Anthony Wilding on how to become a tennis champion – archive, 1912

Mr Wilding says that he will not apologise for writing this book, and why should he? The pity is that so few really great players at outdoor games should have both the inclination and ability to let us into their secrets, explain how they have done the trick, encourage the beginner to think that, if he only had some of their advantages, he, too, might get somewhere near a championship by taking thought and following their precepts.

Mr Wilding is both willing and able. But there is something more required. There is one danger which the author-champion must avoid. His book will be largely about himself, and the only condition on which we can listen to him with pleasure is that he should be undogmatic, good-natured, unassuming. We enter on the book, therefore, with some trepidation, but it is unnecessary. Mr Wilding fulfils the condition, and he gives away the secrets of the firm so generously that he is a true benefactor of all budding champions.

It is really quite simple. Sound principles and hard work are the secret. But there are some preliminaries which one may suggest as helpful. To become champion you should equip yourself with a father who is himself a first-rate player, a kind but watchful coach, and properly anxious to make you champion; you will do well to be born in a climate like New Zealand’s, and to develop a physique that is a standing advertisement to the advantages of emigration. Provide yourself with a hard court and a grass court, so that you may practise both winter and summer, keep your hand and eye in by playing “Rugger” and cricket in first-rate teams, and see that you have ample leisure. This will be a good foundation to work on.

So far the champion is born; Mr Wilding’s business is to explain how he is made. The principle is pretty much the same as that laid down by the gardener who, in the old story, explained how the perfect college lawn was made: “You rolls it and cuts it and cuts it and rolls it until you gets it” – if you live long enough. So with lawn tennis. With infinite pains and thought and practice you cultivate your strokes, search out your weak spots, abandon wrong principles, and travel through valleys of humiliation until you have mastered the correct ones. Finally, you emerge as champion. At least, Mr Wilding did. At any rate, that is the gospel.

Climate and parentage we cannot control; quickness of eye and foot is given or not given to us. So far as it is in our power to get on, it is largely a matter of cutting or rolling. In his book Mr Wilding explains the principles and practice to which, in his opinion, he owes the championship, and commends them, unassumingly, to anyone who cares to learn.

When Mr Wilding first began to be known his back-hand stroke was of the colonial type; he used the same face of the racquet as in the forehand drive. HL Doherty and HS Mahony warned him that he would never get the best out of himself in this way, and he set to work methodically to learn the English style. This involved a “rigid course of self-discipline.” He practised his back hand incessantly against a wall, found for some time that he had lost his old stroke and failed to acquire the new one, but persevered until he gained his end.

This is typical of his methods and advice. Perhaps your service is short or badly placed? Then “get a couple of dozen balls and serve until you are tired.” Or your smash is unreliable? Take a dozen balls and get a boy to toss you lobs for a few hours. Or your back hand lacks severity? Then get a friend to hit into your back-hand corner and drive the ball back down his forehand line. When you have had enough of that, bring him up to the net and practise passing him. In fact, stroke practice is the thing “accuracy first,” “arduous work,” “intelligent and constant practice.” But this it may be said, is just the art of taking pains. True, but by now many take pains with their tennis as they do, say, with their golf or cricket. Play cricket with a “cross” bat, kick too hard in a forward rush at “Rugger,” swing short in your golf drive, and there will be plenty to admonish you from early youth to hoary age. But in lawn tennis your back-hand stroke may be a mere half-arm jab, or your service delivered from the level of your nose for twenty years, and no one will worry you about it.

There is next to no coaching in lawn tennis; most of us simply grow, and grow awry. Mr Wilding bursts into a comparatively fresh field with first-rate coaching. He lays down his principles on the grip, the follow-through, the value of spin, and all the other things that matter, and then bids us practise as though we were professional billiard players aiming to astonish a continent with a new record-breaking stroke.

His coaching and persistency are alike admirable. Those are fortunate who are still young enough to take advantage of them. Many of us, alas! will, like the Roman poet, “see the better and pursue the worse.”

There is much of interest in the book besides advice on strokes and tactics. Almost all the great players of the day pass across the pages Mr Wilding recalls how he met them in this tournament or that, and what were their strongest and their weakest points; he plays with Prime Ministers and Kings; he fights for Australasia in the Davis Cup competition, and wins and defends the championship at Wimbledon; he “motor-bikes” across Europe, sometimes at a speed which we trust he will not repeat in England. The book is written agreeably, and if there are some small defects they scarcely detract from its value. “Capital truths,” said Sir Thomas Browne, “are to be narrowly eyed, collateral lapses not to be too strictly sifted.” Still, we do not like to find Mr Wilding writing of “chucking” cricket or of a “rotten” pair of players, or of a dislocated finger in his Cambridge days giving him “hell”; no doubt it did, but after eight years or so the pain must surely have subsided. Small points, these, but then Mr Wilding, of all men, knows the importance of small points. He commends to us the virtues of a few hours of stroke-play at lawn tennis; we commend to him, in writing a book, the virtues of a few minutes with the blue pencil.