Sunday, January 21, 2018

St. Petersburg's Shirley Fry once reigned at Wimbledon

No one asked Shirley Fry Irvin about shutting down the Pier. They should have.

After all, it was hers.

She had won it, as sure as that trophy on her shelf, in that magical summer of 1956, back when the world was young and Fry along with it. After all, she was the Copy Girl Champion of Wimbledon. Who could deny her anything?

As the story goes, Fry's opponent in the Wimbledon final that year was an English woman named Angela Buxton, whose wealthy father had promised her a recreational pier at a seaside resort if she won Wimbledon. Upon hearing about such an offer, then-St. Petersburg Mayor Samuel Johnson cabled Fry and told her if she won, she could have St. Pete's own Pier.

Less than an hour after beating Buxton in straight sets, Fry sent a cable message back.

"Coming to collect my Pier," she said.

And she did, and on July 27, 1956, the streets of St. Petersburg rained confetti, and the politicians gave her a car, and flowers and the key to the city in the town's only ticker tape parade. They named tennis courts after her. Oh, and they gave her a (ceremonial) deed to the Pier.

"It's not really my pier," Fry says somewhat conspiratorially.

And she laughs, and all these years later, it still sounds like a spoon tinkling in a crystal glass.


Can it be that long ago? She turns 86 on June 30, and she can't play golf anymore since having her knees replaced 12 years ago, which kind of ticks her off. She doesn't remember things the way she once did.

She is a part of Wimbledon's lore, however, and a part of St. Petersburg's. Considering that, what is 57 years among friends?

Shirley Fry had retired. Back in October 1954, the wire services had all carried the story about how tennis elbow had forced her off the tour. She was working as a copy girl for the St. Petersburg Times for roughly $20 a day. She was there, reading the wires, during the 1955 Wimbledon final.

Fry played some tennis on weekends, but not like in the old days, when she was known as the fastest player on tour. But her elbow started to get better, and Fry was invited to play on the Wightman Cup team in England, and suddenly, she was back. So much for working her way up to publisher.

"I thought, 'I don't have to be a copy girl,' " said Fry, who now lives in a retirement home in Longwood, about 15 miles north of Orlando. "I had nothing to lose. Mostly, my job (at the Times) involved typing letters for the editor's secretary. When you made a mistake then, you didn't erase it or cover it up. You started the whole thing over again. I was happy to leave and go back to tennis."

Back then, it was a different game. The rackets were wooden, and the grips were different, and the strings weren't works of technology. Three of the four majors were played on grass.

And the prize money? It was nonexistent. Players had their travel taken care of, and their laundry and they stayed with families. Every now and then, a tournament might give a winner $100 with the stipulation it would be spent on tennis gear, but 1956 really was a time of amateurs.

"I think we had a lot better time than they have today," Fry said. "We were traveling and seeing the world. That meant a lot to us. Every tournament, we played singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Nowadays, they just concentrate on their singles."

And so they bounced from tournament to tournament. Maureen Connolly. Doris Hart. Althea Gibson. Rock 'n' roll was just starting out, and Elvis Presley's career, and the life of a tennis player was a good one.

Fry won her share. She is one of only 17 players to win each of the Grand Slam events (which alone would be worth about $8 million today), and she was a runnerup four times. She won 12 major doubles titles. She won the mixed in 1956 at Wimbledon. She was the No. 1-rated woman in the world in 1956. She entered the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1970. The great Billie Jean King once referred to Fry as "my idol."

Yet, a certain amount of celebrity seemed to escape Fry. Take the '56 Wimbledon title. The Sports Illustrated account made a much bigger deal of Lew Hoad, who won the men's singles. When it came to discussing the women, most of the article was about Gibson, who Fry beat in the quarters. Fry also beat Gibson in the '56 U.S. Open and in the '57 Australian Open.

"I think I had Althea's number," Fry said. "She didn't like to play against me. Off the court, she was a very nice person. But she's somebody you want to beat when she was on the court. In Australia, they booed her for slow play. I shouldn't say that.

"She gets much better credit than I do. People remember her name much quicker than mine. But I beat her when I should have."

Fry pauses.

"You know, all I'm trying to do now is outlive the champions who are older than me. Louise Brough is 90, and Doris Hart is 88."

And then the laugh comes again, hearty and infectious. It's a musical laugh, a laugh-along laugh.

Oh, she has been some places, and she has some stories to tell. In 1951, her first year on tour, Fry reached the final of her first Wimbledon. In the final, however, she lost to her old friend Hart in straight sets. She was ticked, and so she spent the evening drinking champagne. The next day, playing in the doubles final, she said she "saw about two balls all afternoon."

Ah, but then came 1956, the year of her comeback. Fry didn't lose a set in her first four singles matches. She lost her first set to Gibson in the quarters, then came back and won. She lost her first set to Brough, then came back and won. That left Buxton, who was trying to become the first British woman to win Wimbledon in 19 years.

Buxton never had a chance. Fry won 6-3, 6-1 in 50 minutes, never losing her serve. The trophy was hers. The Pier, too.

That year, Beverly Baker Fleitz, the American player with two forehands, was a Wimbledon favorite. Someone would hit to her "backhand" side, and Fleitz would simply swap hands with the racket and hit a forehand with her left hand.

In 1956, Fleitz was seeded second at Wimbledon and reached the quarterfinals. Pregnant with her second child, however, Fleitz had to withdraw. After Fry won, she took care to thank Fleitz's husband in her victory speech.

No one covered the court as quickly as Fry. She laughs again and suggests that was because she learned to play at the University Club, where her father was a member. The courts were close together, and the first court lined up near the building. If you didn't chase down a wide serve in a hurry, you could run headlong into a wall. So she learned to move.

Ah, but serving? That was another story.

"I had the worst serve in tennis," she said. "Not even Bill Tilden could teach me a serve when I was at Rollins. But I learned to place the ball, to get the first one in."

How would she do now? Sometimes she wonders. A lot of tennis players have won a lot of matches since 1956: King and Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert and Monica Seles and Steffi Graf and Venus and Serena Williams.

"Yeah, you do think of that," Fry said. "You wonder about the new equipment. They do have a lot of speed on their ball, I'll say that. I don't know how well we would do."

The time went so fast. Fry won the last two Grand Slam events of 1956 and the first of 1957 (her only Australian). But by then, she was engaged to an umpire named Karl Irvin (who died in 1975). Although she continued to play after her marriage, she never played in another Grand Slam tournament. Instead, she had four children in five years and went about her life.

And so the years went by for Shirley Fry Irvin. Four children led to 12 grandchildren. One day, when her daughter visited the Pier, she was given the plaque that commemorated Fry's accomplishment. Over the years, a lot of people forgot.

Ah, but that golden summer afternoon is still frozen in memory. In some ways, Shirley Fry will always be the smiling young woman perched on the back seat of a convertible as it drove through St. Petersburg, soaking up the ticker tape parade and smiling at the cheering fans.

Funny how the memory outlasted the Pier.

As it turns out, both of them belonged to Fry. Trust her. The memory is better.

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