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WW1 and the tragic end of an era for Wimbledon

Norman Brookes playing at Worple Road (btw 1907 - 1914)
by Richard Evans
Monday 4 August 2014

World War I changed everything and Wimbledon was no exception. The Championships of 1914, played at the original Worple Road ground, marked the end of an era, a time of chivalry and tragedy.

The shots being played on the Centre Court during the Championships, 1914, echoed louder than those that were fired in Sarajevo on 28 June, just seven days after the tournament had started.

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was no more of a talking point amongst tennis fans crowding the cramped spaces of Worple Road than talk of whether the former champion, Norman Brookes, would be able to sustain the astonishing form of his early matches and go through to meet Anthony Wilding in the Challenge Round, when the defending champion faced the best of the challengers, or ‘All Comers’.

The Australian left-hander certainly managed that but, in these Championships etched with pathos, irony and the type of gracious sportsmanship that epitomised the fading Edwardian era, fate decreed that Brookes played and defeated two men who faced starkly different futures.

In the final of the All Comers’ event, Brookes beat Otto Froitzheim who would be captured at sea on his return from Davis Cup duty for Germany in America days after war was declared and would spend the ensuing years as a prisoner of war. In the Challenge Round, Brookes defeated his friend and Australasian Davis Cup team-mate Wilding who would be killed in the trenches at Neuve-Chappelle 11 months later.

Such events would have seemed inconceivable to Brookes when he arrived for the spring season on the Riveria that year, having decided to make one final attempt to regain the crown he had won in 1907. In the intervening years, family business had kept him in Melbourne and the journey was both long and expensive. But to his young wife Mabel it all seemed worth it as they were caught up in the heady social whirl of life at the great hotels of Nice, Cannes and Monte Carlo.

Wilding had been the star of that spring circuit for years – he won Monte Carlo five times – and, after beating Brookes in most finals on the red clay, the pair teamed up to win the doubles. There was usually a “Mr G” in the draw – a nom de plume for the King Gustav of Sweden – while Arthur Balfour, the former British Prime Minister, was never far from Wilding’s side. Amidst all this glamour, Dame Mabel, as she would become when Norman was knighted later in life, tried hard not to feel like a dowdy colonial, especially as Wilding’s lady, Maxine Elliott was a leading actress on the West End and considered one of the beauties of the age.

So all was normal. No one spoke of political tensions, much less of war. As The Championships approached, the main concern for the All England Club Committee was the recognition that growing interest in tennis was making Worple Road too small for such a popular event.

That had become apparent the previous year when the arrival of the new American ace, Maurice ‘The Comet’ McLoughlin to challenge Wilding, who had already won the title three times, had led the Committee to switch the Challenge Round from the Saturday to Friday. They were simply afraid that they would not be able to control the crowds jostling for tickets on Saturday afternoon. Despite moving to Church Road in 1922, it was not until the 1970s, when Sunday play was allowed, that the schedule was changed.

It had not been that way a decade before. After Wimbledon’s inauguration in 1877, interest in the game had waned in the 1890s and only when the Doherty brothers, Reggie and Laurie, became prominent stars in British sport (Laurie was to win five consecutive titles from 1902 to 1906) to be followed by the dashing Wilding, a New Zealander and Cambridge Blue, did tennis regain its popularity.

Britain’s Dorothy Lambert Chambers had also created interest in the women’s game, winning the title seven times in 12 years. It was in 1914 that she won for the last time, defeating Ethel Larcombe, wife of the future Club secretary Dudley Larcombe, but was still good enough to reach two finals in the immediate post war years as Suzanne Lenglen began her reign.

The improvements made during his absence were noticeable to Brookes. Two houses adjacent to the property had been acquired to offer greater space for ladies’ dressing rooms and offices and the Centre Court had been expanded from a capacity of 3,500 to 7,000. And unlike 1905, when he had reached the Challenge Round for the first time, he was provided with transport. On that first occasion, the young Australian arrived at Waterloo only to be told the train to Wimbledon was full. Pleading with the station master and finally impressing him with the fact that he was carrying rackets (“But I’m playing in the Challenge Round!”) he was allowed to buy a ticket and stand all the way. On arrival, he had to trudge up the hill to the ground on foot and even then he was not allowed in until he recognised a friend inside the gates.

Now it would be different. Wilding, who had not trained as assiduously as was his custom, lost his crown 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 to the hugely gifted Brookes who would go on to become President of the Australian Tennis Association.
Despite his disappointment, Wilding was to be seen offering his back so that Brookes could sign a lady’s autograph immediately after the match and then, a little later, would thread his way through the lingering crowds, tea tray in hand, to sprawl on a grass verge and discuss the match with Arthur Balfour.

It was a passing age and one that drew to finality for Norman and Mabel Brookes when they travelled to Boulogne to say goodbye to the now commissioned Captain Wilding of the Royal Marines. As ever, Tony had arrived on a motor bicycle – a form of transport he favoured even in peacetime – and, after dinner, was due to leave early the next morning for the front. In her fascinating book Crowded Galleries Mabel wrote:

“We watched as Tony strode out onto the cobbled road, kicked his starter into action, contained, remote and lonely. It was a time of ‘Hail’ and ‘Farewell!’ He waved and wheeled off towards the bridge and, as he crossed and turned into the distance, he waved again. The smell of burning charcoal came up, mixed with reek of exhaust from his bike, and drifted ephemeral as the passing moment, leaving only memory. We never saw him again.” 

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