Page 1: Biography
Wilding, Anthony Frederick
Lawn tennis player, soldier
This biography, written by Helen Walter, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996, and updated in December, 2005.
Anthony Frederick Wilding (registered Frederick Anthony) was born at Opawa, Christchurch, New Zealand, on 31 October 1883, the second of five children of Julia Anthony and her husband, Frederick Wilding, a solicitor. Wilding's parents had emigrated from England in 1879. His mother was the daughter of a mayor of Hereford and his father a prominent sportsman.
An atmosphere of sporting achievement pervaded the family home, Fownhope. It was full of trophies and frequently host to visiting international sporting teams. Not surprisingly, Anthony showed an early ability at sport. He attended Wilson's School in Christchurch where he was captain of the school football team at 12, and by 17 was winning his first tennis tournaments.
After a few months at Canterbury College, Wilding left New Zealand in 1902 to study law at Trinity College, Cambridge. He graduated BA in 1905. While there he was active in the tennis club and in 1904 won the Scottish national championships. He returned to New Zealand with the intention of joining his father's law practice, but after winning the national tennis title in December 1906, went back to England where he was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple. He won the English covered-court title in 1907 and the doubles title at Wimbledon in 1907 and 1908. Along with Norman Brookes of Australia, he won the Davis Cup for Australasia between 1907 and 1909.
Wilding returned to Christchurch in 1909 and qualified as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand. He won the New Zealand championships of 1908–9 and 1909–10, the Australian title in 1908 and 1909 and the South African singles of 1910. His biographer and fellow tennis player, A. Wallis Myers, believed that while Wilding showed early promise, he became a strong all-rounder only after assiduous training and considerable effort to overcome his weaker strokes, especially his backhand. Indicative of his determination was the fact that he made five attempts at Wimbledon before winning in 1910. Wilding was deemed not as brilliant as other top players but more consistent and athletic, with a steady temperament and an ability to devote total concentration to the match in hand. He was also known for his magnificent physique. Tall and fair, he was, according to Brookes, 'Without doubt one of the finest specimens of manhood physically'.
Wilding had also developed an interest in motorcycles and cars. In Christchurch he set up a motorcycle company and entered reliability trials and hill-climbing competitions around New Zealand. In the summer of 1909–10 he rode from Christchurch to Auckland in just five days. He also toured Europe and Britain extensively on motorcycle. Some of these trips are described in his book On the court and off, published in 1912.
In 1911 Wilding was employed by the British wood pulp firm, Henderson, Craig and Company. Two years later he joined the Victor Tyre Company and became a director. He sought employment in England to earn an income sufficient for him to marry, and from a 'disinclination to intern himself in New Zealand as a barrister'. Like many New Zealanders of his generation, Wilding divided his time and identity between New Zealand and Britain. He was often described as the perfect English gentleman, yet he was also regarded as the perfect example of colonial manhood.
In 1913 Wilding reached the apex of his tennis career, winning the three world championships singles titles: the lawn title at Wimbledon, the hard-court at Paris and the covered-court at Stockholm. In 1914 he lost the Wimbledon title, which he had held since 1910. It seems that after the triumphs of 1913 Wilding lost his compelling interest in the game, and the necessity of earning a living was increasingly interfering with his ability to participate in international tournaments. However, he visited the United States in July and August 1914, when he and Brookes regained the Davis Cup for Australasia.
With the outbreak of the First World War Wilding joined the Royal Marines, attracted by the possibility of working with armoured cars. He was gazetted a second lieutenant in October 1914 and attached to an intelligence unit at headquarters, where he was valued for his knowledge of European roads and his driving skills. At the end of October he joined the Royal Naval Air Service, which had armoured cars as an auxiliary. Wilding had a gun fitted to a two-wheeled trailer which he towed behind his car. He later had three guns and armoured cars under his command. In March 1915 he was posted to a new squadron in France made up of armoured Rolls Royce cars. He was by then a lieutenant. Before long Wilding and his party were moved near the front and Wilding was promoted to captain.
A week later, on 9 May 1915, after taking part in a heavy trench bombardment near Neuve-Chappelle, Anthony Wilding was killed when a shell landed close to the dug-out he was sheltering in. He was 31. He was buried the next day, but later reinterred at Rue-des-Berceaux military cemetery.
Wilding had not married. His obituary in the Press stated that even more than the All Blacks, he had 'carried the name of the Dominion into regions of the earth where it was probably unknown until it became associated with his fame'. His name is perpetuated in Wilding Park, headquarters of the Canterbury Lawn Tennis Association.