Sidney Wood, the dying boy who became Wimbledon champion

Article and photos by Pedro Hernández

In 1931, American Sidney Wood became the only Wimbledon champion not to play in the final, as his opponent and friend Frank Shields missed the match through injury. For half a century, until Boris Becker’s victory at the All England Club in 1985, Woods was the youngest Wimbledon champion. Back in 1927, Wood first entered the tournament’s record book as the youngest ever entrant in the men’s draw at 15 years and 231 days.

Sidney Burr Beardslee Wood Jr. was born in Black Rock, Connecticut on 1 November 1911 and grew up in New York. His early years brought many fears for his life, as he was usually bedridden and seriously ill. «As a child, my usual condition was to be sick. On more than one occasion, they came close to giving up hope that I would make it. My family tried everything, but there was nothing they could do to improve my health. The only exercise I did during those years was playing the piano, but that didn’t help me get better. I learned to play a lot of loud music. I had every possible illness a child could have, but the worst was undoubtedly tuberculosis,» Wood said in an interview describing his childhood.

He found his first racket in the garage of his house

His parents were well off in the mining business and were members of the extraordinary and elegant Meadow Club in South Southampton, where they spent their summer holidays. For unknown reasons, the boy’s health improved and he began to play tennis with a racket he found in the garage at home. «My first shots were against the garage wall. Most of the great players of my time started playing tennis on the garage wall,» Wood explained.

It was no coincidence that there was a racket in the garage. His uncle, Watson Washburn, was a top-five player in the United States, a doubles finalist twice at Forest Hills and once at Wimbledon, and a member of the 1921 Davis Cup team. It was Watson Washburn who taught him to play tennis. Sidney was 12 years old. He had an amazing ability to learn quickly, very quickly.

In addition to being a fun-loving kid, Sidney had a lot of initiative. He attended The Hill School in Pottstown, about 50 kilometres from Philadelphia. The school had sports facilities for conventional sports, but also for ancient practices. They played shinney, a sport for girls that originated with Native American tribes and used a ball made of buffalo hair, sand, chamois and sinew, or town ball, which became the forerunner of baseball.

Wood wanted to put some of his own initiative into it and invented J-Ball, a sport that is still played at The Hill School today. J-ball is a mixture of tennis and baseball, with teams of 11 players, with bases, but using a tennis racket as a bat and the ball is also a tennis ball. However, in 1924, although his health had improved enormously, the family felt that a better climate would do him good and they moved to Tucson, Arizona.

In 1926, Sidney won the Arizona State Championships, a victory that opened the door to a scholarship to play at Roland Garros the following year. His uncle, Watson Washburn, did the necessary publicity work to ensure that, once in Europe, he was able to play in Wimbledon, which began immediately after the Paris tournament.

Sidney, who was 15, made his Grand Slam debut by defeating Frenchman Paul Barrelet de Ricou in the first round at Roland Garros in 1927. He was knocked out the next day by South African Jack Condon, so he packed his bags for London. At the All England Club he was not very fortunate in the draw, but he was lucky on the stage of his debut in the ‘Cathedral’. His opponent was René Lacoste, who was scheduled at the majestic centre court and eliminated him in three quick sets.

Wood grew, but lacked the killer instinct

Wood’s tennis was growing in quality, and in 1928 he reached the third round at Paris and Wimbledon and made his US Open debut, losing to Jack Crawford in the first round. It was clear that he was becoming one of the best American tennis players of the time, but also that he did not have that ‘killer instinct’, that need to compete.

It was not until 1931 that Sidney Wood played at Wimbledon again. In March he had made his debut against Mexico in the Davis Cup team, so the All England Club officials named him the seventh seed for the competition. He advanced steadily, beating Ranbir Singh, Anthony Crossley and RCT Barcelona’s Enrique Maier in the early rounds, and after a tough match against New Zealand’s Camile Malfroy, he reached the quarter-finals.

After beating Australian Pat Hughes in the quarter-finals and local hero Fred Perry in the semi-finals, Sidney was through to the final. His opponent, friend and fellow Davis Cup player was Frank Shields, the grandfather of actress Brooke Shields, who had injured his ankle in the semi-final against Jean Borotra. At the insistence of the Davis Cup captain, who wanted him to be ready for the Davis Cup final against Great Britain a few days later, Shields did not take to the court for the only final to be won by a walkover at the All England Club.

But Wood’s long game and exquisite courtesy were on full display when he presented the championship trophy. Wood presented the trophy to Maud Barger-Wallach, the 1908 Forest Hills champion, daughter of the president of the New York Railroad and a good friend of both players. Wood, who felt that Shields would have been overwhelming favourite in the final, told Maud to keep the trophy. «I will only put this trophy in my trophy cabinet if I can beat Frank in the final of a major grass court tournament,» he told her. Three years later, Wood beat Shields 6-4, 6-3 in the Queen’s final. On her return to the United States, Maud returned the trophy.

Proving that success on the course was not the most important thing in his life, not least because it did not bring him any income, Woods cut back on his competitive schedule, set up shop on Wall Street as a stockbroker during the Great Depression, and co-founded the Budge-Wood Laundromat in Manhattan with Donald Budge. Through his Wall Street contacts, Wood reconnected with the gold mining industry in California, a business he had grown up with as a miner’s son. By the age of 26 he was a partner in several mines.

He was champion at Queens in 1934 and runner-up at Forest Hills in 1935, but did not lift a trophy again until 1938, when he won at Beverly Hills. He never lost his good humour, and at Roland Garros he starred in one of the funniest anecdotes of the Paris tournament. In 1932, after losing to René Lacoste in an epic five-hour battle, Wood was scheduled to play in the mixed doubles final the next day with Helen Wills.

Wood and Lacoste were in the dressing room, both suffering from severe cramps. Helen Wills’ father offered her a glass of Napoleon brandy to help her recover. Lacoste, a teetotaler, refused and gave his share to Wood, who drank a double brandy. Suddenly they were told that the mixed doubles was due to start in a few minutes and that Wood was expected to play. His opponents would be Fred Perry and Betty Nuthall.

Who better than Wood to explain the match. «After five sets and in the humidity, you have no idea what a drink like that does to a person. At the time I thought I was fine and ready to take on Bill Tilden, Fred Perry and Henri Cochet all at the same time. But already on the court, I approached the net and started to see the double. There was more than one ball coming towards me and I decided to hit one of them and let the other drop. All I’ll say is that we lost very quickly,» Wood recalled years later.

Sidney Wood continued to play tennis into his 70s. Among his contributions to modern times, Wood invented the ‘Supreme Court’, the court most commonly used in the early Open era in indoor tournaments, and especially by the WCT. He died on 10 January 2009, aged 97, in Palm Beach, Florida.