Bjorn Borg is the first player to win the singles title at Wimbledon four years in a row since Anthony F. Wilding of New Zealand did so in 1910-13. Before 1922 it was relatively easy for the champion to repeat, because he was waived through to the finals. Besides, all the best players did not necessarily go to Wimbledon in those days. Norman Brookes of Melbourne, Wilding's close friend and Davis Cup teammate (Australia and New Zealand played as Australasia), was undoubtedly the superior talent. But did a better man ever walk upon a court than Tony Wilding? He was handsome, popular, loyal, beguiling—adored. Brookes wrote of him, "Without doubt he was one of the finest specimens of manhood I have known, one blest with an ability and steadfastness of character which helped him to reach the highest pinnacle. His perpetually bright and cheery nature made him beloved by all."
Wilding had been known as Little Hercules in Christ-church, where he was born in 1883, three years after tennis came to New Zealand. He grew to six feet, a lean, Byronesque figure who became the sport's first matinee idol. "The Prince Charming of tennis," Wilding was called, and then, better, "the Rupert Brooke of tennis," after the rapturous contemporary poet who wrote of love and death and "this side of Paradise!" When Wilding beat the fabled California Comet, Maurice McLoughlin, in straight sets to win his fourth Wimbledon and his greatest victory, the demand for seats was so great that many women swooned in the crush and had to be "laid out on the court by the roller until they could be removed." The next year, when Brookes broke Wilding's streak, there was a ripple of white throughout the stands as women took out their silken handkerchiefs and cried.
Wilding and Brookes were nearly invincible as a Davis Cup team, and after they won the cup for the third straight time, in 1909, no nation dared even challenge the next year. Wilding gave up cup play in 1911, but soon after the 1914 Wimbledon the two men journeyed to the U.S. in pursuit of the cup, which the U.S. had regained. They whipped the German team at Pittsburgh, playing tennis even though the Empire was already at war with the Kaiser. Then Wilding and Brookes went to Forest Hills and beat the U.S. in the Challenge Round. The American fans—including many German sympathizers—were bitter losers and taunted the British subjects with the slogan, "England will fight to the last Frenchman." By now Wilding, who had a law practice in London, was as much a Briton as he was a New Zealander. Stung by this reflection on his honor, he defaulted from the U.S. Nationals and took the next boat back to England. He went to a friend at the Admiralty, one Winston Churchill, and secured a commission in a special armored-car squadron.
Wilding was posted to the front in Belgium, and when he earned a leave day several weeks later, Brookes and his wife, Mabel, and some friends, including the beautiful American actress Maxine Elliott, went to France to be with him. Dame Mabel later wrote of how they had met him "in Boulogne, across the English Channel, in a small dockside hotel that had that smell of new bread, tobacco, and lavatories that impregnated a certain type of French hostelry....
"Tony was leaving at dawn and after a while bade a speechless, shoulder-holding farewell to Norman. Tony looked handsome in the fatigue cap and uniform that was something like an airman's. He was fit and full of energy.
"It was barely light when I threw back the shutters and the air came in sharp with a hint of autumn.... Tony strode out on the cobbled road, kicked his starter into action—contained, remote and lonely. He waved and wheeled out over the pavè to the bridge and, as he crossed and turned into the distance, he waved again. We never saw him again."
Seven months later, on May 15, 1915 at Neuve-Chapelle, Wilding and four others were killed instantly when an unexploded German shell rolled into a dugout they were in, hit a rock and was detonated. Anthony F. Wilding was 31.
"Proud, then, clear-eyed and laughing, go to greet/Death as a friend!" Rupert Brooke had written. Only 22 days before, Brooke had died for England in the Aegean at age 27. A great deal of romance went out of the world that month, and soon Wimbledon, like everything else, was part of the modern world.
ANTHONY F. WILDING