Shirley Fry obituary

American tennis champion who won all four grand slam singles titles, including Wimbledon in 1956

Shirley Fry, who has died aged 94, was a member of the elite club of 10 female tennis players who have won all four grand slam singles titles. She also won all four grand slams in doubles – one of only seven women to have done so.

Despite those great achievements in France, the US, Australia and at Wimbledon, Fry was the least known and least celebrated of the generation of female American players who dominated tennis in the 1950s. While Louise Brough, Doris Hart and Margaret DuPont were grabbing the headlines, Fry was doggedly collecting a cupboard full of major titles a lot further under the radar.

Partly that was because she refused to let the success go to her head, either at the time or later. On being told by the Orlando Sentinel writer David Whitley in 2000 that she had been Billie Jean King’s idol, Fry replied: “That flatters me because I wasn’t that good. I wasn’t a natural. I could run and I could concentrate.”

Those undervalued assets were good enough to bring a decade of consistent success at the highest level even though her tireless chase-and-retrieve game did not always meet with approval from the purists. On the eve of playing the teenage sensation Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly in a big match, Connolly’s outspoken coach, Teach Tennant, said of Fry: “No one can win playing negative.” Connolly had to play long and hard in that match – and in many others against Fry – to justify her coach’s dismissive remark.

Shirley Fry playing at Wimbledon in 1951.
Shirley Fry playing at Wimbledon in 1951. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis/Getty Images

The youngest of four children of Ida and Lester Fry, Shirley was born in Akron, Ohio, and educated at Central high school in the city. Encouraged by a father who loved sports and ran a tennis shop, she had begun playing tennis at the age of nine. She was noticed winning matches during her time studying for a degree in human relations at Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida. She progressed quickly in tennis in the early years of the second world war, reaching the quarter finals of the US Championships at the age of 15, and achieving a world top 10 ranking in the late 1940s.

However, it was not until 1951 that she was able to establish herself as a champion by beating Hart, then ranked world No 1, in the final of the French Championships, where the slow clay courts at Roland Garros were suited to her style. Although she continued to enjoy success on the tournament circuit in the following years, there was no money in amateur tennis and in the mid-50s, she was forced briefly to retire from tennis and to take a job as a copy girl on the St Petersburg Times in Florida.

Her consistency and determination had not gone unnoticed, however, and in 1956 she received an invitation to join the US Wightman Cup team that was due to play Great Britain at Wimbledon that summer. With her travel expenses paid for, Fry embraced the opportunity, staying on in London so that she could play in the Wimbledon championships a few weeks later. There she won both the singles title, beating Britain’s Angela Buxton 6-3, 6-1 in the final, and the mixed doubles title with the American Vic Seixas. Fry’s run to the singles final required her to overcome two of the greatest players of her era – the No 1 seed, Brough, and the No 4 seed Althea Gibson, who would go on to win the title the following year.

Shirley Fry, far right, with members of the winning 1956 US Wightman Cup team, from left, Dorothy Head Knode, Beverly Baker Fleitz and Louise Brough, at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, London.
Shirley Fry, far right, with members of the winning 1956 US Wightman Cup team, from left, Dorothy Head Knode, Beverly Baker Fleitz and Louise Brough, at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, London. Photograph: Reg Burkett/Getty Images

Not long after winning the Australian championship in 1957, Fry married Karl Irvin, a tennis umpire and advertising executive. She retired from the game to raise their four children and, in later years, took up golf. She never mastered the game to her satisfaction but then she had never been carried away by her exceptional tennis prowess, either.

Karl died in 1976. She is survived by their children, Mark, Scott, Lori and Karen, and 12 grandchildren.

• Shirley Fry, tennis player, born 30 June 1927; died 13 July 2021

Contributor

Richard Evans

The GuardianTramp

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