As this year's Wimbledon championship reaches its climax this weekend, it seems timely to throw the spotlight on the tournament a century ago when one of the game's most charismatic players walked onto Centre Court for the final time.
Anthony Frederick Wilding was born in Opawa, near Christchurch, New Zealand on 31 October 1883. His father Frederick, originally from the Herefordshire area, was a keen all-round sportsman, playing cricket for Shrewsbury School, and becoming well known as a rugby player, boxer, athlete, oarsman and, eventually, five-times tennis doubles champion of New Zealand. With such athletic genes, it seemed inevitable that Tony would show sporting promise. His mother described her toddler son in her diary as, "such a darling boy, and I am so immensely proud of him. They call him little Hercules here. He is so splendid in physique, so sturdy and yet so sweet and affectionate." Brought up with two brothers and two sisters, Wilding had a happy, outdoorsy childhood, taking up a variety of sports with the encouragement of his father. He was elected captain of his football team and made his first century at cricket two days after his fourteenth birthday. At other times, he went for long walks, rode his pony and became proficient at both shooting and fishing. As was expected of young men in those days, he was a good, sporting all-rounder.
He first began to play tennis at fourteen, partnering his father in doubles matches reaching the final of the national championship in New Zealand on one occasion. Coached by his father initially, his killer shot was a powerful forehand topped drive but it would take time, and a gruelling physical regime, for his game to become more well-rounded. He won his first championship in Canterbury at the age of seventeen, a five-setter against his father's old partner, R. D. Harman, a match which he won after a determined fitness drive which included running up a steep track behind his family home, accompanying three long-distance runners who were in training for an athletics meeting. Wilding's high level of fitness, and repeated commitment to practice, would be one of the key factors in his later success.
At the age of nineteen, he travelled to England where he was to study law at Cambridge. He quickly established himself as a preeminent tennis player. He was captain of both the Trinity College and University clubs, partnered with Kenneth Powell* who commented of his friend, that he was, "the most remarkable example of how quickly a man may improve by putting his mind into the game. He used to be continuously thinking out some new point, and before each match began insisting on pracitising with me in a quiet court for half an hour or so..."
With fans & admirers, Wimbledon, 1905 (below)
Such was his enthusiasm for the game he ensured it could be played beyond the summer months by negotiating with the municipal authorities and improvising a court in the Corn Exchange, he charged entrance fees to matches and encouraged well-established players such as the Doherty brothers to come and play at the University. Although generally clean-living, he was not above high-spirited student japes. Once he challenged a fellow student to a match in which he used only a cricket bat and was implicated in an incident during rag week investigated by the police, though no blame was ever pinned upon him.
He first visited Wimbledon in 1903 and was amused to watch a match involved H. S. Mahoney, renowned for playing in 'borrowed, ill-assorted socks.' The next year, Wilding, who had continued to play in a number of tournaments in England, was a competitor himself at Wimbledon and found himself facing the odd socks in the second round. Though his family were keen to see him follow a career in the law, tennis was soon to take precedence. In 1907 alone, he toured the Riviera in March, Paris in April, London in early May (where he won all three covered court championships), Wiesbaden later that month, Austria, Wimbledon in June, back to Austria in July, England again, Homburg in August, Baden-Baden in September and Eastbourne before travelling back to Austria for the winter. He also had a great love for motorcycling and often varied his European travels between train and bicycle, motorcycling from John O'Groats to Lands End in 1908.
Tennis strokes demonstrated by Wilding in The Sketch magazine, 1 July 1914
In 1910, he won his first Wimbledon Championship beating the forty-two-year-old Arthur Gore 6-4, 7-5, 4-6, 6-2 and went on to win three more titles in consecutive years, his greatest match perhaps in 1913 against the American Maurice McCoughlin which he won 8-6, 6-3, 10-8 (there were no tie breaks in those days). This was the period of Wilding mania. The athletic and charismatic Wilding set many hearts a-flutter among the crowd and one contemporary newspaper reported on a number of women fainting in the Wimbledon crowd, such was the New Zealander's effect!
Visiting some of the world's most glamorous places, and soon one of the world's top flight sportsmen, Tony became a popular member of the smart set, though it was recalled by many of his friends that he himself was anything but 'smart', having little interest in clothes. He often stuffed his travelling cases as if he were filling a laundry bag and borrowed clothes from friends and hosts. Tall, blonde and with matinee idol looks, many commented on Tony's easy charm. Magazines we hold here in the archive show him at the Riviera blending in seamlessly with such society figures as the daughters of Grand Duke Michael or the Prime Minister's daughter, Elizabeth Asquith. In January 1914, he was pictured on the front cover of The Sketch magazine with a young, French protegée whom he was coaching - Suzanne Lenglen. He became good friends with Arthur Balfour, offering him coaching tips and partnering him in doubles matches, while he was romantically linked to the glamorous American actress Maxine Elliott, fifteen years his senior. If Wilding was a tennis player today, he would be a global superstar - and no doubt fabulously wealthy.
With 14 yr old Suzanne Lenglen on The Sketch cover, Jan 1914 Partnering Arthur Balfour in a Wimbledon friendly, 1912
His ability with motors and his gentlemanly conduct was recalled by the actor Gerald du Maurier in a biography by the Telegraph's tennis correspondent, A. Wallis Myers:
"Anthony Wilding was once of the most attractive men it has been my good fortune to meet. He was so healthy, clean-minded; it braced one to talk with him...My wife and I were motoring down to Bushey one night after the theatre in a taxi, which broke down in a lonely part. A private motor pulled up; among its occupants was Anthony Wilding."
Wilding without hesitation repaired the damage to the taxi and then spent a further hour with the driver to ensure the car was roadworthy for the return journey.
When war broke out in August 1914, Wilding was in the United States where he helped Australasia to win the Davis Cup along with team mate Norman Brookes, who had beaten him that summer in the men's finals at Wimbledon, bringing his championship run to an end. It was typical of Wilding that he rushed back to England to join up, and was attached to the Royal Marines but soon afterwards joined the Headquarters Intelligence Corps where his knowlege of Continental roads proved valuable. At times he was able to visit Maxine who had equipped a barge which she navigated around canals in Belgium distributing clothes and food to families trapped by the German invasion. Later, he was attached to a new squadron of armoured cars under the command of the Duke of Westminster where he invented a trailer with a 3-pounder gun to run behind a light armoured car. Motors and mechanics had always fascinated him and it was a role that suited him perfectly. The trailer was his own idea and its two wheels were designed to run over rough ground relatively easily.
It was this trailer that Tony accompanied up to the front line on 8 May 1915. His section moved to an advanced depot at Croix-Barbée where he had an excellent dinner of pea soup, roast lamb, fruit and white wine in a ruined cottage. Later that night, in the trenches, Wilding met an old tennis friend, Lieutenant R. S. Barnes and the pair reminisced about lawn tennis:
"Well, old man, you were in rotten form when you met Brookes," said Barnes, referring to Wilding's relatively ignominous defeat at Wimbledon the previous year. Apparently Tony merely shrugged and replied, "One can't always be at one's best."
Another tennis acquaintance, Lieutenant L. E. Milburn of the 4th Suffolks met Wilding early the following morning and was struck by his appearance.
"He had not troubled to put on the regulation breeches and puttees, but strolled up in 'slacks' and low shoes, looking for all the world as if he were about to pop down in his car to Wimbledon."
What happened next is recounted in a report sent to his parent by Reginald Gregory, R.N.:
'From the information since received, his three-pounder lorry had been in action on the 9th inst., in the vicinity of Lestrem, up to 4.30p.m., about which time the shell-fire became so intolerable that the gun's crew was sent to the trenches for shelter, Captain Wilding and three Army officers retiring to a dug-out close by. This was, however, shortly afterwards struck by a large shell, which killed the officers there, Captain Wilding dying in such a manner that his death must have been instantaneous.'
Anthony Wilding was thirty-one. Found among his remains as his comrades began to dig him and his fellow officers out from the mangled dug-out, was a gold cigarette-case, a souvenir of tennis triumphs on the Riviera in 1914, presented to him by his friend and doubles partner, Craig Biddle. He was buried the next morning in an orchard backing on to the trenches.
In a letter to Tony's mother, Lieutenant-Commander Chilcott, of the Royal Naval Air Service wrote of him:
"I had learnt to love him as few men love each other. My admiration for him was unbounded, and I fear it will never be my good fortune during the remainder of my travel through this world to meet another friend with a nature such as his. I always felt that he was an example to his fellow-men in everything. God rest his great soul."
*Kenneth Powell (1885-1915), Olympic hurdler and tennis player, private in the Honourable Artillery Company. Killed in action, 18 February 1915
Quotes extracted from, 'Captain Anthony Wilding,' by A. Wallis Myers (Hodder & Stoughton, 1916), part of the archive at Mary Evans Picture Library
More images of Tony Wilding here - https://www.maryevans.com/lb.php?ref=27986