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Spectator sport

The tricks Fred Perry played to stay one-up at Wimbledon

Plus: the sporting life of top Tory women, and the joylessness of the England football team

9 July 2016

9:00 AM

9 July 2016

9:00 AM

What a well-behaved Wimbledon. Apart from a bit of racket-smashing (most of the ladies), low-level swearing (Nick Kyrgios), tantrums (Kyrgios), and egregious non-trying (Kyrgios again, of course) it has all gone pretty-smoothly. So whatever happened to top-class gamesmanship? The master of this, you may be surprised to learn, was the greatest British player of all, the three-times Wimbledon champion Fred Perry. With great natural charm and remarkable good looks, Perry —who was from humble origins — fitted effortlessly into the very upper-crust world of 1930s tennis. His sexual prowess was on an Olympic scale and he bagged some of the most-beautiful women in the world, from-Marlene Dietrich downwards. And few seemed to have a bad word for him.

His tricks for getting one up on his opponents included spinning for who served first by throwing his racket out ahead of him as he came on to court with his opponent, which he felt put him in charge of the situation, athletically leaping the net at the end to show he was fresh, and saying ‘Very clevah’ when his opponent played a good shot. The great American Jack Kramer said: ‘I heard enough from the other guys that that “Very clevah” drove a lot of-opponents crazy.’ You can see why too.

When playing German champion Count Gottfried von Cramm, whom he knew was gay and had an obsession with tidiness. Perry would pull the pocket lining out of his long flannels and leave it flapping,-knowing it would irritate the hell out of the German. Von Cramm never won Wimbledon but was a finalist three times, losing twice to Perry — who is brought marvellously to life by my friend Jon Henderson in his book The Last Champion (Yellow Jersey Press).


Perry was co-owner of the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, which became the ultimate celebrity hangout. In July 1937 the club staged a doubles match with Perry and Charlie Chaplin on one side, and Groucho Marx and the US tennis star Ellsworth Vines on the other. It was knockabout stuff, with the players eating lunch on court after Groucho produced a hamper and tablecloth. Marx thought about jumping the net at the end but decided to crawl under it instead. You would like to have been there.

It looks like Conservative politics and top-end sport could soon be meeting in some exotic fusion not seen since the days of John Major. Theresa May loves her cricket and is a great fan of Geoffrey Boycott. She is also a neighbour and pal of Glenn Hoddle, England’s best manager for decades, but sadly wouldn’t be drawn on whether he should have-another bash after Roy Hodgson. ‘That’s above my pay grade,’ she said.

Her likely rival Andrea Leadsom is a keen Northampton Saints fan, and you can’t really get more Middle England than that. She has worn a Saints blazer for Treasury questions, causing as much excitement at Franklin’s Gardens as when Dylan Hartley biffed anyone in sight. So much more preferable than having to listen to David Cameron whiffling about West Ham or Aston Villa. Come on you girls.

It seems like long ago (it was) but what a joyless bunch England are: the football team and the fans. Chants about Ten German bombers and No Surrender to the IRA aren’t a patch on the epic Icelandic volcano. We’ve not had a manager who’s much cop since Theresa’s neighbour Hoddle, who got shafted over some rum views on reincarnation. Tony Blair joined in when it was none of his bloody business. That did for Hoddle, though with a bit of luck he could come back. Or, in a radical money-saving measure in these post-Brexit times, do away with a manager and operate as a players’ collective. Just have the captain pick the team, then get out there. Certainly couldn’t do any worse.


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