An Interview With Kevin Jefferys

We managed to have a quick Q&A with Kevin Jefferys, author of Fred Perry. British Tennis Legend to find out what it’s like to research and write about Sports History.

1. What inspired you to write about sports history?
I’ve always loved sport since I was a youngster, particularly football and tennis. I’ve played tennis throughout my life and I’m very fortunate to live a mile or so from an indoor tennis centre, which means I can play all-year round. I mostly now play what’s politely called ‘social tennis’, ie not all that strenuous! Also sports history has developed considerably in academic circles in the past generation, and I was able to teach a course on sport and society in my role as a history lecturer. So it seemed a natural step for me to start writing about aspects of sports history, especially tennis.

2. Writing about Fred Perry is exciting, what was the best bit?
There were two things that I found most exciting as I researched Perry. One was finding out what a varied life he had, from being a world table tennis champion as a teenager to being a ‘man about Hollywood’, feted by the film stars, and building his own sportswear company, over and above his superb achievements in tennis. The other was enabling me to get a little closer to understanding what drives real champions in sport. In Fred’s case (and I think he shares this with Andy Murray) a crucial element was the off-the-scale hatred of losing which he showed from an early age; something which set him way apart from the ‘good loser’ sporting image of many British tennis players before and since.

3. Have you got anything else in the pipeline?
Following on from the Perry biography, I’m working on a book for Pitch called British Tennis: from the Renshaws to the Murrays. It’s a study of how Britain has fared on the international stage from the beginnings of competitive lawn tennis in the 1880s through to the present day. My broad argument is that we’ve fared better than we often think, especially if we take into account not just the likes of Perry and Murray but also successes in women’s tennis, led by the likes of Virginia Wade and Ann Jones. I’ll be aiming to pursue the main argument by looking at who has really delivered for Britain in world tennis at the grand slam events, in the Davis Cup, and at the Olympic Games. So much of the book will be about who, in my opinion, have been Britain’s greatest players, from the Renshaw brothers in the 1880s to Jamie and Andy Murray today.

4. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
The type of background research varies according to the content of the book. In the past I’ve published several works of political history, for example a book on the history of sport and politics in Britain, which came out at the time of the London 2012 Olympics. For that I used research materials such as government papers – on issues such as the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics – which are held at the National Archives in London. For my books on tennis history, I use things like tennis journals and magazines (many of them held in the excellent Library in the grounds of Wimbledon), as well as autobiographies by coaches and players, which give a real insight into the minds of those who compete at the highest level.

5. How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Generally it takes me a couple of years, if all goes well. I like to spend roughly the first half of that time-frame reading and absorbing the research material, and then the second half writing and re-writing – that’s the hard bit!

Extract from Fred Perry. British Tennis Legend (Pitch Publishing, 2017)

Fred Perry achieved considerable fame and – later on in his life – fortune. His Wimbledon victory in 1934 was the first of three successive triumphs in London SW19, and until the end of 1936 he remained the undisputed world number one in the amateur game. In addition to Wimbledon, he won the national championships of Australia, France and (on three occasions) the United States, making him the first player to claim all four ‘grand slam’ titles…. As well as eight major singles titles, like many other top players of his era he played tournament doubles to keep himself sharp, and he won the French and Australian men’s titles as well as claiming four mixed doubles triumphs – a combined total of 14 top-level successes. He also played the lead role in Britain’s domination of the premier international competition in tennis, the Davis Cup, which was won on four successive occasions between 1933 and 1936.

All in all, Perry’s record was remarkable. Only in the very recent past, with the rise of Andy Murray to world number one, has a British man come close to matching – some would say exceeding, in view of the depth of opposition and ferocity of men’s tennis today – the scale of Perry’s achievements. The long-wait for another home-grown male winner at Wimbledon lasted for 77 years, until 2013 witnessed the first of two triumphs for Murray (who at the time of writing has a total of three grand slam titles to his name). As for the national team, it was even longer, in 2015, before Britain – inspired by the performances of Murray and his brother Jamie – once again claimed the Davis Cup.

This book sets out to examine afresh the life and career of Fred Perry, and in particular to explore the issue of why – despite building up a reputation in the 1930s as one of the first modern-style global sports celebrities – acclaim for him was not readily evident among the tennis authorities in Britain, either in his prime playing days or for many years afterwards.

About Kevin Jefferys

Kevin Jefferys, formerly history professor at Plymouth University, is the author of a dozen books including Anthony Crosland, Finest and Darkest Hours and Politics and the People. In recent years he has published widely on aspects of sports history, including articles on British and world tennis. His work Sport and Politics in Modern Britain: The Road to 2012 was winner of the 2013 Lord Aberdare book prize.