World War I was one of the most cataclysmic events in human history and in certain parts of the world its repercussion are still felt today. In the United Kingdom and the commonwealth countries Armistice Day, 11th November, still holds special significance. All walks of life and activities were affected, including sport. For example, the All England Lawn Tennis Club closed its doors to all competition between 1915 and 1918. The Internationals of France, in which only local players competed, closed their doors in Paris between 1915 and 1919. The Australian Championships, in Brisbane, canceled all events between 1916 and 1918 and the most prestigious team competition in world tennis, the Davis Cup, suspended operation between 1915 and 1918.
The only major tournament that continued during the Great War was the United States Open, although the 1917 edition was renamed the National Patriotic Tournament in honor of soldiers on the battlefields. Tickets for that edition, played at the Forest Hills venue, went to the Red Cross and no trophies, quite rightly, were awarded to the champions.
When the carnage had ended approximately 10 million people had been killed with another 20 million wounded, and it was obvious that the world had changed. The sports world had, along with all other professions, suffered enormous casualties. It was in the world of tennis that two of those victims left an indelible mark on their chosen sport: Roland Garros and Anthony Frederick Wilding. If you are a keen follower of international tennis then Roland Garros’ name will be very familiar. The French open takes place in the stadium named after him every year.
Born in Saint Dennis, Reunion Island, Roland Garros was a pioneer of French aviation. Prior to the Great War Garros religiously attended the tennis centre in the grounds of Stade Francais in Paris whilst studying. Roland Garros was only, at best, an enthusiastic tennis player. His first love was aviation and in fact he was the first man to fly across the Mediterranean Sea in 1913. Today the Stade de Roland Garros is one of the premier tennis venues in the world and home to one of the Grand Slam tournaments. The tournament is officially called Les internationaux de France de Roland Garros (the “French Internationals of Roland Garros”).
During the war Roland Garros also designed a system that allowed machine guns to shoot through the propellers. Roland Garros was captured by Germany in 1915 and spent three years as a prisoner of war. He escaped after sending coded messages to France arranging for a map of Germany to be delivered in the hollow handle of a tennis racket. His friend the athlete Emile Lesieur, who after the war, acceded to the presidency of the Stade Francais, was the one who honored him by immortalizing with his name the new stage that France built in the aftermath of the Great War. Roland Garros died in aerial combat in 1918 in the Ardennes, near Vouziers.
We look at modern male tennis players and we are struck by their athletic ability and matinee idol good looks. Looking at a picture of Tony Wilding he would not look out place in today’s game. Anthony ‘ Tony ‘ Frederick Wilding was a symbol of Wimbledon and world tennis. No one dominated tennis like Wilding in the years leading up to the First World War. He won the Australian Open in 1906 and 1909, Wimbledon in 1910, 1911, 1912 and 1913 and was a finalist in 1914, raised the Davis Cup three times, won the bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912 and won three Championships on three different surfaces. Tony Wilding was a tennis player of extraordinary charisma, of great athletic ability and the first tennis player with a constructed training program. He did not drink alcohol or smoke, and used much of his time in improving his athletic quality. At Wimbledon, they adored him.
Born in 1883 in Christchurch, New Zealand, Tony was the son of a British couple who emigrated to the antipodes. His father, a lawyer by profession, bought land near Christchurch, where he installed a tennis court, a cricket pitch and a swimming pool. Ralph Salzenger built one of the most famous firms in the history of tennis, gave Wilding in 1899, when he was only six, a tennis racket with which young Tony took his first steps in the game. He excelled more on the tennis court than in the classroom were his studies began to choke his passion for the sport.
In 1902, aboard a ship loaded with 12,000 sheepskins, Wilding’s father sent his son to study and train in Britain. After intensive courses in Hunstanton, he passed the exams at Trinity College, and went Cambridge University to study law. Tony Wilding took only a few days to get accepted as a member of the Cambridge University Lawn Tennis Club.
The first time Tony Wilding stepped on Wimbledon was in 1903, but only has an impressionable young spectator. Tony Wilding was impressed by the quality of play, in particular by Harold Mahoney, champion of Wimbledon in 1896 and finalist in the US Open in 1897. He was impressed by the style of Mahony and the general magic of Wimbledon. Seven years later, he stepped on the grass for the first time, to win the first of his four consecutive titles.
During those years, Wilding was frequent participant in tournaments all over Europe. Not only was Wilding a great tennis player but also an avid adventurer, in his stays in Europe, he traveled the Costa Azul, Serbia, Hungary, Germany, France, Sweden and Norway riding a motorcycle at full speed. During his trips to America Wilding became friends with many people in the burgeoning movie industry.
Upon the outbreak of the Great War Tony Wilding enlisted in the Royal Marines division, coincidently under the leadership of Winston Churchill. He died from the impact of a bomb on May 9, 1915, already as captain of the motorized division at the battle of Aubers Ridge, near the Pas de Calais. As they removed his body from the battlefield, a gold cigarette case (even though he did not smoke) was found in his pocket, a prize from a tournament on the Riviera.
A few days after his death, his family received the last letter written by Wilding in his lifetime. “For the first time in seven and a half months, I have a mission in which a shot can make me fly to Hell. But if we succeed, we will help our infantry to the end“. Wimbledon and tennis lost a great champion both on and off the track.