On this day: Tennis legend Anthony Wilding loses life in World War I

Tennis - Anthony was one of the most successful players in pre-World War II era, winning six Grand Slam titles and more than 100 tournaments overall

by Jovica Ilic
On this day: Tennis legend Anthony Wilding loses life in World War I

The Battle of Aubers Ridge near Neuve-Chapelle, one of the numerous trench encounters of the Western front in the First World War took place on May 9, 1915, with Anthony Wilding among some 11000 casualties on the British side.

On that day, the tennis world lost one of the best players of the pre-World War II era (the second best before WWI after Laurie Doherty) and one of the finest clay-courters that the game has ever witnessed! The 31-year-old from Christchurch, New Zealand, joined the British army soon after the war erupted (he studied law at Cambridge) and lost his life on that fatal day on the battlefield in France while in command of some 30 men.

One hundred and four years later, we pay tribute to this outstanding player who won six Grand Slam titles in singles (four at Wimbledon) and five in doubles, four Davis Cups, Olympic bronze medal in Stockholm 1912 and some 120 tournaments in total!

Wilding claimed his Grand Slam crowns on grass although he was also a clay-court giant, conquering some 75 events on the slowest surface between 1900-1914, an unmatched number even for Rafael Nadal. Anthony was a real playboy of his time, traveling across Europe on his motorcycle and playing against the politicians and nobility.

Wilding was born in 1883 in the sporting family and had the opportunity to practice at home since they had a tennis court. After early success at home, Anthony moved to England in 1902 and graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1905.

From 1904, he started to play tournaments in England, mainly on grass in Sheffield, although he always preferred to go to continental Europe and compete on clay. Also, Wilding fancied to travel and play wherever he could, kicking off the season at home in New Zealand, then moving to the French Riviera in March, Paris in April, London in May, Austria at the end of May and again in July, and, of course, at Wimbledon in between.

The other months were loaded as well and he used to spend winters in Austria. From May 1910, Anthony probably never lost on clay in the next four year, including the World Hard Court Championships in Paris in 1914, a span of some 30 tournaments and more than 120 matches!

For an illustration, Wilding conquered all 11 clay events played in 1914, winning around 50 encounters without getting beaten. When we talk about everything that Rafael Nadal has accomplished on clay, we should always remember Wilding as well since he managed to deliver some outstanding streaks on dirt 100 years before the Spaniard.

Back in the day, the world of tennis wasn't familiar with a term of Grand Slam and there were three significant Championships on three different surfaces. In 1913, Anthony Wilding won them all, The World Hard Court Championship (in Paris, on clay), The World Lawn Tennis Championship (at Wimbledon on grass) and The World Covered Court Championship (in Stockholm on indoor wood), which was a great accomplishment and the peak of his career.

Three years earlier, Wilding went all the way to win his first Wimbledon crown, beating Arthur Gore in the title match. That meant he only had to score one win in 1911 to defend the title, in the system known as the Challenge Round (it would be abolished in 1922), doing that against Herbert Roper Barrett who retired before the start of the fifth set.

In 1912, Arthur Gore was in the final again but Anthony proved to be too strong, prevailing in four sets for his third Wimbledon crown in a row. Maurice McLoughlin fell in 1913 final before Wilding finally lost to Norman Brookes in the final 12 months later, with the Australian taking him down 6-4, 6-4, 7-5.

Wilding toppled Brookes twice that spring at the Riviera and didn't train like he used to before that Wimbledon final, confident that he can overpower the well-known rival again. The outcome was, as we can see, completely different, and Wilding never got a chance to play at Wimbledon again. He was introduced into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1978.