still being felt throughout the sport and across the nation today are a more worrying state of affairs.
Perry, had his detractors. One such figure was American Jack Kramer, a world number one for years and arguably one of the finest ever men’s singles players. While considering Perry a great he made certain caveats known to those who enquired. He said that Bill Tilden (another legendary American player) called Perry “the world’s worst good player”. Kramer added kindly that he was, “…extremely fast; he had a hard body with sharp reflexes, and he could hit a forehand with a snap, slamming it on the rise – and even on the fastest grass.” He had less complimentary things to say about other aspects of his game though: “His only real weakness was his backhand, he hit underslice off that wing about 90 percent of the time, and eventually at the very top level – against Vine and Budge – that was what did him in.” Kramer went on to become a promoter and was a staunch advocate of the open format that took the sport into a new era in the 60’s. His comments about Perry, though not at all well-received over here at the time, were hard to refute looking back at the record of Perry against Americans Don Budge and Ellsworth Vines.
Regarding Perry’s personality Kramer was less guarded, he described him as “… a selfish and egotistical person, and he never gave a damn about professional tennis. He was through as a player the instant he turned pro. He was a great champion, and he could have helped tennis, but it wasn’t in his interest so he didn’t bother.” He also accused him of a lack of respect for opponents that most considered ouright arrogance, “Whenever an opponent would make an especially good shot, Perry would cry out ‘Very clever!’ I never played Fred competitively, but I heard enough from other guys that that ‘Very clever!’ drove a lot of opponents crazy.” His own parting shot was to intimate Perry had, albeit unintentionally, “…screwed up men’s tennis in England. Kramer explained, “He could hit a forehand – snap it off like a ping-pong shot – Perry was a physical freak. Nobody else could be taught to hit a shot that way. But the kids over there copied Perry’s style, and it ruined them. Even after Perry faded out of the picture, the coaches there must have kept using him as a model.”
Kramer later named Perry among the six best players of all time in his 1979 autobiography, Jack Kramer. It was clear though that among many of his contemporaries, Perry was admired more for his talent and extraordinary technique than anything else. While no one has ever chosen to openly refute Kramer’s assertions, it’s fair to assume his words caused some consternation within the LTA. Did coaches try and teach Perry’s technique? It’s hard to imagine them not doing so really. After all, however unorthodox, it brought English tennis its only real success. How many years would have passed before they realised the technique was simply non-transferable – the coaching equivalent of bad cheque? Did they set about teaching kids ping-pong first when they found out it wasn’t working in the hope it would convert them to tennis champions later? Is that why ping-pong tables sprung up in recreational areas frequented by bored males all over Britain? While its a beguiling little conspiracy theory we may have to accept they simply appeared at the same time that table tennis, or ping-pong, became popular.
Historically, criticism of British tennis has centred on the privileged roots of the sport in our sceptred isle. It would indeed be a criminal understatement to say that tennis is not a sport for the masses here. It’s probably not too far ahead of polo in terms of broad social inclusion over the past century. I have always believed the sport has been starved of numbers, and therefore prospective talent, by those who administer it at the highest level. After all, it’s an entirely tangible belief that a bunch of overprivileged buffoons are denying the nation, and the average man on the street, a crack at greatness. Based on the time-honoured logic of ‘it wouldn’t be the first time’. Actually – since researching this article – I have been swayed, not inconsiderably, in a different direction.
You see, tennis here is far from an esoteric pursuit. Many millions tune into watch Wimbledon. Viewing figures for other tournaments – not just grand slams – on digital channels like Sky Sports and Eurosport are not entirely unimpressive. Certainly they’re comparable with most sports outside of the big ratings winners: football, rugby and golf. There is a better than rudimentary understanding of the game here and far from a dearth in terms of interest. Therefore, the argument that generations have been turned off the sport by its blatantly bourgeois background doesn’t really hold water. Of course, watching and playing are two different things but the interest is there – tennis is a long way from being an unfashionable sport in Britain.
To assert that during Perry’s days, and maybe for four or five decades after, children of less privileged backgrounds were turned away from the sport wouldn’t be at all unreasonable. To assume this has continued until today, or even in the last 20 years, would be wrong. Though it might be viable to suggest they haven’t received the necessary levels of encouragement, or incentives to break with a pattern of non-participation?
Schools, especially underfunded state schools, are always going to be mindful of how to occupy groups of children with the minimum number of staff and the least expense. During PE, notoriously under-taught in recent times, this is a primary concern. Tennis is not the best way to solve the problem for most. With football or rugby you can manage large groups of boys; and large groups of girls are easily suckered into a game of netball. Needless to say, we don’t have a huge problem with these sports at both club and international level. (Though some might argue where football is concerned but that’s another story entirely.) Organising games of tennis between two to four kids and supervising them, even if you have enough courts – or any courts – not to mention rackets and balls? All this presents something of a logistical nightmare for most schools. Tennis balls get lost, rackets and their strings are easily broken. Courts and nets require maintenance and many schools, unsurprisingly opt for fields. Fields are easier and easier is invariably cheaper.
If you are trying to break a pattern of non-participation in any sport, leaving it to the ravages of a state school system spiralling out of control may not be the way forward? With well-documented – and mounting – economic and logistical issues, most of our schools simply don’t want or can’t handle such added responsibilities. So, although not intentionally, the LTA continues to narrow the field with social exclusion and it’s no less damaging because they’re not doing it on purpose anymore.
Mr. Gary Burns