Class of 1997
World No. 2 (1931)
Grand Slam Results
Member of the British Davis Cup Team 1929-1937
Member of the Championship Great Britain Davis Cup Team 1933-1936
Overall Record: 36-12
Singles Record: 36-12
For a player who came incredibly close to winning a major singles championship twice but never was able to lift the trophy above his head in the winner’s circle, Henry “Bunny” Austin had a wonderful career.
An integral part of British tennis royalty, Austin was the last native son to reach a Wimbledon Gentlemen Singles Final until 2012 when compatriot Andy Murray snapped the drought and removed Austin’s name from a place he had occupied since 1938. Before Murray won Wimbledon in 2013, compatriot Fred Perry was the last male British winner in 1936.
The player known as “Bunny” lived a life of glamour, celebrity, and righteous cause. The handsome and debonair Austin was the first player to wear tennis shorts on Centre Court, married a beautiful actress, played tennis with Charlie Chaplin, knew Queen Mary and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and designed his own tennis racquet.
Austin’s nickname came from a character in the comic strip, “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred.” As a player, the slight 5-foot-9, 132 pound Austin played for 13 years. He reached the Wimbledon singles quarterfinals or beyond 10 times. He played his first Wimbledon final at age 25 in 1932. Seeded No. 6, Austin was on a championship course, bolstered by three four-set victories leading into the semifinals, where he throttled Japan’s Jiro Satoh, 7-5, 6-2, 6-1. He was the first Brit to reach the finals in a decade but was overwhelmed by American Ellsworth Vines in three sets. “Ellsworth wiped me off the court in 50 minutes,” Austin told The Guardian in 2000. “I was annihilated. It was 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 and he won the match with an ace.”
The following year Austin was back in the quarterfinals losing to Satoh, but it was not his loss that drew attention, it was his attire. “It was the year I invented shorts,” Austin told The Guardian. “I found sweat-sodden cricket flannels were weighing me down, so my tailor ran up some prototype shorts.” They debuted at the U.S. Nationals in 1933 and made their homecoming at Wimbledon in 1934. The buttoned-up tennis fraternity was shocked at the apparel adjustment. In the New York Times, John Kiernan wrote, “With his white linen hat and his flannel shorts, the little English player looked like an A.A. Milne production.” At Wimbledon, it was reported that neither King George V nor Queen Mary accepted the change without comment, and soon afterwards other men, and then women – led by American Helen Hull Jacobs – started wearing shorts as well.
In both 1936 and 1937, Austin reached Wimbledon’s singles semifinals, and each time lost to German Gottfried von Cramm, though both matches went four sets. In 1938, Austin was throttled by Don Budge in the Wimbledon final, 6-1, 6-0, 6-3, and he gave up tennis the next year to begin working for Moral Rearmament. “The end of my tennis career was to be beaten very easily by Don Budge, which is very sad,” Austin told The Independent in 2000. “If I had had a great final it would have been different. Donald was unstoppable that afternoon. He was a true great. It was an honor just to be on the same court.”
Austin’s game was built on timing, accuracy, and rhythm. His strokes were elegant and refined, exceedingly strong from the baseline where he preferred to play. He didn’t possess a big serve, nor was inclined to volley much. Austin was a prolific junior player, winning the 16-and-under national boys’ title at 15 and the 18-and-under title three times from 1923-28. He held the world No. 2 ranking in 1931 and 1933 and held a Top 10 world ranking 11 consecutive years. Austin advanced to the 1937 French Singles final, losing in straight sets to German Henner Henkel, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3. He played in the 1937 Wimbledon Mixed Doubles Final with Dorothy Shepherd Barron but fell 3-6, 6-4, 6-0.
In 1931, Austin drew considerable attention and raised his celebrity appeal significantly when he married beautiful film star Phyllis Konstam, who had roles in Alfred Hitchcock movies. Their wedding was national news and outskirts of the church were filled with hundreds of well-wishes. Their caravan from the wedding was mobbed by adoring fans.
Austin became a national hero for his championship run with Great Britain’s Davis Cup team. The Brits had lost the 1931 Davis Cup final to France, but reeled off four straight championships in 1933 (France), 1934 (United States), 1935 (United States), and 1936 (Australia). Austin played singles behind Perry, compiled a 15-3 record in finals play and defeated such legends as Budge, Wilmer Allison, Sidney Wood, Frank Shields, and Jack Crawford. He compiled a 36-12 record in Davis Cup competition, one of the best record in British history. “The highlight of my life was Davis Cup more than Wimbledon,” Austin told The Independent.
He authored his biography with his wife, A Mixed Doubles, in 1969. A subsequent 230-page biographical novel on Austin written by Gregory Wilkin called The Rabbit’s Suffering Changes was published in October 2012.
Australian Championships: QF 1929
French Championships: F 1937
Wimbledon: F 1932, 1938
U.S. Nationals: QF 1929
French Championships: SF 1931, 1936
Wimbledon: SF 1926, 1927
U.S. Nationals: QF 1929, 1932
French Championships: F 1931
Wimbledon: F 1934
U.S. Nationals: F 1929