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Steve Flink: The Wimbledon Final That Never Was

7/19/2011 1:00:00 PM

Back in the winter of 2009, Sidney Wood passed away at the age of 97, leaving behind a remarkable legacy as an American champion. Wood was formidable, the Wimbledon champion of 1931, a thinking man’s competitor, a man who won more than his share of matches through tactical wizardry rather than overwhelming technical attributes. Wood had considerable natural talent, but his ingenuity and mental acuity were the twin motors of his success, the attributes that made him an historical figure of cache and importance, especially during the 1930’s.

Before his death, Wood had been working on a book about his life as a tennis player and businessman. He had spent considerable time on that task, and it was a story well worth telling. His son—David Wood—took over the project, adding some brief yet crucial sections to the manuscript to fill in gaps and clarify areas that needed extra attention. The result is a brand new book entitled, “The Wimbledon Final That Never Was…. And Other Tennis Tales from a Bygone Era”, by Sidney Wood with David Wood. The book is entertaining, aimed primarily at an audience of older enthusiasts who want to be reminded what tennis was like in the 1930’s and beyond, although younger fans could clearly learn a lot from the book as well, and discover more about the sport’s evolution. The bottom line is that Wood is an appealing raconteur in these pages, regaling us with stories about himself and the game he played at such a high level.

The anchor for the book is unmistakably Wood’s cancelled 1931 final round appointment at Wimbledon with his friend and Davis Cup teammate Frank Shields, the grandfather of actress Brooke Shields. Wood and Shields had moved through the draw confidently on the lawns of the All England Club, inspiring close followers of American tennis with their exploits. Both men reached the final of the world’s most prestigious tournament unexpectedly. Shields—an explosive server and daunting player—was seeded third. The 19-year-old Wood was the No. 7 seed. In the semifinals, Wood toppled No. 5 seed and three time future champion Fred Perry in four sets, and the 20-year-old Shields knocked out No. 1 seed Jean Borotra of France, also in a four set contest.

As Wood writes of the occasion in the book, “The scenario to us was implausible. To be not much over 19 years old, unheedingly optimistic and as unworldly as a hayseed, and along with your doubles partner, roommate and closest chum, at ages 19 and 20, beat Perry and Borotra and gain the 1931 Wimbledon men’s singles final: You can imagine our unconfined elation. Here we were, two unheralded near babes in the international tennis woods, who had prevailed, match by match, over the game’s towering titans of America, Australia, England and France. To us, it was a family victory, for Shields and Wood were as close as Damon and Pythias. For hours after our semifinal victories, we would just stare at each other a minute or two and burst into cackling, back-thwacking guffaws.”

But the laughter did not last. Shields had twisted and injured his knee near the end of his triumph over Borotra, and the Americans were scheduled for a Davis Cup battle a few weeks later in Paris. American Davis Cup captain Sam Hardy wanted Shields to default the final and thus hand the title over to Wood. Hardy informed Wood and Shields of the communication he had with the USLTA powers that be, who were adamant that Shields must forgo the Wimbledon final so he would be ready to go at full force and compete in the Davis Cup tie that loomed around the corner.

As Wood writes, “Frank wanted to play [the Wimbledon final] but maybe there was a little reluctance on both our parts to play also, who knows what it was? We were really too young to stand up for what we thought should be done. I don’t recall our being particularly disturbed, for we had won the title. At that point, flushed with victory and every immature right to believe that this was only the first of many All England Club wins for us, the Wimbledon title was something euphoric for the present, but far more important was the incontrovertible proof that our thousands of hours of practice and our families’ sacrifices had earned us a sure toehold on the pinnacle occupied by the Olympians of our cherished sport. Having little awareness of the niceties of Anglo-American relations, it did not then occur to us that our Association’s decision was an unthinkable affront to British officialdom, and to fans who had purchased tickets for the final match.”

As Wood sums it up in print, “I knew the day before the scheduled final that I was the champion. Frank wanted to play, and could have played. But the U.S. Davis Cup committee wouldn’t let him…. We were amateurs then, and the USTA had the power of life and death over us. Frank and I thought it was a terrible affront to Wimbledon to leave them without a men’s final, but that’s the way it was. We felt we were co-champs.”

And so the two close friends made a secret pact. The issue—at least in their minds—of who really deserved the distinction of being the Wimbledon champion of 1931 had to be resolved some other way. They decided they would have a “private understanding playoff” to resolve the matter. Wood gave his Wimbledon Renshaw trophy to Maud Barger-Wallach (a former U.S. Women’s Champion) and had her hold it until Shields and Wood could meet again in a grass court final. Not until 1934 at Queen’s Club did they clash again in a championship match on the lawns. The USLTA told the players that the winner of their Queen’s final would play No. 1 on the Davis Cup team when the Americans met Australia not long after. So this clash had both private and public implications, consequences that stretched well above and beyond most final round meetings.

As Wood writes, “It was the strangest match I had ever played in my life.” Shields was weighed down heavily by anxiety, while Woods himself felt unencumbered and was in a complete sense of calm. Wood raced to a 5-0, 40-0 lead before Shields reached back and fired five consecutive aces. His extreme apprehension had suddenly evaporated, and a role reversal took place. Now Wood was struck hard by nerves. But eventually he came through to win 11-9, 6-0 over his good buddy. He had privately reaffirmed that he was indeed the Wimbledon champion of 1931 for life with his victory at Queen’s in 1934. Order—at least in his mind—had been restored.

Woods—who established himself as the youngest man ever to rule on the British lawns since Wilfred Baddeley in 1891 and remained so until Boris Becker burst into the champion’s circle at 17 in 1985—is the only singles champion ever to take the final by default on a walkover. That was the landmark moment of his life, the achievement that made him an inductee at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1964. But Woods celebrated a life of diversity and intrigue, and he crossed paths with a wide range of successful people who invariably seemed to love tennis. One was the renowned comedian Groucho Marx. At one time, Fred Perry and Ellsworth Vines owned the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, and Wood was asked to play an exhibition there for the opening of the club. Shields was also invited. They played doubles with Marx and Charlie Chaplin.

Wood convinced the organizers of the event to bring Marx out on court hidden from public view in a sleeping bag. But Wood forgot to tell Groucho that the sleeping bag was filled with a sulphur dust that could cause some tears. As the umpire announced the players, noise was heard from inside the sleeping bag.  As Wood writes, when Marx finally emerged, he had “tears streaming down his cheeks and he thought I had gassed him for life. He grabbed a racket and chased me around the court as the crowd howled in laughter.”

Woods shares some amusing anecdotes about his interaction with the likes of chess champion Bobby Fischer, his romance with actress Gertrude Lawrence, and some fun times he had with the actors Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn. Tennis was the platform that lifted Woods into another realm, and he could move easily among the elite in any field, clearly feeling comfortable no matter who surrounded him, no matter what their credentials.

But tennis, of course, was the springboard for everything Wood did. That is why the portions of the book devoted to the sport are the most compelling to me. Wood went into the laundry business with his longtime friend Don Budge, and it is Budge that Wood ranks as his G.O.A.T (Greatest Player of All Time). As he writes in defending his selection of the 1938 Grand Slammer as the best ever to pick up a racket, “Don’t I know that the human body runs faster and jumps higher now than in the 1930’s? And I say, yes, I know that, and will you please name me a better hitter than Ted Williams, and a better singer than Caruso? I feel fairly confident saying Budge was the best of them all.”

Pick up “The Wimbledon Final That Never Was”, pull up a chair, and you are in for an enjoyable weekend of reading from a figure of long reaching authority in the tennis community. Sidney Wood was a sophisticated man who wore the emblem of tennis wherever he went in his business and social lives, and wore it quite well. He spent two seasons at No. 4 in the United States and was No. 2 in his nation in 1934. He would make it to the final of the U.S. Championships in 1935. And, of course, he won Wimbledon; that alone makes him a tennis champion of rare stature.

As the esteemed New York Times critic Allison Danzig once wrote of Wood, “He was one of the brainiest strategists and most entrancing shot-makers tennis has ever known… Of all the tennis players I have watched pass in review, he, more than any other, symbolized the spirit [of the man] that plays the game for the sheer love of playing. None could attach smaller consequence to victory or accept defeat more light-heartedly.”

We are fortunate to have Sidney Wood’s book as a striking reminder of who he was and the historical role he played in the game’s evolution.

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