I walk past a Fred Perry store most days. This morning I took special notice of it and wondered what the man the now-Japanese clothing company is named after, would be thinking now.
Perry, as most sports fans would know, is the last Englishman to win a Grand Slam title – 74 long and painful years ago for a nation which can lay claim to be the home of tennis.
A controversial figure in the sport, who once described himself as a “rebel from the wrong side of the tramlines”, Perry won at Wimbledon in 1934, ’35 and ’36. Aside from that he won three US Championships and the French and Australian titles once each, and led Britain to victory in the Davis Cups of 1933, ’34, ’35 and 1936.
He was the last British male tennis superstar, a dominant force long before the open era. He fell out with the sport’s authorities and turned pro – reportedly out of spite – the year after winning the Grand Slam (all four major titles in a year).
It’s hard to know what the media and the British sports-loving public would have made of Perry had he been a player in modern times.
He was a rebellious figure with a playboy lifestyle and had well-publicised romances with starlet Marlene Dietrich and actress Mary Lawson. He promised to marry Lawson but broke off the engagement to marry US film star Helen Vinson. Five years later Perry and Vinson split and the tennis champ married model Sandra Breaux the following year. He’d marry Lorraine Walsh five years later – only to separate soon after – however stayed with his fourth wife Barbara Riese, who he married in 1952, until his death in 1995.
A statue of Perry stands a Wimbledon, which was an honour the club bestowed him on the 50th anniversary of his first title win. It was seen as a peace offering from the club, but the family tension with the authorities still simmered up until recently.
Andy Murray this weekend has the unenviable task of ending Britain’s long stint in the male tennis wilderness. Co-incidentally, his rise to the top 10 in the tennis world wearing Fred Perry shirts is attributed to the iconic brand’s comeback. But the pressure to achieve what Perry did on the court has been immense.
It’s a pressure that no one has ever been able to cope with.
Tim Henman was of course hailed a national icon for six grand slam semi-final appearances. Murray, at 22, made the semis at Wimbledon last year and in 2008 played Roger Federer – this weekend’s Australian Open final opponent – at the US Open.
Still while Murray is undoubtedly the best British player since Perry, he is Scottish. A fact many English don’t forget. Well, it’s not so much that he’s Scottish, it’s that Murray’s jokes about England in the past haven’t gone down too well. And early on in his career his was seen as a sook, a bad loser and somewhat of a brat.
Those who have watched him closely have seen him mature in the past 18 months and indeed, it’s easy to forget he’s just a young man. Heck, Perry was 24 before he won at Flushing Meadows and didn’t win at Wimbledon until he was 25.
Whether they come from north or south of Hadrian’s Wall or not, Murray and Perry might just be more similar than we think. We didn’t seen how Perry reacted to the press following a loss in the 1930s, and there’s no doubt he would not have been able to escape the media attention had he played in this year. What would the Brits – who pooh-pooh boorish behaviour and perceived arrogance – make of the eight-time Grand Slam winner with his reaction to every up and down in his life, on the off the court, being played and replayed endlessly on Sky TV?
A handful of people around the office – Brits mind you – admitted to me today they’d like to see Federer win, but agreed perhaps Murray has been hard done by the public and “might get a rough deal”.
Still, whether or not Murray wins in Melbourne on Sunday, Perry will remain the last Englishman to have won a grand slam, and just whether those south of Hadrian’s embrace Murray is another matter.