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.