Anthony Wilding won tennis fame because of his eight Wimbledon titles – four singles and four doubles - and brilliant record in Davis Cup. However, he earned Olympic honours, too, claiming a bronze medal at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.
The dashing New Zealander, tennis' first matinee idol, had female spectators swooning at Wimbledon because of his "manly brand of tennis", as contemporary reports described it. He was handsome, chivalrous and ever on the lookout for adventure.
He motorcycled around Europe on his Bat-JAP, stopping to play in the great tournaments of the Riviera, Germany, Serbia, Hungary, Sweden and Norway. He drove cars fast and, shortly before World War I, he became a pilot.
Tragically, Captain Anthony Wilding died at Neuve Chapelle, on the northern France border, while fighting in the torrid Battle of Ypres, on the Western Front, on May 9, 1915. He was 31, vital, cheerful and fit, and about to marry US actor Maxine Elliott.
Wilding was born at Opawa, near Christchurch, on October 31, 1883, one of five children of Frederick (a wealthy barrister) and Julia. The family owned a huge property called Fownhope. Frederick was a New Zealand cricket rep, and a good jockey, footballer, athlete and oarsman.
His son, Anthony, played at Wimbledon every year from 1904-14, except 1909. He won the singles title four years in succession, 1910-13, and the doubles four times with Norman Brookes.
Wilding received valuable early advice about physical training from former world heavyweight boxing champion Bob Fitzsimmons, another New Zealander. He never drank alcohol and, unusually for the times, never smoked. And he trained, running two or three times a week and doing brisk walks, as well as playing tennis.
The greatest match of Wilding's career was the 1913 Wimbledon final against brilliant young American Maurice McLoughlin, the “Californian Comet”. McLoughlin, with his big service and crunching forehand, was expected to deal summarily with Wilding. More than 7000 spectators turned up and the ticket scalpers had a field day. The New Zealander played superbly to win 8-6, 6-3, 10-8.
So great was the crush afterwards that many women fainted and, it was reported, "had to be laid out on the court beside the roller until they could be removed".
He had intended competing at the 1908 London Olympics, but because of an administrative mix-up, never made it to those games.
Wilding was clearly the best player in the world in 1912, and was favoured to win the Olympic gold in Stockholm. Actually, there were two Olympic tennis tournaments in 1912. An outdoor tournament in early July attracted 49 competitors, but no stars (not surprisingly, because it clashed with Wimbledon), and was won by Charles Winslow, of South Africa. The more prestigious Olympic tournament was held indoors in mid-May and attracted 22 entries from six countries. The slick, wooden indoor surface was expected to favour the power and pace of the athletic New Zealander
It was not a fully representative tennis competition, though the field was relatively strong. Britain sent some of its best players, and France was represented by stars André Gobert and Fifi Germot. But Wilding was the big attraction, as he always was.
He was beaten in the semi-final by Charles Dixon, a goodish English player who had variety and control. “Dixon won the first set easily,” wrote Wallis Myers in Twenty Years of Lawn Tennis, “and lost the second after a struggle, but the third and fourth sets, though close, always gave me the impression that, unless his physical resources gave out, Dixon would win.”
Dixon wrote later: “I always found Tony a scrupulously fair opponent. I shall never forget how good he was when I was lucky enough to beat him in Stockholm and I treasure his public statement given at the dinner after the Olympic contest, to the effect that I was the better man on the day. No other adversary would have said that.”
In the final Gobert beat Dixon in straight sets, while Wilding gained a consolation bronze medal by beating Briton Gordon Lowe 4-6, 6-2, 7-5, 6-0.
Wilding qualified for the New Zealand Bar, but was never a lawyer type of person. He never packed, but merely crumpled his gear into a suitcase and shook it until it closed. He'd rather be riding his motorcycle, or playing tennis with Prime Minister Balfour or King Gustav of Sweden than appearing in court.
Handsome, fair-haired and blue-eyed, he had a vibrant, debonair nature. Myers wrote: "Physically and mentally he became a man; spiritually he was a boy until the end."
Wilding was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.