Players will want to read this book for its many interesting anecdotes and because it may arm them to win drinks at tennis gatherings by betting on either of the following obscure tennis history questions: Who was the youngest Wimbledon winner for over 50 years until Boris Becker's first title in 1985? And, who is the only tennis player in history to win Wimbledon by default?
Of course, the answer to both questions is the author of The Wimbledon Title That Never Was and Other Tennis Tales From a Bygone Era, the Connecticut-born Sidney Wood. Wood (1911-2009), accomplished both of these feats that his book uses as supports to hang the rest of his story on in 1931.
His opponent in the final, American Frank Shields, grandfather of Brooke Shields, was ordered by U.S. tennis authorities not to play so he could rest an injured knee for an upcoming Davis Cup match. Apparently, amateur officials had more clout in the era between the World Wars. The U.S. team lost the match against England that they had tried to save Shields for. So much for listening to the USTA! Somehow, I think if Donald Young was instructed not to play a Wimbledon final by the national tennis organization, he wouldn't listen. But this is now, and Wood’s book is about then.
The book’s charm lies in the way it recreates early 20th Century tennis history and supplies facts and stories about such pre-World War II tennis stars as France's Four Musketeers: Rene Lacoste, Jean Borota, Henri Cochet and Jacques Brugnon, as well as other stars such as Ellsworth Vines, Don Budge, Fred Perry, Bill Tilden and Jack Kramer.
One thing Wood brings to his analysis of the game, which the reader should remember extends from his playing days before World War II, never mind pre-Open tennis, this is pre-shorts, up nearly until his death in January of 2009, at the age of 97, is an unequaled exposure to every champion.
When Sidney Wood takes a shot at ranking the all-time greats in our game, it's a fascinating list because he saw them all of them play and competed against players from Tilden to Gonzales. So Wood's ranking of the greats and near-greats alone makes this book worth reading. His top 10: Budge, Kramer, Tilden, Gonzales, Laver, Sampras, Perry, Borg, Lendl and Connors. Wood makes good arguments for those he includes and those he leaves out. Tough luck for McEnroe and Agassi.
David Wood, Sidney's son, who helped smooth some of the book's passages, notes that his father wasn't able to watch the current contenders for that list, Federer and Nadal, enough to rate them, but that he respected what they have been able to accomplish.
Sidney Wood, who stayed involved in the game after his playing days ended, was also responsible for the invention of Supreme Court, the portable court used by the pro tours for many years, and the creation of box seats at the U.S. Open championships at Forest Hills, N.Y.
Wood tells the story that, at one of the first events that used his new surface, Ken Rosewall was playing Fred Stolle. As Stolle ran for a wide forehand, he broke through a taped seam and fell under the carpet. He ended up buried up to his chest. Wood recounts that “I pulled Fred to his feet, amid catcalls from the spectators, and used a staple gun to secure the selvages to the pallet below.”
Even outside of the game, tennis savvy New Yorkers may remember, as I do, seeing trucks zipping around midtown streets bearing the logo of another one of Wood's business ventures, the Woods-Budge laundry.
Whether as a competitor when male tennis players wore long pants, or as a tennis-oriented laundry owner, Sidney Wood’s book is a rich source of stories about tennis history.