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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue