Born: May 18, 1909
in Stockport, Cheshire, England
Died: February 2, 1995
For a nation that clamored for a male major champion, Great Britain didn’t fully embrace Fred Perry’s mastery on worldwide tennis courts for 50 years. The man who is more synonymous with his iconic sportswear line than his 14 major titles was born into working class roots. The upper crust of Britain’s society – and the upwardly mobile middle class – found status in tennis, and were cool to warm to Perry’s hard-charging and relentless style. After all, the men’s singles championship had the word “Gentlemen” attached to it, and Perry’s game was far from gentlemanly. It took decades, but in 1984 the tennis establishment, yearning for a British Wimbledon champion since Perry last won the title in 1936, erected a bronze statue at the All England Club to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his first Wimbledon title in 1934.
It wasn’t until Andy Murray won the US Open in 2012 that Great Britain could once again claim a major singles men’s champion, seventy-six years after Perry won his last of three U.S. National Championship trophies. Furthermore, Murray’s win in 2013 allowed Britain to finally toast another Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Singles Champion; seventy-seven years after Perry claimed the last of his three consecutive victories (1934, 1935, 1936) at the All-England Club.
Perry, who had long, grooved and reliable groundstrokes, was the first male player in history to win singles titles in each of the majors (Australian in 1934, French in 1935). Today we refer to this achievement as a Career Grand Slam, as opposed to a Grand Slam which is earned when all titles are won in the same calendar year, as Don Budge later achieved in 1938.
By tennis standards, Perry was a late bloomer who didn’t start playing until he was 18 years old. While learning the intricacies of tennis, he played table tennis with great aplomb, winning the 1929 World Table Tennis Championship. Once he dedicated himself to the bigger racquet and larger playing surface, Perry was a formidable opponent, largely because he combined his athletic skills with competitive zeal. He wasn’t a powerful hitter, but he moved on the court like a cobra and his running forehand was a shot players tried to emulate. He proved that one could play attacking tennis without having to serve-and-volley on every point. Perry was a fashionable all-court player who employed a continental grip that he never changed between hitting forehands and backhands. He had tremendous hand-eye coordination, solid strokes, punchy volleys, and a reliable overhead and serve, but it was his supreme and abashed confidence that provided him with the winning edge. He enjoyed a tight and productive eight-year amateur career (1929-36) before turning professional from 1937-56.
Perry won his first major on American soil at the 1933 U.S. Nationals, rallying from 2-1 sets down to stun Jack Crawford, 6-3, 11-13, 4-6, 6-0, 6-1. The thumping of Crawford in the last two sets served notice that Perry was the real deal, and he reinforced that perception with reality by winning a consecutive U.S. title in 1934 with a five set, 6-4, 6-3, 3-6, 1-6, 8-6 victory over American star Wilmer Allison. Crawford would fall to Perry twice more in major finals, the 1934 Australian (6-3, 7-5, 6-1) and Wimbledon Championships (6-3, 6-0, 7-5). In 1934, Perry was one major away from earning a calendar year Grand Slam, a loss in the quarterfinals at the French his lone hiccup.
The working class fans that were fortunate enough to get a ticket to Wimbledon adored Perry. He was one of them, and though he wasn’t always a crowd-favorite with the majority, Perry still had a love affair with the major he won five times. Perry first competed at Wimbledon in 1929 and was a semifinalist in 1931. He came of age in 1934 defeating Crawford in straight sets and polished off German Gottfried von Cramm similarly in 1935 (6-2, 6-4, 6-4) and in 1936 (6-1, 6-1, 6-0), the latter was earned in 45 minutes in one of the quickest and most decisive victories in major tournament history. At his home-major Perry holds the records for most titles won (3) without losing a set, and his 62 consecutive sets won from 1934-36 remains a record. He, Björn Borg, and Rafael Nadal are the only players to win three major titles without losing a set.
As the No. 2 seed, Perry once again beat No. 1 seed von Cramm at the French in 1935, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-3, the third time the German lost to Perry in a major final. Von Cramm prohibited Perry from winning another French in 1936, outlasting the Brit with a 6-0, 2-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-0-marathon victory.
Perry tacked on six major doubles titles, two in men’s doubles and four playing mixed doubles. He and compatriot Pat Hughes captured the 1933 French and 1934 Australian Championships. In mixed play, he won four titles with three different partners, the 1932 French with Betty Nuthall, the 1932 U.S. Nationals with Sarah Palfrey, and back-to-back Wimbledon championships in 1935 and 1936 with Dorothy Round Little.
Perry was a Davis Cup team member from 1931 to 1936, helping the Brits win four consecutive titles (1933-36). The 3-2 victory over France in 1933 was particularly important as it ended a 21-year winning drought and ended France’s bid for a seventh straight Davis Cup championship. Perry had come back from dropping the first set and being two sets points down in the second set to defeat Andre Merlin, 4-6, 8-6, 6-2, 7-5.
From 1931-36, Perry was ranked in the world Top 10, holding down the No. 1 spot in 1934, 1935, and 1936. He turned pro in 1937 and won the US Pro Championship in 1938 and 1941 and was a finalist in 1939 and 1940.
In his autobiography, Jack Kramer ranked Perry one of the top six players in history, a fitting assessment for a player who became the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s first international inductee. He released his own autobiography, simply titled, Fred Perry – An Autobiography, in 1979.