It's time to remember Tony Wilding, the first tennis superstar

Of the great sportsmen who lost their lives in the Great War, Wilding was quite probably the greatest of them all.

He is almost certainly the greatest Wimbledon champion that you've never heard of: the only man, until Bjorn Borg, to win four straight men's single titles in a row. Tony Wilding, the first great tennis superstar, was unbeatable at Wimbledon from 1909-13, and won four men's doubles titles there too. His 1913 World Championships triple at Wimbledon, Paris and Stockholm was the closest thing to the modern Grand Slam then possible. After narrowly losing the 1914 singles final, he signed up for the Great War, being killed at Neuvelle Chapelle in 1915.

Many of the great sportsmen of their era lost their lives in the Great War. Wilding was quite probably the greatest of them all. Wilding was a New Zealander, one of 18,000 to die in the first world war, though he had long before been adopted by the London press as an honorary Brit, even though he won the Davis Cup several times for Australasia. It helped that he was often too busy socialising with the Cliveden set and driving fast cars, Mr Toad-style and motorcycling to tournaments around Europe to have much interested in returning home. He transformed his sport, though his Antipodean commitment to physical training, which made him much fitter than his rivals when a Wimbledon tie went to five sets, with no tie-breaks, was considered a little unsporting in this amateur era.

His greatest ever triumph came a century ago at Wimbledon in 1913. The brilliant young American Maurice McLoughlin, nicknamed the Californian Comet for his smashing service game, was a clear favourite to depose the champion, yet Wilding played his greatest ever game to win 8-6, 6-3, 10-8. Wilding mania at the All England Club had its dangerous side. One contemporary newspaper account reported that many women in the 7,000 crowd fainted and “had to be laid out on the court beside the roller until they could be removed”.

Wilding was the first genuine sporting superstar. His On the Court and Off, combining tennis tips for the wooden era with tennis memoir, can still be read online. His engagement to American silent screen star Maxine Elliott made them the Posh and Becks of their age. After the trauma of his death, she sank her time and much of her fortune into Belgian war relief, aiding families displaced by the war.

The sports stars lost in the Great War are mostly forgotten. Nobody who saw them play is still alive. Little film footage remains, though the photos of Wilding capture his matinee idol looks. But the centenary of the Great War is a moment when they should be remembered. It is becoming clear that the British commemoration of the first world war will be a distinctly civic affair, in contrast to the more state-led commemorations of other European countries. The Imperial War Museum's centenary partnership has well over one thousand members. Yet our great sporting institutions are mostly missing in action; having shown little interest to date, and announced few if any commemorative plans.

This is despite sport having played the central role in the recruitment drive which persuaded men to fight, given that the much slimmer 1914 state had many fewer points of connection to the general population. Eleven of the thirty players who began the last England versus Scotland Calcutta Cup rugby union game were to die in the war, alongside scores of footballers, cricketers and other sportsmen, as British Future's guide to sport and the first world war sets out. 

As Wimbledon 2013 begins next week, it will be exactly a century since Wilding last lifted the title. The All England Club gives the impression of having forgotten him entirely: even the official website’s history timeline, dating back to 1877, is entirely blank between the 1908 Olympics and the 1920s, dropping Wilding down the memory hole.

This is the right moment to ask the All England Club to ensure that they will use next year's tournament to bring Wilding’s name back to public prominence and to set out how they will use the 2014 tournament to commemorate all of their members and players who fought, served and died in the Great War.

Tony Wilding during the men's singles tennis championships at Wimbledon. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Brexit, betrayal and English football

Plus: what Nietzsche knew, Douglas Carswell's curious tweets and why David Cameron is like an essay crisis.

A couple of years ago I met the then Tory MP Douglas Carswell at a dinner at the Swedish embassy in London. He had not yet defected to Ukip and, with his eyes blazing, he began talking at me about sovereignty and direct democracy as well as comparing the campaign to liberate the British from the EU to the struggles of the Levellers and Chartists. It was hard not to stifle a yawn. Still, I listened politely and in the spirit of pluralism invited him to submit a guest column. The column never arrived, and in the intervening years I turned off the television or radio whenever it was announced he would be on. He struck me as a pious, moralising, single-issue crank, without any of the breezy wit or charisma of Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader whom Carswell loathes and longs to unseat.

Essay crisis PM

Whatever you think of Farage’s politics (and all NS readers will no doubt despise them), you cannot doubt his conviction, radicalism or political brilliance – no one did more to take Britain out of the EU than he. His triumph is total and contrasts markedly with David Cameron’s failure. For such a pragmatist, the Prime Minister gambled everything on the referendum. Perhaps a series of narrow victories, notably in the 2014 Scottish referendum and the 2015 general election, had beguiled him into believing in the myth of his own good luck. But he never prepared the electorate for the referendum or made the positive case for the EU, until it was much too late. He is one of the guilty men who has led Britain to its present impasse, perhaps the guiltiest of all, because of his insouciance and carelessness. John Wheeler-Bennett, the conservative historian, described Neville Chamberlain’s actions at Munich as “a case study in the disease of political myopia which afflicted the leaders and the peoples of Europe in the years between the wars”. Cameron, the essay crisis prime minister, has turned out to be similarly myopic. Now we all have to live with the consequences of his wretched defeat. 

Brexit and betrayal

Carswell sent an especially mendacious tweet during the campaign: “I am with @Vote_leave because we should stop sending £350 million per week to Brussels, and spend our money on our NHS instead.” As a monomaniacal Eurosceptic he would have known that he was lying about Britain’s EU contribution. He would have known, too, that the juxtaposition of this figure with NHS spending was wilfully misleading.

Yet when I called him out on his lies he suggested that I had not come to terms with my grief. I am not grieving (being no ardent lover of the EU) but I am angry – angry about the mendacity and cant of the Brexiteers, who are already retreating on promises and pledges made. The leaders of Leave are, in effect, free-market Randians who will be leading a coalition of social conservatives that cannot hold. Soon there will be plaintive cries of betrayal and, from the streets, shouts of, “This is not what we meant at all!”

Hodgson’s choice

In an interview in November 2015, the Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque said that there was no “‘English’ football any more  . . . no authentic English style”. How true. Roy Hodgson, who resigned after the abject defeat to Iceland (population: 330,000), was the highest-paid coach at the Euros, on £3.5m a year. He earned significantly more than Joachim Löw of Germany, a World Cup winner. For context, Chris Coleman, who led Wales to the quarter-finals, has an annual salary of £200,000. There were eight coaches who earned less than Coleman at the Euros.

Why is Hodgson paid so much? Because English football is bloated, greedy, arrogant and deluded about its standing in the world (does this sound familiar?). At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, England were knocked out of the tournament within six days of the start, yet Hodgson stayed on to lead his hapless squad to another international humiliation. In manner, he is amiable but garrulous, speaking in looping circumlocutions: he sounds more like a prison officer in the 1970s sitcom Porridge than a contemporary continental football coach whose working methods are enlightened by data analysis, sports science and management theory.

After four years under his auspices, England had no method or signature style, as Del Bosque recognised. They had no structure or shape, which is why they fragmented at moments of stress. A well-coached side, with positional discipline and an unbreakable structure, can withstand pressure when it plays poorly – think of George Graham’s Arsenal of the late 1980s. Hodgson did not seem to know who his best players were or in which formation to use them. He had no leader on the pitch. Wayne Rooney was his captain but, for all his bull-necked pugnacity, he is introverted. Hodgson kept picking Raheem Sterling (for whom Manchester City paid a laughable £50m) and Adam Lallana. Together they have 52 caps for England but only two goals. Should Hodgson have been surprised that his forwards did not score when he needed them most? Evidently he was, otherwise why keep picking them? Yet coaches can be transformative, as Eddie Jones has been so rapidly for English rugby, or Trevor Bayliss for English cricket. But here’s the thing: both men are Australians.

Laughed off stage

“Fuck off, we’re voting out” chanted the drunken English yobs at the start of the tournament in Marseilles (they were less exuberant once the Russian Ultras marched into town). England will not be missed at the Euros. Worse than this, they exited to the sound of derisive laughter, as they retreated to their island stronghold. The laughter has not ceased. You could say that, after Brexit, the English are becoming something of a laughing stock, alas. “Laughter I have pronounced holy,” wrote Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra. “You higher men, learn – to laugh!” Laughter captures the essence of a truth that cannot be communicated. The alternative is tears.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies