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Thursday, 30th May 2013
Born in 1909 in the industrial town of Stockport, Frederick John Perry grew up to be the most successful British tennis player of all time.
The son of a cotton spinner, Fred's working class roots made him an unlikely champion in a sport traditionally revered by the upper classes. Ironically it was his father's dedication to 'working man's' politics that paved the way for Fred's success. Fred's father, Sam, was an active and dedicated member of the local Co-operative Party. He was offered and accepted a job in the London party headquarters, a relocation that unknowingly would result in a lifelong love affair between his son and racket sports.
The family moved to West London and Fred attended a school in Ealing, where he discovered table tennis and developed his voracious appetite to win. Each evening he would set up his dining room table and obsessively practice for hours. In 1928, Fred became the World Table Tennis Champion. Next, he moved his attention to lawn tennis.
He had discovered tennis a few years earlier whilst on holiday in Eastbourne with his parents. Stumbling across a local tournament he had noticed all the cars parked near the courts and asked his father if they belonged to the players or the spectators. Sam told his son they belonged to the players, to which Fred replied ‘I will become a tennis player’. It was an audacious ambition. Tennis was 'owned' by the upper classes - the sport inhabited a world where he did not belong and would not be welcome. Fred did not care for obstacles and against the odds his ascent to glory was swift. He had a natural ability and equally important he had steely determination;
'I made up my mind early on, that I wasn’t going to let people order me about…bloody mindedness was one of my specialities and revenge was never against my principles either’.
Fred gained notoriety on the court, not just for his wins, but also for his behaviour. He refused to shake hands with his opponents prior to a match, ‘I wasn’t being snooty, but you could lose some of the feeling in your hand’ he explained. He played in buckskin tennis shoes and if a game reached a fourth set, he would change into dazzling white trousers and a new shirt to emphasise his freshness. It was this kind of ‘vulgar‘ behaviour that led him to be snubbed by the class conscious Wimbledon crowd, the chairman of the Lawn Tennis Association reputedly muttered ‘he is not one of us!’.
The snubs merely acted as a propeller for Fred. During his sporting career, he was the winner of 10 Majors including eight Grand Slams, two Pro Slams and three Wimbledon titles from 1934 to 1936; he is also the only player in history to have won at least one Major tournament in both tennis and table tennis.
His unrivalled skill on the courts attracted attention on both sides of the ‘pond’; he dated Hollywood starlets, including Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich and became one of the world's first truly international sportsmen. Fred's charisma and dashing looks would even lead him to be offered a two year deal with Paramount Films amongst others - offers he refused due to commitment to his sport.
Fred’s popularity with the people did not go unnoticed and during the late 1940s Toby Wegner, a former Austrian football player, approached him with an idea for marketing a sweatband bearing the Fred Perry name. They adopted the Laurel Wreath as a logo, synonymous with tennis and an ancient symbol of sporting excellence, it was perfectly befitting.
First off they produced a batch of sweatbands and gave them to all the top players to wear in major tournaments. The sweatbands were a huge success and in 1952, the Fred Perry Sportswear label officially launched. Next came an innovative performance shirt, one with a lightweight and breathable honeycomb structure. Fred wore the shirt whilst he commentated and players followed suit, eager to replace their baggy, ill-fitting alternatives. The Fred Perry logo soon became associated with Wimbledon, the world’s leading tennis tournament; customers saw it, liked it and bought it.
From day one, the company enjoyed nothing but success. Its name even reached the highest levels of society. The Queen Mother once asked Fred why his shirt was better than anyone else’s, to which he replied ‘Ma'am, it’s the shirt that fits’, cheekily quoting the company’s ad line of the day.
Fred went onto live in various parts of the world, but he always returned to Wimbledon to commentate. Remarkably he never bore any grudges for the LTA’s cursory treatment of him as a player. On the fiftieth anniversary of his 1934 Wimbledon triumph, the Somerset Road entrance was renamed the Fred Perry Gates and a statue of the player unveiled. It was Fred Perry’s greatest triumph.
60 years on the Fred Perry Tennis Collection blends clean contemporary silhouettes with heritage inspired styling details.