TALES FROM THE TOY DEPARTMENT: The Sports Writers’ Association’s first annual sports dinner, staged in 1949, celebrated several world champions, but only one of those was able to boast world championships in three sports, as PHILIP BARKER reports
There were five world champions honoured when the Sports Writers’ Association first celebrated Britain’s sporting excellence. The Association’s first annual dinner was held in 1949, and of the guests of honour – all of whom had had their time at the top of sport interrupted by war – one had been effectively world champion in one sport in 1939, would be world champion in a second sport in 1949 and throughout the formative years of the Association, and he would later win a world title in a third sport at the age of 45.
Extraordinarily, had the cards of fate fallen differently, this versatile sportsman might even have graced Centre Court as Wimbledon champion, for James Dear was a champion with a racket of one sort or another in his hand for most of his life.
Born in Fulham in 1910, Jim Dear, pictured right, joined Queen’s Club as an apprentice ballboy in the 1920s. His brother, Bill, was already there and so, too, was Dan Maskell, who would later become the voice of tennis on the BBC. With his fine eye for a good player (Maskell would coach Britain’s 1933 Davis Cup-winning team, including Fred Perry), it was Maskell who suggested that young Dear should take up tennis and that if he did so, the greatest prize of all could well follow.
Roy McKelvie, a distinguished former player and later Daily Mail writer, described Dear “as probably the most natural ball games player and mover I have ever seen”. Another contemporary player, John Thompson, thought Dear to be “compactly built, and a beautiful mover with an individual style who possessed superb ball control and tactical skill”.
Whatever Maskell spotted was well hidden to start with. Dear was by no means an enthusiastic player early on. It was said he came close to being sacked from Queen’s at one stage. But the club’s professional players would receive a cash bonus if they could persuade one of their young apprentices to take part in the junior championships. The only problem for the pro at Queen’s, Charlie Read, was that he didn’t have a young player to nominate. So he summoned Dear. â€œBut I’ve never played,” pleaded the youngster.
Waving his protests aside, Reid said, â€œDon’t worry. Here’s a racket and some balls: go and practice.â€ And so six weeks before the championships, Dear was despatched to learn the rudiments of the game by hitting the ball against a wall.
“The trouble with these games is that they are so easy no one can play them,” Dear would soon say. It was a comment that did not apply to his own exploits.
Dear had never played squash until a chance encounter with the great Egyptian champion, Amir Bey. Dear went on to reach the final of the British Open three times in the 1930s, but with Amir Bey barring the way, the result was always the same (Bey won the title a total of six times).
It wasn’t until 1939, when Bey had retired to concentrate on a diplomatic career, that Dear seized his chance and became British Open champion. In those days, there was no official world championships, so until the introduction of the World Open in the 1970s, the winner of the British Open was accepted as the best player in the world.
But just when he’d reached the summit in one sport, war intervened. Dear served in the RAF and when peace returned, he lost the British Open title to a younger rival, Mahmoud Karim, of Egypt, who beat Dear in the finals of 1947 and 1948.
Back at Queen’s Club, Dear found that the real tennis courts were not yet available as they had been requisitioned for war time use. The rackets courts were available, though, and so he ploughed all his energies into winning a second world title.
Rackets began as a sport in the 17th Century, played in London at King’s Bench and the notorious Fleet debtors prison, as a variation on the indoor court game of fives, which was popular at public schools such as Eton, Winchester and Harrow. But as the name suggests, rackets uses a wooden racket, rather than a gloved hand, to make it speedier. Because of its fashion at the time, it was an early sporting export to the New World, and it remains the game of north America’s privileged elite, something which shapes the way in which the world title is contested to this day.
Squash was derived in the 19th century from rackets and has developed since then; rackets as played by Dear and today is little changed from the game as it was played in Regency England, though there are few courts in use, except at public schools including Charterhouse, Clifton College, which recently staged a world championships, Tonbridge and Wellington, plus private clubs in Manchester and at Sandhurst.
In common with many sporting events developed in the 1700s, rackets’ championships were determined on a challenge basis, just as in boxing today: the champion retains his title until a challenger beats him. Thus was Dear’s task laid out before him, for he had to establish his right to challenge for the world title.
Dear started by sweeping aside Peter Gray 8-0 to win the professional championship. Then he beat two amateurs, John Pawle and Peter Kershaw, who had been amateur champion before the war. At last the way was clear to challenge for the world title.
Dear won it by beating Kenneth Chantler, of the Montreal Rackets club, in a series of matches played over the two continents. He would retain the world title for seven years, a feat that saw him invited to the first SWA awards dinner in 1949.
In 1948, with the Queen’s Club courts available again for more peaceful use, Dear turned his attention to the original racket sport, real tennis, and played an exhibition match against the legendary French Basque player Pierre Etchebaster, then 55 and who had been world champion since 1928.
Etchebaster, the professional at New York’s Racquet and Tennis Club since 1930, had broken off a holiday to play against Dear and had given a 1/2 15 start to his much younger rival. The Times‘s tennis correspondent (no clarification was given; the distinction between tennis codes was made elsewhere in the newspaper by reference to a “Lawn Tennis Correspondent”) was in attendance, as it was “an occasion of more than ordinary interest”.
The Frenchman was notably out of form as he lost in three straight sets, but the report stated that “the performance of Dear was wonderfully encouraging”, as it anticipated the Briton challenging for the world title.
It would take him seven years to win the world title, by which time the Frenchman, in his 60s, had retired.
Dear was no longer in the first flush of youth, either, but following the example of Etchebaster in a sport where players could play to a high standard at a great age, and with his sights on the world crown, Dear developed a secret weapon.
When he had learned the rudiments of the game, Dear played against his coach for a bottle of Guinness. This became an integral part of his preparation. In 1955, 45-year-old Dear challenged for the world title against a New Yorker called Albert Johnson. It proved a very close match, with the American taking the first leg in New York but Dear made the most of his intimate knowledge of Queen’s to get back on terms. But in so doing, Dear pulled a muscle in his leg.
Helped by a physio and fortified by his bottle of Guinness, Dear showed true champion style to rally to victory by 11 sets to 10. Two years later, Johnson challenged again and this time Dear lost (though many said he might have won had he not been so preoccupied with coaching squash and lawn tennis).
One of the those he had coached on the squash court was later a stalwart SJA member, Laurie Pignon, who reported Wimbledon in the first year of the Association, although he regretted that he was never able to witness Dear play, either on grass nor indoors.
Dear had a simple philosophy: “It’s not the racket that hits the ball, it’s you that hits the ball with the racket.”
Dear remained supremely fit, being awarded the MBE and even managing to make it, at the age of 54, into the final of the real tennis British Open in 1965, losing to Ronald Hughes. Dear died in 1981.
Guests at the SWA table
Dear was just one of the five world champions who joined Lord Burghley at the first SWA Sports Awards when staged at the old Press Club in Salisbury Court, off Fleet Street. The others included:
Reg Harris, to become the Sportsman of the Year in 1950. Already world amateur champion in 1947, his career had almost met an untimely end before the London Olympics when he was involved in a road accident.
As it was, Harris won two Olympic silver medals in the 1,000m sprint and the 2,000m tandem sprint. He turned pro after the Games and went on to win gold in the sprint at the 1949 world championships. Over the next two years, the title remained Harris’s own personal property and he became world champion again in 1954.
Harris set world records in the 1950s, some that lasted for almost 20 years, and 17 years after his retirement he returned to the sport in 1974. Today’s British cycling hopefuls and champions train in the shadow of Harris’s statue (pictured left) at the Manchester Velodrome.
Tommy Price of the Wembley Lions speedway team became the first Englishman to win the individual world title in 1949.
Price rode for Wembley team for almost 20 years and represented his country for the last time at the age of 44.
In table tennis, Johnny Leach (pictured right) succeeded another Englishman, Richard Berggman, as world champion in 1949 and won the title for a second time in 1951. He was a member of the team which won the Swaythling Cup in 1953. After his retirement, he was a non-playing captain of the team and later a noted youth coach. He also became president of his national federation.
Also on the guest list that year was a man described as “stout-hearted, deep-chested, brawny armed, with the heart of a lion”. Boxer Freddie Mills had beaten Gus Lesnevich, of the United States, on points in an epic encounter to lift the world light-heavyweight title in London just days before the Olympics began.
The victory avenged a defeat in 1946 and Mills remained world champion until 1950.
This is the latest in an on-going series of articles about covering sport over the past six decades.
To read David Hunn on how the Association was formed, click here
To read John Rodda on what it was like to cover the 1948 London Olympics, click here
To read Hugh McIlvanney writing about the Best footballer he has ever seen, click here