Golden boy of tennis, Joseph Romanos

Anthony Wilding: A Sporting Life
Len and Shelley Richardson
Canterbury University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 187725701X

New Zealand seems to produce a sports champion of world significance every year or two these days: Rob Waddell, Sarah Ulmer, Michael Campbell, Hamish Carter, the Evers-Swindells … . The list is growing exponentially.

It wasn’t always like that. Because of its size and isolation, New Zealand struggled to make any sort of impact in world sport before WWII. Sure, we did well in some Empire sports like rugby union and rugby league, but not in the global sports. That’s why Olympic champion athlete Jack Lovelock and pioneering aviatrix Jean Batten were such immense figures in the 1930s. If we go back another generation, there was one New Zealand sportsman who beat the best in the world, and gave his countrymen enormous pride – tennis star Anthony Wilding.

Wilding, the product of a wealthy Christchurch family, could have been a champion cricketer, but decided after arriving at Cambridge University in 1902 that tennis was his game. What an impact he made. Four times a Wimbledon singles champion, four times a doubles champion, four times a key figure in the Davis Cup-winning team, the French champion, an Olympic medallist. But there was much more to Wilding than victories and trophies. The handsome New Zealander was a matinée idol. Women swooned at Wimbledon when he stepped on to Centre Court. He was tall, flaxen-haired, physically imposing and ever-popular, and was the early 20th century equivalent of a tabloid figure – the public could not read enough about him.

It’s been strange, then, that since English journalist Wallis Myers’s Captain Anthony Wilding, published in 1916, there has been no significant biography of Wilding. Myers’ book, and Wilding’s autobiography published in 1912, three years before his death while fighting in WWI, are the only substantial books on this charismatic and brilliant sportsman. Until now. Christchurch academics Len and Shelley Richardson have combined to write Anthony Wilding: A Sporting Life, and what a fine job they’ve done. Their meticulously researched book takes a bit of reading – it tops 160,000 words. It’s a pity the publishers didn’t see fit to produce such a substantial work in hardback.

From a distance of nearly 100 years, the Richardsons have managed to give readers a real insight into the personality of Wilding and, as importantly, a peep at life in those times. They take us through the English university set, explore the glamour spots of Europe, like the Riviera, travel behind what later became known as the Iron Curtain, and also focus on Christchurch in its early years.

The Richardsons have been assisted by the vast amount of material available on Wilding. His hundreds of letters home, the diaries/scrapbooks kept so meticulously by his mother Julia, these and other Wilding family papers have formed the basis of this book, though the authors have searched widely for extra scraps of information and deserve credit for some of their discoveries – their effort in uncovering a long-forgotten Radio New Zealand interview with Frank Wilding about his brother is just one example of their ceaseless quest for information.

Wilding had extraordinary parents. His mother might today be loosely labelled a feminist. She had firm views on education and was not the sort of woman to shrink into the background. Wilding’s father Frederick, a lawyer, was a towering figure of early Canterbury, a champion cricketer and tennis player, and a man who believed a healthy body developed a healthy mind. The Wildings sent Anthony to Cambridge in 1902. He was to study for a good law degree, but did just enough work to get by, while immersing himself in sport – rugby, cricket and, especially, tennis.

His tennis improved every year. His first task was to remodel his backhand – when he arrived in England, he hit his backhand and forehand with the same side of his racket. Then he worked on his serve and overhead. He always had a powerful forehand and was a stickler for physical fitness. The Richardsons document, courtesy mainly of Wilding’s letters, his ceaseless drive to improve his game.

The book poses an intriguing question: was Wilding a privileged rich kid who cared about nothing but himself? You could think that. He basically travelled around Europe for a decade playing tennis and, because of his ability at the sport, gaining introductions to the rich and famous. He stayed for extended periods at the mansions of dozens of aristocrats and, except for one notably unhappy year, didn’t bother himself much with business. But the Wilding the Richardsons describe was too popular to be so labelled. It’s true his tennis fame opened doors. But he comes across as unspoilt, good company and a colourful personality with a zest for life, as evidenced by his infatuation with motor cars, motorbikes and aeroplanes, all in their infancy. I loved his description of his first flight in an aeroplane, which so nearly ended in disaster.

The Richardsons have been at pains to portray Wilding accurately. For instance, one popular perception is that he died bravely fighting the Germans, and so he did. But we learn that he did not race eagerly to the trenches. He was expected to enlist and felt rather railroaded into doing so. He was made a driver on the Western Front and didn’t expect to see much action. When motor vehicles were rendered virtually useless because of trench warfare, he rolled up his sleeves and fought, and died. He was a heroic figure in sport, and he became a heroic soldier.

As a player, Wilding’s career is defined by his four Wimbledon singles crowns, and especially his straight sets victory in the 1913 final over American superstar Maurice McLoughlin. His contemporaries regarded him as a tremendous player, perhaps a notch below the greatest ever. The tennis in this book is interesting. But it’s the rest – the portrait of Wilding the person, and the glimpse of an era long since vanished – that makes it such compelling reading. The book is written by academics, but has soul.

 

Joseph Romanos is a sports writer and author who writes weekly columns for the New Zealand Listener and several daily newspapers.

 

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review and Sport
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