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SportsShirley Fry Irvin, Tennis Star of the ’40s and...

Shirley Fry Irvin, Tennis Star of the ’40s and ’50s, Is Dead at 94

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Shirley Fry Irvin, a tennis player who in the pre-Open era swept the singles and doubles titles in the four Grand Slam tournaments, died on Tuesday in Naples, Fla. She was 94.

Her death was announced by the International Tennis Hall of Fame, where she was inducted in 1970.

At a time when the players were amateurs, the rackets were made of wood and the championship surfaces were mostly grass, Irvin (who was known in her playing days as Shirley Fry) won the French title (on clay) in 1951, the Wimbledon and United States titles in 1956 and the Australian title in 1957. She then retired from tennis to raise a family.

She was one of only 10 women to win the singles titles at all four of those championships.

She also won 12 women’s doubles championships in those four tournaments, the first 11 partnered with Doris Hart and the 12th with Althea Gibson. In the annual Wightman Cup competition between the United States and Britain, she played six years, winning 10 of her 12 matches. At 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds, she was the fastest player of her day. But she apparently did not think much of her talents.

“Billie Jean King said I was her idol,” she told The Orlando Sentinel in 2000. “That flatters me, because I really wasn’t that good of a player. I wasn’t a natural. I had athletic ability, I could run and I could concentrate. I excelled in running and concentration. I had no serve.”

Hart, her frequent doubles partner, admired Irvin’s tenacity. “Shirley was one of the best runners I ever saw play,” she said in 2000. “She ran everything down.”

Shirley June Fry was born on June 30, 1927, in Akron, Ohio. She was an athletic child, trying hockey, badminton, baseball, archery, ice skating, swimming and running as well as tennis. In 1999, she told The Akron Beacon Journal, “I wanted to play football, but once we got into junior high school it became the boys and the girls.”

Tennis won out. At a Hall of Fame event in Newport, R.I., in 2004, she told the broadcaster and columnist Bud Collins that she had begun traveling alone to tournaments all over the nation when she was 10.

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

When she was 11, she told The New York Times, “I traveled by train to a tournament in Philadelphia, and then, at my father’s suggestion, went on to New York. I took a train to Penn Station and then the subway to Forest Hills, where he had made a reservation for me at the Forest Hills Inn. Then I walked all the way to the New York World’s Fair.”

In 1941, at 14, she played in the United States amateur championship, the youngest person to compete there until Kathy Horvath (who was a month younger) in 1979. In 1942, she became the youngest United States amateur quarterfinalist. For 13 consecutive years (1944-56), she ranked in the United States Top 10. She was No. 1 in 1956.

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

After a few months of recreational tennis, she entered two Florida tournaments in 1955 and won both, in one of which she beat Hart in the final. That summer, she quit her job and returned to full-time tennis.

The next year provided her crowning glory at Wimbledon, where she beat Gibson in the quarterfinals, Louise Brough in the semifinals and Angela Buxton of England in a 50-minute final.

“I play better when it doesn’t matter if I win or lose,” she told The New York Times about her victory at Wimbledon, which came on her ninth try. “After eight attempts at Wimbledon, I didn’t think I was going to win.” Her subsequent United States championship was her first at Forest Hills in 16 tries.

She won the Australian title in 1957 and then retired again. That year she married Karl Irvin, an American advertising executive whom she had met when he was working in Australia and served as an umpire for some of her matches there.

“During one match,” she told The Times, “I became furious over several of his calls and asked that he be removed and that he not work any more of my matches. Shortly after that, we were married and had four children within the space of five years.”

Her husband died in 1976. She is survived by their 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 three decades, played in senior tournaments and, at 58, won the United States clay-court championship for women 55 and older. When her knees gave out at 62, she stopped playing tennis in favor of golf, which had become her favorite sport.

She loved golf, but she was not that good at it, generally shooting higher than 100.

“It’s a little embarrassing,” she said in 2000. “You say, ‘She won the Wimbledon tennis tournament?’ Then you see me playing golf and say, ‘How could she?’”

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



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