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Please visit www.wildingfoundation.co.nz (launching May 2009)
hat a sensation Anthony Wilding would have been today. The dashing
New Zealander, who won eight Wimbledon crowns in the early years of the 20th
century, had female spectators swooning because of his 'Manly brand of tennis'
He was handsome, chivalrous and was always on the lookout for adventure.
Wilding would have been a gift for the promoters, agents and advertising
men who are so much a part of modern sport. As it was, he was tennis's
first matinee idol.
In his time, players wore long trousers and women
wore ankle length dresses. Racquets were made of wood, balls were white
and a single umpire judged all line calls, without, of course, any electronic
assistance. Newspapers of the day referred deferentially to "Mr Wilding"
and Mrs Hillyard". Wildings was an era of serenity and decorum, long since
gone. But if any player could have adapted to today, it would have been the bon vivant
He motorcycled around Europe on his bat-JAP,
stopping off to play in the great tournaments of the Riviera, Germany,
Serbia, Hungary, Sweden and Norway. He drove cars fast and shortly before
the first world war, he became a pilot.
During the war Wilding worked in various
positions for the British Army - from the Naval Brigade and the Royal Marines
through to the Naval Air Force on the ground. He was a hero there as much as
he was on the tennis court.
In his book On the Court and Off, he describes his first flight, at Rheims:
"Suddenly the wretched engine began to misfire. I knew
a misfire well by sight and sound, but at this moment it was more
significant to me than ever before.We went at a great pace
towards earth. Just as we looked like making a hole in it, the elevating planes seemed to be raised a bit and we glided up. The sensation was very fine, and I hope to have many more..." There were no more though. Captain Anthony Wilding died near Neuve Chapelle, France, on 9 May 1915 while fighting in the battle of Aubers Ridge. He was 31, vital, cheerful and about to marry American
actor Maxine Elliot. The day before his death, he wrote to a friend: "For
really the first time in seven and a half months, I have a job in hand
which is likely to end in gun, I and the whole outfit being blown to
However, it is a sporting chance and if we
succeed, we will help our infantry no end. "I know the job exactly, and the objects in view from my study of them - it is the only
way to play in business or war." Daily Telegraph tennis correspondent Andrew Wallis Myers, in his 1916 biography of Wilding,
writes: "Wilding observed and directed the fire, both from the gun platform and the trench, all
the time under the hottest counter
It was miraculous that he was not hit, considering that the gun was four feet above the parapet of the trench. "When
his gun crew came down into the trench, Wilding sought out a place to lie down, cracking a joke with his chief petty officer. More than one officer warned him not to go into the dugout. It was located directly in the danger zone and more exposed to the
fire of the enemy. "But Anthony, acting always on his own judgement crawled in... Shells came hurtling near. It was one of the
greatest trench bombardments of the war."At 4.45, there came a hearty burst of laughter from the dugout. Immediately afterwards
, a heavy shell exploded on its roof... "Lying intact amid the wreckage, blown out of his pocket, was a gold cigarette case -
souvenir of his Riviera lawn tennis triumphs in 1914." Wilding was born at Opawa, near Christchurch, on October 31, 1883,
one of five children of Frederick (A barrister) and Julia.
The family owned a huge property called Fownhope. Frederick
played cricket for New Zealand, was a good horseman, footballer, athlete and oarsman. Young Tony excelled at swimming, shooting, riding and cricket, but his life
became inexorably linked with tennis once he started at Cambridge University
n 1902. He played Wimbledon every year from 1904 to 1914 except 1909.
He won the singles title four years in succession, 1910-13, and the doubles
four times with Norman Brookes. At first his backhand was extremely weak
- he hit it with the same side of his racket as his forehand. But after
watching the Doherty brothers and other leading English players he perfected
a more conventional backhand on the voyage from New Zealand to England
He also received advice about physical training from former world
heavyweight boxing champion Bob Fitzsimmons, another New Zealander.
Wilding never drank alcohol and, unusually for the times, never smoked. And
he trained, running two or three times a week and doing brisk walks, as well
as playing tennis. He was invariably fitter than his opponents and won many
of his big matches in five sets, one of the most famous being his 5-7, 1-6, 8-6,
7-5, 10-8 win over J. Clothier in the fourth round at Wimbledon in 1905.
Brookes, an Australian, and Wilding combined to claim the Davis cup for
Australasia from 1905 to 1909 and again in 1914. The greatest match of Wilding's
career was the 1913 Wimbledon final against brilliant young American Maurice
McLoughlin, nicknamed the Californian Comet.
McLoughlin, with his big service and crunching forehand, was expected to deal summarily with Wilding. More than 7000
spectators turned up and the ticket scalpers had a field day. The New Zealander played superbly to win 8-6, 6-3, 10-8.
So great was the crush afterwards that many women fainted and it was reported, "had to be laid out on the court beside
the roller until they could be removed".
Wilding qualified for the
New Zealand bar, but
was never a working
lawyer. He never
but merely crumpled his
gear into a suitcase and
shook it until it closed.
He'd rather be riding his
tennis with British Prime
Minister George Balfour
or King Gustav of
Sweden than appearing
in court.He had an
and was ever-popular.
But it was the quality of
his tennis that really set
Brookes in 1950
complied a ranking list and put Wilding fourth behind Bill Tilden and the Dohertys, and ahead of Budge, Kramer, Lacoste
and Perry. Pete Sampras in 2000 has been the only player to break Wilding's record of succesive Wimbledon wins.
Brooke wrote: "His forehand was very powerful, with quite a lot of top spin, which made it difficult to volley. His backhand
was very safe. He was a fine specimen of manhood physically and was blessed with an ability and steadfastness of
character which helped him reach the highest pinnacle of tennis."Wilding was the idol of Wimbledon. When he lost the
1914 final to Brookes, it was reported: " There was a ripple of white throughout the stands as women took out their
handkerchiefs and cried."Handsome, fair-haired and blue-eyed, he had a vibrand, debonair nature. As Wallis Myers wrote:
"Physically and mentally he became a man; spiritually he was a boy until the end."
Text Excerpts copyright Ron Palanski (c) 2001 (From the book "Champions")
Our thanks to Wilf Schofield for his historical updates