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Remembering Fred Perry at W&L

Andy Murray’s stunning victory at Wimbledon on Sunday sent us scurrying to our archives. His straight-set triumph over top-seeded Novak Djokovic marked the first time in 77 years that a British player had won the men’s singles at the All England Club. As the commentators kept exclaiming, the last person to achieve such a victory was Fred Perry, who won Wimbledon three times in succession from 1934 to 1936. What they didn’t mention is that Perry served as the men’s tennis coach at Washington and Lee in the 1940s.

Murray’s victory has led to several Perry retrospectives in the sports press. ESPN has “Remembering Fred Perry,” and the BBC Magazine’s piece is titled “Who is Fred Perry?” Most are as apt to know Perry for the laurel wreath that adorned his line of tennis attire as they are to know that he once won a world table-tennis championship.

What’s missing from these stories is any mention of the brief W&L portion of Perry’s storied tennis career, or of the honorary doctor of laws degree that the University awarded him in 1987. That citation read, in part: “Fred Perry exemplifies this world as no one else can and though his formal residence here was not long, he nonetheless will remain forever a vital element in our athletic heritage and a continuing inspiration for generations of Washington and Lee’s amateur athletes.”

As we noted on Twitter and Facebook on Sunday, Fred Perry was the men’s tennis coach at Washington and Lee in the 1940s. The more we investigated his tenure, the more confusing it became.

In our athletic record books, he is listed as coach of only the 1948 team. But the 1942 Calyx reports that he actually arrived midway through the 1941 season, took over a team that had lost five straight matches, and led it to victories in six of its next seven. He was set to return for the following season but developed elbow problems and cancelled that stint.

Then World War II intervened. Perry, who had left England for the U.S. after turning professional in 1937, was drafted into the U.S. Air Force.

Upon his return from the service, he had planned to resume his coaching career with the Generals in 1946. Instead, he came back in 1947, not 1948 as was originally thought, and he was here for only part of that season, leaving to participate in a nationwide tennis tour to combat juvenile delinquency, according to the Ring-tum Phi. In addition to coaching, Perry gave lessons to members of the faculty and staff, and he played several exhibition matches on the old clay courts beneath the footbridge. His opponents included Vinnie Richards and John March.

As we looked through our archives, though, what really grabbed our attention was a short mention in a 1946 edition of the alumni magazine. The story recounts Perry’s interview with a reporter for WRVA, a Richmond radio station. He was playing in the National Professional Clay Court Championships at the Country Club of Virginia, and the reporter asked him about coaching tennis at W&L. Here is his intriguing answer in full:

Some years ago I was asked if I would like to go there and coach at Washington and Lee, so I did. Actually it was for the months of April and May and again in September. Now we at Washington and Lee have not gone in for the big name tennis players in trying to get a tennis team that can beat everyone else in the country. The way we felt about it at the time was that we had one of the finest schools in the country and if anyone wanted to go to a great school to get a great education then. . . . While I was there I took the same things. We have 12 courts, 6 of them are down in the gully of clay, and then we have 6 up above on the hilltop of a hard court material. The plan was that if we had 600 or 700 students we would far rather have 600 or 700 people playing tennis for fun and learning something about the game than have 6 men or 4 or 5 men who might comprise one of the finest tennis teams in the country. We felt that by giving everybody a chance it would be much better for us in the long run. And that’s exactly what we did. So I get on my horse — Traveler, that is — and travel from court to court and if anyone is interested enough to want to learn, I take as much time as I can with each individual. From these “interested” lads we draw our varsity team to compete in intercollegiate competition.