The (Few) Cards of Tennis Cult Hero Anthony Wilding
Wilding dominated on the tennis court and was later killed during World War I
Looking back at the history of tennis great Anthony Wilding, I’m surprised that he hasn’t generated more ‘buzz.’ As I’ve written before, fans love themselves a great cult hero and in tennis, there might not be a greater one in the pre-war era than Wilding.
I became better acquainted with Wilding when trying to develop a list of my ideal candidates for a set in the T227 Champions set (that set has 24 known cards but advertised 25). As arguably the top tennis player from that era, his name was one I was intrigued by and I had to know more.
Wilding, if you’re unfamiliar with him, was something else on the tennis court. A tennis Hall of Famer, he won Wimbledon four straight times from 1910 through 1913 (something not bested after him until Bjorn Borg won the event five straight times from 1976-81) and made the finals of a fifth in 1914 before losing that match to Norman Brookes.
Wilding’s streak of making Wimbledon titles was put on hold, though. That’s because Wimbledon was interrupted for four years beginning in 1915 due to World War I. Like other athletes, Wilding was called into action. Tragically, he was killed in action in May of 1915 while fighting for the British. The anniversary of his death (May 9) occurred recently and I was reminded of just how cool of a character he really was.
The death of Wilding, by the way, was actually foretold. By him. Prior to it happening, Wilding had been promoted to captain. And in a letter from the day before his death, wrote these chilling words:
“For really the first time in seven and a half months I have a job on hand which is likely to end in gun, I, and the whole outfit being blown to hell. However if we succeed we will help our infantery (infantry) no end.“
This article touts Wilding as the world’s first tennis superstar and it seems genuinely hard to disagree. I’ve written about some of the earliest American tennis players before. But while some were considered very good players, the sport had not really achieved the level of interest as it did in Wilding’s era.
His great niece, Anna Wilding, puts him into the proper context in this excellent BBC article.
“He was like a movie star, but on the tennis court. Tennis hadn’t ever had anyone like that, with that combination of charm, decorum and adventure.
“Imagine the Great Gatsby era, but he was the real deal, the toast of society. He stayed with kings and queens and prime ministers.
“At the same time he would camp on the roof of the Monaco Tennis Club under the stars and play tennis the next day. He has been called the James Dean or David Beckham of his day. Women swooned and fainted.”
Wilding is often known for his Wimbledon streak but he had quite a bit of other accolades in the sport. He twice won the Australian Open Singles title and won five other Grand Slam Doubles events at that event and at Wimbledon. In all, he won 11 majors. He was a former No. 1 ranked player and, according to Wikipedia, still holds records for most tournaments won in a season (23) and most career outdoor titles (tied with Rod Laver with 114). He is also credited as the only tennis player from New Zealand to win an Olympic Gold Medal in tennis at the Summer Olympics.
And as if that wasn’t enough, he would also become an excellent cricket player and had a penchant for showing up on motorcycles to various tennis tournaments. If that doesn’t make for a collectible player, I don’t know what does.
Unfortunately, tennis cards weren’t a big thing during Wilding’s playing days. Many generic ones existed in the form of trade cards and postcards (often, the subjects depicted were females), but few others presenting real players were around.
Thus, Wilding’s appearances on pre-war cards is quite limited. I know that from looking a good bit for them myself. In fact, you won’t find his two main cards until 1928 — long after his death. These are typically cited as Wilding’s rookie cards, so to speak.
The two cards are very similar, you’ll note. On the left here is Wilding’s card from the 1928 Churchman Lawn Tennis set. On the right is his 1928 Player and Sons Lawn Tennis card. The two sets are practically identical but the Churchman name is at the top of their cards while the Player and Sons version is not. PSA has graded more than four times as many total Churchman cards as they have ones from the Player and Sons set, so the latter appears to be much tougher to find. In all, only three Wilding cards from the latter set have been graded by them to date, which is on par with other players in the somewhat rare set.
It should be noted that Churchman often created small and large sets of their cards and they did so with their 1928 Lawn Tennis issue. However, the large set has only 12 cards and Wilding does not appear there. Fittingly, his biography on the back of these cards reference his death and begin by saying, “Played, and died, for the empire.” The Churchman cards are typically around $5 and while the Player and Sons cards are much tougher to find, have been around the same.
Wilding is also found on earlier postcards issued by the E. Trim and Company. The E. Trim postcards were printed over several years and I’ve seen at least a couple for Wilding. The exact dates are not known but they would have likely come when he was active and before Wilding’s 1928 cards. Among collectors that count postcards as rookie cards, his first one from that massive set could be it.
Unfortunately, that’s really it in sets I’ve been able to catalog. I’m frustrated that he doesn’t seem to have more cards but am, at the same time, grateful that he at least appears in the Churchman and Player and Sons sets. Including him posthumously more than a decade after his death was a really interesting thing to do and is a cool tribute.
Early tennis sets (particularly those issued internationally) are not terribly easy to account for. I’ve got a good handle on them here but numerous sets exist that are quite scarce and it is possible he would have popped up in some of those. But for the most part, one of tennis’ most distinctive characters is left with few cards.