Fred Perry is a very English icon. The tennis player is one of Wimbledon’s most famous figures and one of England’s most successful tennis players, affectionately remembered for his game and, nowadays, for his range of sportswear which continues to rise in popularity amongst the fashionable and the sporting alike. Perry’s inter-war career was brief but prestigious. He was ranked World Number 1 Player for five years, and was the first player to win all four Grand Slam titles. His cocksure personal style and personality also became famous at home and abroad. However, it was Wimbledon with which Perry had a self-declared ‘love affair’, so it is perhaps fitting that he remains the last Englishman to have won it. Perry won the tournament three times, the most recent being in 1936.
Frederick John Perry was born in Stockport, Cheshire in 1909. He was the son of the local Labour MP. As a boy, it was not tennis but table tennis for which he became renowned, becoming world champion in 1929. Perry did not take up tennis until he was 18 years old, an unusually late start for an international tennis player. Steffi Graf, for example, was ranking internationally at the age of thirteen. However, success came easily to Perry, with his first big win in the US Open in 1933. He defeated Jack Crawford in the final, after which victory, he began to play tennis in earnest.
Pundits have said that Perry’s early career as a table tennis player affected his style in tennis. He was a speedy player, attacking the ball as it rose towards him from the bounce. His backhand was his weak point. His dapper appearance and personal confidence also helped Perry to become an easily recognisable figure. Perry was famous for changing his clothes in the middle of a match in order to stay looking fresh, and dated a string of desirable young actresses and models, earning him a name as a ‘working class playboy’ from tennis snobs.
In 1933 Perry helped England to victory in the Davis Cup, a win which had not been achieved for more than two decades. After this, he went on to lead the national team in international tournaments. Britain retained the Davis Cup in 1936, with Perry winning straight sets, but his part in winning back the Davis Cup in 1933, at the beginning of his international game, remained the highlight.
Perry was ranked World Number 1 tennis player for three years before he turned ‘professional’ in 1937. Ironically, that year he had to share the title with his greatest competitor, the American player Ellsworth Vines, as well as amateur Don Budge. During 1937 Vines and Perry played 70 matches against one another around the world. They won 35 each.
In 1934, 1935, and 1936 Perry was victorious at Wimbledon, a feat which no Englishman has managed to achieve since.
Perry’s relative weaknesses as a professional, after the clean sweep of trophies he had achieved as an amateur, was noteworthy. Observers reported that he appeared to be ‘deliberately’ losing games, as if they were beneath him, or he was embarrassed by his play. However, Perry himself denied ‘fixing’, and declared himself proud of his and his competitors’ contributions to the game.
Perry dropped back from tennis after he failed to win the world title in 1938. However, he did go on to victory in the US Pro Championships in 1938 and 1941. After fully retiring from the game, Perry worked on his clothing range, as well as embarking on occasional work as a pundit and commentator for radio and television sports. Perry lived out his full retirement in Australia, where he died in 1995.
Many people now know ‘Fred Perry’ as the label of a clothing brand rather than the name of a tennis legend. What is less known is that Perry himself invented the towelling sweatband, which was worn on the wrists by tennis players throughout the 1980s and 1990s, though it is less popular nowadays. In 1952 Perry launched a white tennis shirt of his own design at Wimbledon, with the laurel wreath that was to become his brand’s signature, stitched into the breast.
The popularity of this design soon spread off-court. Mods, teenagers and Mancunian ‘Perry boys’ all adopted the shirts over the 1950s and 1960s, and popular demand induced the company to launch the shirt in a variety of colours.
Today, the clothing is known as a trendy, preppy, quintessentially English brand, worn by sportsmen and women and also, in a slightly ironic way, by fashionistas and indie kids. The brand designs knitwear, dresses, jackets, shoes and trousers as well as the trademark shirts. Designers like Comme des Garçons and Jessica Ogden have produced collaborative ranges with the brand, and vintage designs are also popular.
Fred Perry’s statue can be seen at Wimbledon inside the Church Road Gate. The statue depicts Perry in a typical stance: legs bent, racket raised, ready to take the ball on the upshot. It was erected in 1984 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Perry’s first singles title there.
The ‘Fred Perry Way’ is the name given to a pathway that is mapped over a long ramble across Perry’s home borough of Stockport.
Perry’s name was officially entered in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1975.
‘Perry was a physical freak. Nobody else could be taught to hit a shot that way.’ – Jack Kramer, tennis player and coach
‘I didn’t aspire to be a good sport, ‘champion’ was good enough for me’
‘Tactics, fitness, stroke ability, adaptability, experience, and sportsmanship are all necessary for winning.’
‘I was always a believer in stamping on my opponent if I got him down, at Wimbledon or anywhere else. I never wanted to give him the chance to get up. If I could have beaten him six-minus-one instead of six-love I would.’
‘With the statue and gates with my name, it’s all a great thrill. People are now saying ‘ I’ll meet you at the Perry statue’. It’s a strange feeling, makes you feel a little queasy. It’s a beautifully-done statue. People don’t know how I used to be, they only know me as I am now.’