Re: Shirley Fry - the forgotten champion?
I remember reading this in print. It was huge. It's the type of article not often seen "these days." The Pier changed a lot since they gave it to Shirley, and now they're renovating it again.
The story of 'Whirley Shirley' // Shirley Fry won Wimbledon and St. Petersburg's heart
St. Petersburg Times
Monday, July 3, 1989
Every year about this time, Wimbledon time, the letters and autograph-seekers track her down without fail. If that doesn't get to her, the ''Breakfast at Wimbledon'' broadcast usually does. She hasn't missed a one.
Even though more than three decades have passed, the mere mention of Wimbledon inevitably takes Shirley Irvin back - back to the mid-1950s when she was ''Whirley'' Shirley Fry , a one-time copy girl who incredibly rode the support of St. Petersburg residents from semi-retirement to a Wimbledon singles championship in 1956.
Mesmerized by her accomplishment, which many people believed put St. Petersburg on the tennis map, the city showered her with gifts, including the city's first (and apparently only) ticker-tape parade.
They even gave her The Pier.
''I'm overwhelmed. Nothing like this ever happened to me before,'' she said of the city's response. ''How did it all start? Why did they do it?''
1954: Gasoline was 29 cents; RCA introduced the first color television; Sports Illustrated rolled off the presses for the first time; the New York Giants swept the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series.
Ever since Shirley June Irvin, 62, can remember, sports has been a part of her life. While growing up in Akron, Ohio, she was heavily influenced by her father, a former Ohio University track and field star who got her involved in swimming, ice skating, baseball, running, archery, badminton and, of course, tennis. ''I was a real tomboy,'' she admitted.
It wasn't long before her tennis skills began to dwarf everything else. At age 10, she was traveling, often alone, to cities as far away as Philadelphia to play in junior tennis tournaments. She became a two-time national junior champion in 1944 and 1945 and earned a human-relations degree from Rollins College in Winter Park.
Like nearly all junior players, she had visions of playing on Centre Court at Wimbledon. ''My goal was to play there by 1945, but I couldn't because of (World War II),'' she said.
She made it in 1948, but was forced to default her quarterfinal match to Louise Brough because of a sprained ankle. Three years later, she reached the final but was trounced 6-1, 6-0 by friend Doris Hart, one of the game's all-time greats.
Despite being one of the top-ranked Americans on the women's tour in her time, Fry quickly gained a reputation as a gifted player who couldn't win a major singles title. Prior to 1954, she was 1-5 in Grand Slam finals, winning only the 1951 French Open, then not considered a ''major'' event.
Finally, after nearly a decade on the tour, Fry retired in October of 1954 because of a nagging elbow injury and because ''I was tired of living out of a suitcase.'' At 27, she was satisfied, having won the French Open singles crown and, in tandem with Hart, 11 Grand Slam doubles titles, including the French Open and U.S. Open doubles four consecutive years.
Upon retiring, she moved to St. Petersburg because of the warm climate. She stayed with friend Dan Sullivan, a former touring pro who still teaches tennis at Sunset Country Club, and his wife Casey. Casey, who worked in the St. Petersburg Times advertising department, helped Fry get a job with the newspaper.
One of her first duties as copy girl was sending the story of her own retirement down to the composing room.
''I knew my best years were probably behind me and it was too bad,'' she said. She earned minimum wage, about 75 cents per hour back then. ''Boy, I hated sitting and typing all day. I thought I had had enough of the travel until I took that job.''
But, as it turned out, tennis wouldn't let go. After playing only recreational tennis for several months, she decided to enter two Florida tournaments in early 1955.
She won them both, upsetting the top-ranked Hart in one final. Still ranked among the best in the nation, Fry soon was invited to play on the U.S. Wightman Cup team, which at that time was playing at Wimbledon the week before the major tournament.
''It was a free trip abroad,'' she reasoned. ''I figured, why not?''
She resigned from the Times in August 1955 and intensified her workouts with Sullivan at the St. Petersburg Tennis Center, then called Bartlett Park. After helping the United States to a 5-2 win over Great Britain, Fry decided to stick around for Wimbledon.
''I never thought I could win it,'' she said.
With Fry now 28, and coming out of retirement, hardly anyone else thought so either.
1955: Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala.; Disneyland opens in Anaheim; Captain Kangaroo graces the television screen; Bill Haley records Rock Around the Clock; Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opens in New York.
Fry got a break that year when Wimbledon favorite Beverly Fleitz, a finalist the year before, pulled out just before the tournament after learning she was pregnant. ''I wrote her husband a note to say thanks,'' Fry, now a resident of Hartford, Conn., said with a laugh.
As Fry moved through the field, her confidence grew and the rustiness of her layoff lessened. Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, ''everybody in town was behind her, sending her telegrams saying 'Go, go,' '' recalled Sullivan.
Celebrating her 29th birthday during the tournament, Fry reached the quarterfinals to face Althea Gibson, who would win the tournament the next two years and become the first African-American in history to win a major tennis title. This particular Fry-Gibson clash would be the start of a friendly yet intense rivalry between the two champions.
''Althea was a person I never wanted to lose to,'' she said. ''Everybody has a personality and she was always very sure of herself, and that made you always want to win when you played her (yet) I probably thought I was going to get beat by her.''
According to accounts of the match, Fry's consistent baseline game outlasted Gibson's charging serve-and-volley attack. Fry barely pulled it off, winning 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
In the semifinals, she again was stretched to three sets, but beat Louise Brough 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. Incredibly, only Britain's Angela Buxton now stood between Fry and a most unexpected Wimbledon championship.
''After I beat Louise, I thought maybe I could win,'' she said. ''But now the pressure was on because I was supposed to beat (Buxton).''
That's probably why Buxton's father promised his daughter a recreation pier at a English seaside resort if she won. Not to be outdone, Samuel Johnson, then the St. Petersburg mayor, told Fry by telegram that she could have St. Petersburg's downtown pier if she won.
''This is subject to city council approval, of course,'' the mayor added in the telegram.
''I was surprised,'' Fry said. ''You know, it was very difficult traveling alone and it made a big difference to have people there for you. To know that all these people in St. Pete were behind me it just made me want to make them proud.''
It took her only 50 minutes to win the title. Again, it was her human backboard game that did the trick, drubbing Buxton 6-3, 6-1. When they met at the net for the customary handshake, both were crying.
Less than an hour after hoisting the coveted Wimbledon champion's plate above her head for all to see, Fry sent a telegram to Mayor Johnson that read: ''Coming soon to collect my pier.''
The city went wild.
Residents and city officials called for a ticker-tape parade. After stopping at the National Clay Court Championships in Chicago (she won that, too, beating Gibson in the final), Fry was to arrive in St. Petersburg on July 27, 1956. It was a Friday, but everyone called it ''Fryday.''
''It was a big moment as far as we were concerned. We had never had anything like this happen,'' said attorney Ed Turville, the former U.S. Tennis Association president who headed the St. Petersburg Tennis Center back then. ''It put St. Petersburg on the map, no question. To have something like that happen ''
An entourage of city officials, residents, a band, and Doris Hart (a surprise guest) serenaded Fry from Tampa International Airport across the Gandy Bridge (the Howard Frankland Bridge wasn't built until 1960) and through downtown St. Petersburg as the city rained confetti on her from buildings along the route. In the two days of celebration, Fry was given a key to the city, two Bartlett Park tennis courts in her name, a new blue and ivory 1956 Chevy Nassau, countless flowers and car ds and, of course, The Pier.
''It was like walking through a haze. Why me?'' she recalled. ''All I remember was it was bloody hot but it was a wonderful couple of days.''
1956: University of South Florida in Tampa is established; soap opera As the World Turns begins; Elvis Presley croons Love Me Tender; Raid insect spray and Life-Savers candy hit the market.
As amazing as Fry's story had been, it didn't stop there. After winning Wimbledon and the Clay Court Championships, she won the U.S. Open and the Australian Open - beating Gibson in both finals - to earn the nation's No. 1 ranking.
''When Shirley beat me at Wimbledon I think I cultivated a complex,'' Gibson said at the time. ''Every time I played her I felt that she had me.''
Although she had three of tennis' four jewels, Fry never got a shot at winning the French Open, which would given her a Grand Slam. It was during the Australian Open that she met her husband, Karl Irvin, an advertising executive. Soon after they met, they married and were expecting the first of their four children.
As suddenly and as miraculously as it began, ''Whirley Shirley's'' joy ride was over.
''I was on a roll there,'' she said. But she wasn't a budding teen-aged star in her rookie year. She was approaching thirtysomething and a family was more important.
After living Down Under for a couple of years, the Irvins settled in Connecticut, where she has stayed active in the sport by teaching and working with the New England Lawn Tennis Association and the Wightman Cup committee.
In 1976, 20 years after her Wimbledon victory, tragedy struck.
While playing tennis with the family, her husband suffered a heart attack and died. She went on, raising her four teen-agers by herself. Today, three of the four have their own families and her third child, Lori, is expected to make her a grandmother any day now.
''Hopefully, I'll be watching (the finals of) Wimbledon from Ohio (where Lori lives),'' said the former champion, whose four children all play tennis, but only for recreation.
Golf, more so than tennis, now occupies her life. There's a golf course near her suburban Hartford home where she plays about three or four times a week. ''I still shoot in the 100s, but I shot an 88 the other day,'' she said proudly.
She has divided up most of her tennis trophies between her children, but has kept many of the more important ones. Occasionally, visitors or new acquaintences will discover her past and ask, ''What's your name again?'' Or stare curiously and say, ''Did you really win Wimbledon?'' And naturally during her frequent trips back to Wimbledon, she's treated like royalty.
But, for the most part, that portion of her life stays confined to her scrapbook. She hasn't been back to St. Petersburg since the parade.
Reminders pop up here and there, like two years ago when Irvin won the Service Bowl Award, a national award given annually for outstanding tennis contribution. And there are the phone calls and autograph requests that arrive every year during the Wimbledon fortnight.
She doesn't harp on her Wimbledon feat, though, insisting that ''It's no big deal. It's in the past.'' Yet 33 years later - and possibly 33 years into the future - the bond between Irvin and St. Petersburg and her astonishing story remains among the most inspiring in tennis history.
''I had attained a goal that I had given up all hope of attaining,'' she said.
''I liked St. Petersburg and I'm just happy I got to live there and play. I hope to come back one day. Maybe I'll stop by the Times and, of course, The Pier.''
It'll be here, waiting for its rightful owner.