40s and 50s Tennis Star Shirley Fry Irvin dies at 94

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Tennis player Shirley Fry Irvin, who won the singles and doubles titles at four Grand Slam tournaments in the pre-open season, died Tuesday at her home in Naples, Florida. He was 94 years old.

His death was announced by the International Tennis Hall of Fame, where he took office in 1970.

At a time when players were amateurs, rackets were made of wood, and championship surfaces were mostly grass, Irvin (known as Shirley Fry in game days) won the French championship in 1951 (in clay), Wimbledon and the United States championship in 1956 and the Australian championship in 1957. He later retired from tennis to start a family.

She was one of only 10 women to win singles titles in all four of these championships.

She also won 12 women’s doubles titles in these four tournaments, partnering the top 11 with Doris Hart and the 12th with Althea Gibson. He played for six years in the annual Wightman Cup competition between the United States and England, winning 10 of 12 matches. At 5 feet-5 and 125 pounds, he was the fastest player of his day. But he apparently didn’t think much of his abilities.

“Billie Jean King said I was her idol,” she told The Orlando Sentinel in 2000. “This makes me proud because I really wasn’t that good of a player. I was not natural. I had athletic ability, I could run and concentrate. I was very good at running and concentration. I had no service.”

A frequent doubles partner, Hart admired Irvin’s perseverance. “Shirley was one of the best runners I’ve ever seen,” he said in 2000. “It turned everything upside down.”

Shirley June Fry was born on June 30, 1927 in Akron, Ohio. He was an athletic boy, and besides tennis he also tried hockey, badminton, baseball, archery, ice skating, swimming and running. “I wanted to play football but when we started middle school it became boys and girls,” he told The Akron Beacon Journal in 1999.

Tennis won. At a Hall of Fame event in Newport, RI in 2004, he told broadcaster and columnist Bud Collins that he started traveling solo to tournaments around the country at the age of 10.

“My parents would put me on a bus in Akron and I would go,” she said. “Usually someone would meet me at the other end, but if there was a problem I would go to Travelers Aid. It built confidence and it was fun.”

At the age of 11, she told The New York Times: “I took the train to a tournament in Philadelphia and then went to New York at my father’s suggestion. I took a train to Penn Station and then the subway to Forest Hills, which he had booked for me at the Forest Hills Inn. Then I walked all the way to the New York World’s Fair.”

In 1941, at the age of 14, he played in the United States amateur championship, becoming the youngest person to race there until Kathy Horvath (who was a month younger) in 1979. In 1942, he became the youngest amateur quarterfinalist in the United States. He was in the United States Top 10 for 13 years in a row (1944-56). It was #1 in 1956.

He found time to earn a human relations degree from Rollins College in Florida in 1949. After the 1954 season, he retired from tennis due to a nagging elbow injury and went to St. He got a job as a clerk at the St. Petersburg Times. earned about 75 cents an hour. As that newspaper recalled in 1989, “One of her first duties as a copy girl was to send her own retirement story to the composing room.”

After playing tennis for several months, he entered two Florida tournaments in 1955 and won both, defeating Hart in the final in one. She quit her job that summer and returned to tennis full-time.

The following year she secured her crowning victory at Wimbledon, where she beat Gibson in the quarterfinals, Louise Brough in the semifinals, and Angela Buxton of England in the 50-minute final.

“I play better when it doesn’t matter whether I win or lose,” he told The New York Times of his ninth attempt at Wimbledon. “I didn’t think I would win at Wimbledon after eight tries.” The next United States title was his first at Forest Hills in 16 tries.

He won the Australian title in 1957 and then retired again. That year, she married Karl Irvin, an American advertising executive whom she met while working in Australia and refereed some of his matches there.

“During a match,” he told The Times, “I got very angry with several of his calls and asked him to be fired and not work on my matches anymore. We got married shortly after that and had four children within five years.”

Her husband died in 1976. He is survived by his children Mark, Scott, Lori and Karen and 12 grandchildren.

Irvin lived in West Hartford, Conn. for 35 years before moving to Florida. She taught tennis for thirty years, played in senior tournaments, and won the United States clay court championship for women aged 55 and over at age 58. At the age of 62, when his knees got tired, he stopped playing tennis in favor of golf, which had become his favorite sport.

He loved golf, but he wasn’t that good, often shooting over 100 shots.

“It’s a bit embarrassing,” he said in 2000. “’Did he win the Wimbledon tennis tournament?’ you say. Then you see me playing golf and you’re like, ‘How could he do it?’ you say.”

Frank Litsky, a longtime sportswriter for The Times, died in 2018. Peter Keepnews contributed to the reporting.

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