Game, set, match, and tea: memories of a tennis legend

`MY gramma says you're Fred Perry. Did you really win here three times?'' ``Well, not here, son,'' replies the silver-haired gentleman to the youngster staring inquisitively at him. ``It was at Forest Hills, on grass. But it was the US championship!''

``And three times at Wimbledon?''

``Yup, three in a row.''

``Did you make as much as Ivan Lendl?''

``'Fraid not. All I got was tea with the Queen!''

That incredulous 10-year-old, walking his autograph book through the resonating canyons of the National Tennis Center (site of the ongoing US Open), is not the only one for whom the name Fred Perry may no longer mean quite as much as it once did. If you don't wear tennis shirts embossed with a tiny laurel wreath, if you're under 60 and have never been to Wimbledon, nor listened to tennis being broadcast on the BBC, you're probably in the same boat.

Even many of those who recognize the name don't always realize just how dominant a force Frederick John Perry was in the mid-1930s. He won those three straight Wimbledon titles in 1934, '35, and '36 without losing a set in the finals, and his three US championships in 1933, '34, and '36 could well have been four in a row, except for an injury.

Perry was the first man to win all four Grand Slam events (including the French and Australian titles), though he never achieved that feat in the same year, and thus was never credited with achieving an actual ``slam.''

At the age of 79, he still never misses a Grand Slam tournament. He is always a welcome guest at Roland Garros, Flinders Park (the new venue in Melbourne), Flushing Meadow, and especially Wimbledon, where four years ago the west gates on Somerset Road were named after him.

He has cut back on his broadcasting, but he still has a knack of being at the right court at the right time to see the players about whom he'll be asked questions.

You can spot him easily in his dark blazer and club tie, with polished shoes catching the sunlight. His face is browned by the Florida sun in winter, and by a European sun in summer.

Perry has a huge sense of fun. He loves to help people, especially young people, and he enjoys being sought out by players for his ``comments'' (not ``advice''). ``Does anyone ask for advice these days?'' he chuckles. ``I never volunteer anything, but I can still be flattered by their curiosity to know what I'm thinking.''

The other day we sat together for a couple of hours watching a match, and Perry's observations rolled forth as steadily as the umpire's call, and with as much authority.

``Nowadays,'' he said, ``success comes too early to our young people. And whether it will be continued, or whether they can cope with it, all depends how badly they want it. Are they prepared to give up everything to win at this game of tennis?

``The trouble is, we're asking [boys] that question far too early now, long before they've even discovered girls! They're professionals at 16, 17, 18 - with lawyers, managers, trainers, coaches, and drivers - and they still have an awful lot of holes in their game.''

Perry attributes most of Boris Becker's fluctuating championship record to his stunningly early success at Wimbledon at 17.

``After that, every time he went on court, he was supposed to win. Everyone wanted to beat him. After all, it's a feather in your cap to beat a reigning Wimbledon champion. But it meant that Boris couldn't take time to improve his game. He couldn't fill in those holes.''

Perry makes this point forcefully, reminding us that he didn't start tennis until he was 14, which, even then, was late for a future champion. When at 19 he failed to clinch a match point against Bunny Austin in the British Hard Court championships, Perry's friend and mentor, Pop Summers, yelped with delight, later explaining that it was too soon for Perry to win a ``big one.'' Had Perry won, the public would have expected him to live up to it. He needed time.

Perry may have disagreed with Pop at the time, but there is no mistaking his attitude today.

As one sits with the former champion watching a match, he tends to comment more on tactics than on correctness in playing strokes. This is not surprising in a man whose own strokes in his heyday left the tennis purists gasping. His famous forehand was directly from table tennis, at which he had been world champion.

With a wristy flick, he took the ball on the rise. But he alone could do it on a lawn tennis court, off the wrong foot, and with perfect timing. This early-hit ball put pressure on his opponent.

And that was Perry's fierce concern. He played to win, not to please the purists, and there was nothing wrong with his ambition and determination.

Nor with his gamesmanship, which he recalls with a mischievous smile.

``Well, what's wrong with making your opponent go out on court first, or wait while you tie a shoelace that's not untied?''

In those days the gamesmanship was less malicious, coming as it did in a more disciplined environment.

``We fooled around a bit,'' Perry admits, ``but we never challenged the codes of behavior as so many players do today.''

Perry also still likes to underline the principles in which he has always believed - and which served him so well.

``It's not how hard you hit the ball, but the amount of pace you get from the pressure on the ball,'' he said. ``And what you've got to be able to do is to disguise your strokes.

``You should be able to stand on a baseline and take three balls with a forehand or a backhand, and with exactly the same swing make one bounce near the baseline, one bounce near the service line, and one bounce as a drop shot. And this should be done so that from the racket work they can't tell the difference.

``And of course you never give anybody anything they like. If they like the ball close to the body, you make sure they get it far away. If they like it far away, you make darned sure they get it close!

``If they like it low, you put it high. If they like to play fast, you play slow. If they like to volley, you try to keep them back. If they stay back you try to make them come in. If they like to talk, you shut up. If they like to play quietly, you talk all the time!''

Now Perry is just warming up, and the words tumble out in that rich, gravelly, mid-Atlantic voice (a native of England who later became a United States citizen, he now maintains homes in both countries).

``A tennis court is one heck of a big place, if you know how big it is. And you've got to use your short angles and your long angles.

``And I'm a great believer that as long as you have the ball on your side of the court, nobody else can play. You've got the ball. You must try to do something with it before you hit it. So you think ... and then you hit.

``But the youth of today, they hit it and then they think. They say, ``My God, I've got the ball. I've got to get rid of it!'' We were taught: `Thank God I've got the ball!''

``Do you sometimes envy Ivan Lendl his money?'' I ask cautiously.

Perry's small dark eyes shine mischievously. ``Wouldn't you?''

Then, after a long pause, and with consummate gamesmanship, ``But I doubt whether he'll ever get tea with the Queen!''

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