In the Press Box With Tennis Great Fred Perry

On opening day of Wimbledon, a look at a British tennis legend and prospects for the two-week tournament

Kim Shippey, formerly with the BBC in London and more recently with Monitor Radio in Boston, shares some reminiscences of a tennis legend.

As tennis enthusiasts pass through the main gates of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club today on opening day of Wimbledon, many of them will pause for a moment beside the statue of Fred Perry in a rose garden just outside the Center Court. It honors a man who was a central figure at the championships for more than 50 years.

"Fred," as he was affectionately known to young and old alike, died at the age of 85 in Melbourne in February, shortly after the Australian tennis championships that he'd helped to cover for BBC Radio.

Although Perry had brought distinction to British tennis in the 1930s by winning three consecutive men's singles titles (the last Briton to do so), and by leading Britain to four consecutive Davis Cup titles (1933-36), he angered the Wimbledon establishment by turning professional and moving to the United States shortly after his 1936 Wimbledon victory.

The two sides eventually made peace, and in 1984, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Perry's first singles triumph at Wimbledon, the All England Club commissioned a statue that captures a Fred Perry midcourt volley in bronze. They also renamed the Somerset Road entrance to the grounds the Fred Perry gates.

In 1948, Perry became established as a BBC radio commentator at Wimbledon. Ten years later he befriended me as a rookie reporter, introducing me to every blade of grass on the Center Court - and to most of the top players of the day, including Lew Hoad (one of his all-time favorites), Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Maria Bueno, and Althea Gibson.

In the 35 years we shared the BBC's broadcasting facilities on Center Court, I never saw him lose his cool or demean anyone. His ready wit carried us through many long airless days in the press box.

When he had to criticize a player, he did it always with humor. I often wished the players under scrutiny could have seen the twinkle in his eyes as he told the world what he thought of them.

Christine Janes (who as Christine Truman was runner-up to Angela Mortimer in the 1961 final) found this out years later when she joined Perry on the BBC radio team. Then they laughed over his comments about a match she'd lost when British hopes were resting heavily on her shoulders. Perry had said in dismay: "As her balls crossed the far base line, they were still rising."

He had an almost photographic memory where tennis was concerned. When on the air he never wrote anything down, yet he could always reconstruct the points in a match he was watching, scores and all.

No one could assess players or read a match better than Fred Perry. And he never left listeners in any doubt as to whether he was enjoying a match or not. Once during a dour Center Court match between John McEnroe and Sandon Stolle, a spectacular play suddenly excited Perry's fellow broadcasters. "What a great point!" said one of them. "Yup, it almost woke me up," murmured a grinning Perry.

On another occasion I was struggling for words in a television commentators' box during an even slower match. Perry called in to say hello, and, with some relief, I suggested he might say a word to viewers as the players changed ends.

We watched the players sit down. Silence. We watched a ball girl reach over to take a cool drink from a box under the umpire's chair. Silence. Then a light breeze lifted the back of her skirt. "Whoops!" said Fred, and fell silent again. Play resumed, and so did I. Fred got up to leave, and as he squeezed past me he lifted the headphones off my ears and whispered: "You only asked me to say a word."

On a more serious occasion, when heart surgery had caused him to miss a tennis banquet, his indomitable spirit still prevailed. From his hospital bed he sent a jubilant telegram to his media colleagues at the dinner apologizing for his absence: "Was match-points down, but am now a break up in the final set."

As a player, Perry always showed fierce dedication. He trained more zealously than any of his rivals and could out think most of them. Also, he never shed his sense of mischief. As he put it, "I learned quickly the importance of getting people to watch you. I took charge. I let the other chap walk on court first, so I could make a better entrance. I would be first to toss down a racket and ask, 'Rough or smooth?' And I'd make sure I was the one who asked, 'Ready to play?' I was also the one who, at crucial moments, had an imaginary speck of dust in the eye - to break my opponent's concentration."

No wonder Perry had so much time for latter-day rebels like Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Andre Agassi. He saw so much of his youthful self in them. Yet he felt they were pampered beyond belief.

He never accepted that they needed an entourage of trainers, accountants, lawyers, bodyguards, and image consultants wherever they went. He never understood why so few players watched their competitors, leaving it to their coaches to assess future opposition. And he insisted that the serve-and-volley game, which he described as "all biff, bang, and wallop," was taking the fun out of tennis.

Perry was adamant that there are too many tournaments, and there is too much money in the game.

"In my day," he loved to recall in his growling, mid-Atlantic accent, "if I reached the final I got to meet the Wimbledon Committee. That's all. And if I won the thing, I got two lumps of sugar in my tea instead of only one."

Although in his heyday, Perry didn't seem to fit the image the All England establishment expected of its champions, he remained a charmer - debonair, always in dress shirt and tie, even in the press box at the height of summer. He was incurably romantic, tough as nails, and a wonderful raconteur and friend. Wimbledon will miss him.

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