Bobby Wilson, one of Britain’s leading tennis players of the 1950s and 60s, has died at the age of 84. His exploits at Wimbledon and in the Davis Cup, often against bigger and more powerful opponents, epitomised the “British Bulldog” spirit and made him a firm favourite with the Centre Court crowd and a TV audience of millions.
During his 19-year singles career Wilson was much admired by the British public for his epic battles with the dashing American and Australian stars of his era, in particular his memorable Wimbledon victories over former champion Budge Patty in 1956 and his defeat of defending champion and top seed Neale Fraser in 1961.
The diminutive Wilson, whose receding hairline made him look older than he actually was, was often involved in tense five-set matches against some of the world’s top players. During his Wimbledon singles career he played no fewer than ten of these cliff-hangers, winning four and losing six. The fact that his opponents were invariably taller and looked more athletic merely added to the element of theatre for audiences both at Wimbledon and those watching at home on black and white television. When a Bobby Wilson match was on TV, the nation was held in thrall.
Robert Keith Wilson was born in Hendon, north London, on 22nd November 1935. Earlier that year his mother, whilst pregnant with Bobby, had attended the Wimbledon men’s singles final in which Fred Perry beat Baron Gottfried von Cramm. Bobby’s first visit to Wimbledon under his own steam came in 1946, when he accompanied his mother to watch the men’s singles final in which France’s Yvon Petra unexpectedly beat Geoff Brown of the USA.
Bobby’s early tennis education came at Finchley Manor Lawn Tennis Club, and he rose quickly to become British Junior champion in 1951. He made his first senior Wimbledon appearance a year later, winning a round before losing to Jaroslav Drobny. He won the Wimbledon junior title a few days later to seal a successful debut in SW19. Another Wimbledon debutant in 1952 was Northampton-born Billy Knight, and the two British youngsters went on to become doubles partners and lifelong friends.
Despite his early successes Wilson’s feet remained firmly on the ground. “Whenever I showed signs of getting too big for my boots my parents quickly brought me down to earth. They wouldn’t let me get conceited.”
A roller-coaster career followed, with Wilson sometimes a Davis Cup hero and at others branded a rebel over his disagreements with the Lawn Tennis Association. Despite these occasional brushes with authority, Wilson represented his country in 34 Davis Cup ties between 1955 and 1968, an all-time record which cannot now be broken following the restructuring of the competition. His Davis Cup win-loss record in singles and doubles was 41-20 against many of the world’s leading players.
Career highlights included reaching the singles quarter finals at Wimbledon four times, Forest Hills twice, and Roland Garros once. He was a runner-up in the men’s doubles at Wimbledon in 1960 in partnership with Davis Cup team-mate Mike Davies. He played his final match at Wimbledon in 1977 at the age of 41, partnering Jackie Fayter of Devon against John McEnroe and Mary Carillo. In typical Bobby Wilson fashion, the match went down to a deciding set, the American pair squeezing home 5-7, 9-8, 7-5.
After his retirement from the international game Wilson continued to play and coach until shortly before his death. He had a long term association with the Chandos Lawn Tennis Club in Golders Green, traveling there regularly from his home in Welwyn, Hertfordshire.
For a decade Bobby Wilson could beat anyone in the world on his day and was a genuine contender for a Grand Slam singles title, but as he himself put it: “My weaknesses were that I probably played too many touch shots and that I lacked the killer instinct. I enjoyed playing more than I enjoyed winning. I played tennis for the fascination of it. I played instinctively.”
Bobby Wilson, tennis player, born 22nd November 1935, Hendon, London; died 21st September 2020, Finchley, London.