Sidney and David Wood's The Wimbledon Final That Never Was...And Other Tennis Tales from a Bygone Era is a fascinating collection of anecdotes of the history of the sport, and of an extraordinary tennis life. The second part of the title best describes the book's content: it is a time capsule packed with some of the brightest and most interesting moments and people that have touched the world of tennis.
Sidney Wood was the youngest man to win Wimbledon – and the only one who did not have to play a final – in 1931, at age 19 (Boris Becker became a 17-year-old Champion in 1985). Sidney was also the tournament's youngest male competitor at age 15. He was a top US player throughout his decades-long career and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1964. After his death in 2009 at the age of 97, his son David gathered Wood's notes for a memoir, then organized and annotated them into The Wimbledon Final That Never Was...
The title story refers to the Wimbledon of 1931, when Wood, who reached the final by defeating Britain's Fred Perry, was set to meet Frank Shields, grandfather of actress Brooke Shields. Shields, whose main weapon was a booming serve, had defeated Frenchman Jean Borotra in the semifinal, but not before getting injured.
US Davis Cup Captain Sam Hardy sent a cable communication instructing Shields to default to preserve him for a Davis Cup match two weeks away. Shields and Wood, who did partner for the doubles semifinal after Shields' injury, were not too disappointed. "To us it was a family victory," he writes. The two young Americans had been best friends, schoolmates, and doubles partners for some time. In the modern day, one cannot imagine a player giving up the Wimbledon Final for Davis Cup, or the reaction that the All England Lawn Tennis Club would have to being passed over for Davis Cup. But then, even Perry, who was still in the tournament's doubles competition, was forced to withdraw for Davis Cup considerations as well, after tripping over a linesperson in the Mixed Doubles Semifinal.
Two weeks later, Perry and Bunny Austin beat the US Davis Cup team 3-2, coming back from a 1-2 disadvantage to beat Wood and Shields in the reverse singles.
Shields and Wood agreed their next "important" grass final would determine the deserving owned of the Wimbledon trophy. It would be three years before Wood would come back from a 0-5 deficit to win this private playoff and the 1934 tournament at Queens Club, 11-9, 6-0.
In the amateur era, it was only after winning the Wimbledon title that Wood earned his first paycheck, from his job on Wall Street, where he made $8 a week. In a simpler time, when insider trading and forging the New York City Mayor's signature on documents providing building code exceptions was matter-of-fact, Wood's business prowess led to many successes. He founded a roof-top tennis club on the East Side of Manhattan with a brand new type of surface – a precursor of plexicushion, opened a laundry chain with golfing legend Arnold Palmer, and grew his family's mining business, all the while continuing to compete in tennis into his late thirties. If you think falling on a glass table à la Sam Querrey is an odd way to sustain an injury, try burning your foot in a mining accident, which happened to Wood one summer.
The book takes you behind the curtains into a time when lines were blurred between Old Hollywood and tennis. Wood tells of Charlie Chaplin's bi-weekly tennis-infused breakfasts bringing Hollywood and tennis stars together; of "inveterate tennis devotee Gary Cooper" delivering laundry to unsuspecting clients; of sponsoring then-budding actor Errol Flynn and teaming up with him to qualify for the U.S. Nationals (now US Open) in doubles; of his one-time relationship with Grace Kelly, to whom he is not too kind.
There are many long forgotten, or simply unknown tennis stories, on-court and off-court. Wood relays the details of the USTA's attempt to prevent Althea Gibson from participating in the US Open; and also tells of his noble friend, Austrian doubles specialist Count Ludwig Salm von Hoogstraten, who refused to be a Nazi spy and committed suicide as the SS came knocking on his door. He also talks about an umpire's miss of a double hit by Henri Cochet on match point against him in the Wimbledon final in 1927, a call that would cost opponent Jean Borotra the title. Then, there's a story of Wood himself, drunk when competing with Helen Wills-Moody in the Mixed Doubles Final at Roland Garros in 1932.
Wood points out some factors that may have distorted the legacy of tennis in the pre-Open Era: match rule changes; the rankings system, or lack thereof; travel difficulties, and the amateur-pro divide. He also notes a special era in the early and mid-1940s when distress and service in World War II prevented many high-caliber players from playing on tour.
Per the author, the rule revisions of 1968, especially the foot-fault rule change – prior to then, players had to keep one foot in contact with the ground and one foot behind the baseline until the racquet had made contact with the ball – changed tennis more than developments in racquet technology. He also notes that national rankings were determined by committees appointed by the associations (no more than 50 players were ever ranked in the US). The World's Top 10 were decided by London journalists.
Before 1946, Wood says, travel to Europe from the US would take five days and require a week's recuperation before one could compete, while going to Australia involved twice as much time. Even coast-to-coast flights in the United States were an arduous procedure. Advertised at 28.5 hours, Wood writes that the 14-seat plane rarely made it in under 40.
The transition of many players from the pay-for-free amateur status to the lucrative professional tour also robbed many tournaments of top players still at the high points of their careers. He gives Rod Laver and Pancho Gonzales as the best examples of players with an incomplete Grand Slam career. The history of the pro tour is often overlooked in pre-Open Era tennis history, but Wood mentions several interesting stories, like Fred Perry's 145-match competition with American Ellsworth Vines over two seasons in the late thirties (Perry lost the head-to-head). Notably, Perry, besides his tennis success and clothing business was also a World Champion in ping-pong.
The last few sections of Wood's book deal with superlatives. First, he names the ten best players he had seen in his long life (pre-2000). In the ranking, headed by his one-time protégé Don Budge, "a backhand disguised as a man," Wood goes beyond the results to take play on the pre-Open Era pro tour into account, as well as the general quality of the game, a subjective judgment. He also seems to consider the players' effect on the sport. On Bill Tilden, whom he placed third, Wood writes, "He changed the game's image from a side-court chair, standing-room sport to a stadium-packed, crowd-pleaser [sic]."
As with his player rankings, Wood's discussion of greatest strokes also has a bias in history. He dismisses the notion that today's top players are significantly stronger and more physical than those of his time. When discussing the serve, for example, Wood points out that not only have racquet technology and changes to the foot-fault rule affected the serve, but that today's speed guns measures serve speeds within two feet after the ball leaves the racquet, rather than when it flies over the net.
The Wimbledon Final That Never Was... is full of anecdotes and history, and also demonstrates the way a tennis player views the sport. You can find out the identity of the server posing in the original ATP Tour logo, learn about the virtues of IMG founder Mark McCormack, get a feel for Bobby Fischer's tennis prowess, and learn tennis strategy from a Hall of Famer, all within a few pages. If going back in time and taking a ride through the decades with a top tennis player sounds like a good way to spend a few hours, then this book is for you.
Book cover design by Kirsten Navin, courtesy of New Chapter Press
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When not watching, photographing, writing, and editing material about tennis, Mariya Konovalova enjoys buying books she won't have time to read and films she won't have time to watch, as well as not getting enough sleep. Mariya is a graduate of Columbia University and the London School of Economics. You can contact her by e-mail (mariya(at)TalkAboutTennis.com) and follow her on Twitter (@MariyaKTennis).