The weirdest stories ever to come from a tennis match
From vicars playing murderers to players running out of rackets, tennis can be a funny old sport. During Wimbledon earlier this year the author of a new book reveals some of the game’s strangest tales.
The game between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King was the battle of the sexes par excellence. A former Wimbledon champion, by the age of 55 Riggs had cultivated an image as the game’s leading chauvinist when he challenged 30-year-old Australian Margaret Court to a one-off singles match. He won an easy victory 6-2, 6-1. Among those infuriated by his patronizing behavior was 29-year-old Billie Jean King.
After initially refusing Riggs’ challenge she agreed to a five-set contest. A record tennis crowd of 30,492 turned out at Houston Astrodome baseball stadium on the evening of September 20, 1973, and nearly 50 million watched it on TV.
The spectacle began with a group of footballers carrying King on to court on a litter. Riggs came on dressed as Henry VIII and gnawing on a huge bone before being humbled in straight sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. As King bagged the official $100,000 purse Riggs just had enough breath left to gasp: “The girl was all over me . I didn’t realize she was so quick."
On July 15, 1879, J T Hartley beat Mr St Leger 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 in a fairly routine Wimbledon final. John Thorneycroft Hartley was a vicar who, not expecting to progress very far in the tournament, had not even organised cover for his Sunday service.
His opponent was Irishman Vere Thomas “St Leger” Goold. In 1907 the match would acquire its notoriety. After falling on hard times Goold and his wife made the acquaintance of wealthy Danish widow Emma Liven, from whom they secured “loans”.
On Tuesday, August 6, the Goolds took a train from Monte Carlo to Marseilles, where they deposited a trunk that was later discovered to contain the dismembered body of Mrs Liven.
The trial lasted three days with Goold admitting to the murder. He remains the only convicted murderer to have contested a Wimbledon final.
In 1982 Miss Anne White of the USA took Wimbledon’s famous all-white rule to its logical conclusion when she appeared on Court Two wearing a figure-hugging neck to ankle white bodysuit. She was censured by the authorities for her outfit as it “drew too much attention to the sexual area”.
She agreed to cover up, musing: “I didn’t want to put anyone off their strawberries and cream.”
Anne White caused scandal because of her figure-hugging outfit
“A real survivor” is a term used particularly in tennis, where hanging on in there is a quality that every champion needs. Norris Williams was one such real survivor.
On Saturday July 3, 1920, the American was on the winning side in the gentlemen’s doubles final. But, I hear you ask, where is the strangeness in that? Williams, a Harvard-educated veteran of the First World War and winner of the Croix de Guerre, carried a secret that few were aware of.
Shortly before midnight on April 14, 1912, he went for an impromptu swim in the Atlantic Ocean. He spent more than an hour in the water before being rescued.
Other people, 1,490 of them, including his own father, weren’t so lucky and would never get the chance to match his record, one that can never be beaten.
Williams is and always will be the only survivor of the Titanic ever to have won a Wimbledon title.
Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3
Bill Tilden dominated men’s tennis so masterfully in the 1920s that many still rate him as the best player of all time. Many egos were shattered at his hands, perhaps none more completely than that of British player D M Greig.
In 1927 America agreed to play Great Britain in a Davis Cup-style challenge match prior to Wimbledon. D M Greig, called into the British team as a late replacement, played Tilden in the opening match.
Tilden swept through the first set 6-0 and the second set was no different. Not until he was 4-0 up in the third did Tilden let a game slip as he wrapped up the match 6-0, 6-0, 6-2. The entire match lasted only 22 minutes.
That constitutes a speed record for the shortest ever best-of-five sets match that remains in the record books to this day.
Norris Williams was a survivor of the tragic Titanic
Despite giving the world the Davis Cup in 1900 the Americans were having a tough time of it in 1931 with the trophy having been in French hands since 1927. In the Wimbledon final two Americans, Frank Shields – grandfather of actress Brooke Shields – and Sidney Wood were due to battle it out for the trophy.
Straight after they were to play in a Davis Cup tie against Great Britain. Before the Wimbledon final the US captain Gene Dixon announced that Shields, who had suffered an inconsequential ankle injury during the semi-finals, was unable to play.
The match was cancelled and Wood is still the only man in more than 400 Grand Slam tennis finals to have won the match without playing a shot. Despite their tactics the Americans went on to lose the tie with Britain.
Goran Ivanisevic entered the 2000 Samsung Open in Brighton with high hopes. A weak field gave him a great chance and a second round match against South Korea’s Hyung-Taik Lee didn’t seem much of a problem. Then in the first set, when he dropped his serve to go 6-5 down, he promptly smashed his racket. He recovered his composure to take the second set 7-6 after a tie-break but in the third set racket number two cracked.
Ivanisevic persevered with it until the next changeover before dumping that one too in the bin. Four points later a double fault presented Lee with two break points, Ivanisevic then smashed his third racket on the floor before telling the umpire that he had no more left.
There was no alternative but for the racketless Croat to retire , becoming the first player in history to lose a match in such a way.
Tim Henman kisses Caroline Hall after hitting her with a tennis ball
The first player to be disqualified from Wimbledon was none other than British favourite Tim Henman. During a 1995 doubles match Tiger Tim lashed out at a ball in frustration, accidentally hitting ballgirl Caroline Hall, who had just run on to the court.
The umpire had no choice but to disqualify him and Henman’s doubles partner Jeremy Bates. But all ended well. Henman issued a public apology, presented Hall with a Wimbledon-themed bunch of flowers and she graciously added: “He has said sorry but I had already forgiven him.”