Anthony Wilding: The hero who set Wimbledon hearts a-flutter

Anthony Wilding in action at Wimbledon. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Anthony Wilding won four consecutive Wimbledon men's singles titles

Long before the PR driven age of image rights and social media, before Borg, Laver and even Perry, Wimbledon had its own matinee idol - Anthony Wilding. Yet despite him being a superstar of his day, and a war hero, why is there relatively little awareness of him today?

New Zealand born, with English parents, Wilding won four consecutive Wimbledon championships, two Australian Opens, and four Davis Cups, before his career was cut short due to the outbreak of World War One.

His incredible on court success was matched by his off court cult-following where, blessed with an irresistible mix of good looks and charisma, he became arguably the first superstar of tennis. He reportedly set many hearts a-flutter among spectators, with newspaper reports of a number of women fainting in the Wimbledon crowd, such was his charm.

But when World War One began he signed up for the British Army and was killed in action in France in 1915.

"Anthony was an icon and good looking," says his great niece Anna Wilding, who is a director, actress and White House correspondent.

"He was like a movie star, but on the tennis court. Tennis hadn't ever had anyone like that, with that combination of charm, decorum and adventure.

"Imagine the Great Gatsby era, but he was the real deal, the toast of society. He stayed with kings and queens and prime ministers.

Image caption Wilding quickly became a star on and off the court

Wilding's life and career

  • Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 31 October 1883
  • Studied law at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1905
  • Won four consecutive Wimbledon championships from 1910 to 1913
  • Also won four Wimbledon double's titles, two Australian Open singles titles and an Australian Open doubles title

"At the same time he would camp on the roof of the Monaco Tennis Club under the stars and play tennis the next day. He has been called the James Dean or David Beckham of his day. Women swooned and fainted."

He was seen as something of a pioneer in terms of his training. He never drank alcohol and, unusually for the times, never smoked. He was renowned for his physique, with his Davis Cup teammate Norman Brookes describing Wilding as "without doubt one of the finest specimens of manhood physically".

The greatest match of his career is regarded as the 1913 Wimbledon final against the brilliant young American Maurice McLoughlin. McLoughlin was the favourite, but Wilding put on a superb performance, winning 8-6, 6-3, 10-8 (there were no tie-breaks at that time).

Image caption Wilding travelled across Europe on his motorcycle

Wilding was ever on the lookout for adventure. He had a great love for motorcycling and would ride around Europe on his Bat-JAP. In 1908 he motorcycled from John O'Groats to Land's End.

After the outbreak of World War One, he joined the Royal Marines, allegedly on the advice of Winston Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty.

He remained in the Marines for just a few days and was then attached to the Intelligence Corps, where his knowledge of European roads proved invaluable as he was assigned to the battlefields of northern France.

Image caption Wilding in his armoured car in Paris in January 1915

In his last letter, dated 8 May 1915, he wrote: "For really the first time in seven and a half months I have a job on hand which is likely to end in gun, I, and the whole outfit being blown to hell. However, if we succeed we will help our infantry no end."

The following day, 9 May, he was killed in action during the Battle of Aubers Ridge at Neuve-Chapelle, when a shell exploded near the dug-out he was sheltering in.

He was buried the next day, but was later reinterred at Rue-des-Berceaux.

He had been due to marry Broadway star Maxine Elliott.

Daily Telegraph tennis correspondent Andrew Wallis Myers, in his 1916 biography of Wilding, described him in action: "Wilding observed and directed the fire, both from the gun platform and the trench, all the time under the hottest counter-shelling."

In 1978, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. But Ms Wilding feels he has not received enough recognition for his achievements.

"Anthony died fighting for the British, not the New Zealanders, so in some ways he drops between the lines.

"He is not celebrated in New Zealand military remembrances nor by the government there, and I feel this is because he spent so much time in the UK.

"Nor do the British seem to claim him as he was from the colonies. It would be nice to see more acknowledgement from the British as he lived there for much of his life and passed away fighting for them. So it's sad in a way, as his story is incredible."

Wilding's obituary stated that even more than the New Zealand All Blacks, he had "carried the name of the Dominion into regions of the Earth where it was probably unknown until it became associated with his fame".

For Ms Wilding, her great uncle has left a rich legacy, which she wants to uncover more of.

"Anthony's legacy is that he was a true sportsman, a great man, who was a hero on the court and off. We cannot forget he was also a great traveller and adventurer."

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