Dick Stockton Has Fond Memories Of Playing At Wimbledon

Tennis player Dick Stockton at Wimbledon in the 1970s.

As tennis fans look forward to this year’s Wimbledon tennis tournament, which starts Monday, July 1 and concludes Sunday, July 14 at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London, you might be surprised to know that a Wellington resident played Wimbledon on many occasions. Dick Stockton had a long and successful career on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour.

“Counting the years that I played in the junior event and various senior events, I think I played at Wimbledon about 35 times,” recalled Stockton, now 73.

His Wimbledon memories are strong and vivid.

“Wimbledon, because of its stature, was the most important tournament in the world,” Stockton said.

His second-ever pro tennis tournament was Wimbledon in 1972. His inaugural pro tennis event was also in England, the week before Wimbledon.

“In 1972, the Queen’s Club tournament was my first professional tournament, literally 48 hours after finishing my amateur career at the NCAA Championships,” Stockton said. “Wimbledon was a week later.”

A Wimbledon tradition, which actually helped favor the higher-seeded players, was its longtime rule on players getting access to on-site practice courts.

“In the old days, only players who were scheduled to play on either the Centre Court or Number One Court were allowed to warm-up on the courts at the All England Club,” Stockton said. “Everyone else usually practiced at the Queen’s Club, and then got a tournament car for transportation out to Wimbledon. Unless one was scheduled for the first match of the day — and in those days, play began at 2 p.m. on all the courts — there was no way of knowing when you might get on for your match, especially if there were men’s matches, which are best of five sets, scheduled ahead of you. Usually, I practiced at the Queen’s Club in the morning, and then had lunch at Wimbledon before waiting around for my match to be called.”

Stockton fondly remembers the quality of his opponents during that era. The list of talented players included Stan Smith, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Guillermo Vilas, John Newcombe, Ilie Năstase, Ivan Lendl, Vitas Gerulaitis, Arthur Ashe, among others. Of those 10 talented opponents, six of them — Smith, Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Newcombe and Ashe — won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon during their careers.

Today, Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam tennis tournament played on grass, but that wasn’t always the case.

“In those days, three of the four major championships — the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open — were all played on grass,” Stockton recalled. “Wimbledon was special because it was the most prestigious tournament in the world, and it still is today. Before the advent of weekly computer rankings, the winner of Wimbledon was usually ranked No. 1 in the world at the end of the year.”

When Stockton arrived in London, he often set aside time to check out London’s historic sites, such as the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Speakers’ Corner, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. He also took a day trip to Stonehenge.

Stockton’s best Wimbledon results were in 1974, 1976, 1981 and 1997.

In 1974, he reached the semifinals of the men’s singles. In 1976, he and Rosemary Casals reached the finals of the mixed doubles, losing 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 to Tony Roche and Françoise Dürr. In that final, he and Casals were one point away from winning that finale. In 1981, he and Tom Okker, nicknamed the Flying Dutchman, reached the semifinals of the men’s doubles, where they lost to Americans Peter Fleming and John McEnroe. And, in 1997, he and Chile’s Jaime Fillol won the 45-and-over men’s doubles title.

“At Wimbledon in 1974, I lost to the eventual champion, Jimmy Connors, in the semifinals,” Stockton recalled. “I won the first set against Jimmy and had an early service break in the second set before he caught fire and beat me in four sets. En route to the semifinals that year, I beat Ilie Năstase, the No. 2 seed. It was my first win over Năstase. I also beat Alex Metreveli, who was the runner-up the previous year.”

The schedule of matches in 1974 was negatively impacted by rain.

“In 1974, it rained most of the first week. I played my first match on Monday but, because of the persistent rain, I didn’t play my second round until Saturday,” Stockton said. “That ended up being a five-set match. An hour later, I was back on the court for a five-set doubles match. Luckily, there was no play on Sunday in those days, because I could hardly get myself out of bed on that Sunday morning.”

While Stockton was a serve-and-volley player, it was assumed that he preferred grass-court tennis, but Stockton felt otherwise.

“Everyone thought my game was best suited for grass, but it was never my favorite surface,” he said. “The grass could be slippery, and the bounces could be erratic. In those days, most grass courts were pretty soft, so the ball never bounced very high. As a result, in the men’s game, it was pretty unusual to have any long rallies. Most points were six shots or less. Not like today!”

Despite never winning the men’s singles title at Wimbledon, he had one career singles victory on the historic Centre Court.

“My lone singles win on the famed Centre Court came against Rod Laver in 1977,” Stockton said.

When Stockton played at Wimbledon, he had a favorite place to stay.

“Starting in 1973, I stayed almost exclusively in the Gloucester Hotel,” he said. “It was conveniently located and was one of the first hotels in London to have air-conditioned rooms.”

Another historic Wimbledon tradition that he enjoyed was one that fans have relished for decades.

“I ate a lot of strawberries and cream the first few years at Wimbledon,” Stockton confirmed. “It really is pretty special.”

During his many visits to Wimbledon, he never met any members of the royal family, but he almost had a close encounter with one of them.

“I was about five feet away from Princess Diana once when she was exiting the Centre Court to get into her limo,” Stockton said.

While he will not attend Wimbledon this year, he will be following the action, especially the men’s and women’s singles.

“I think both events are pretty wide open because there are no real grass court specialists anymore,” Stockton said. “Having said that, I will go with Jannik Sinner in the Gentlemen’s Singles and Elena Rybakina in the Ladies’ Singles.”

In his career on the ATP Tour, Stockton won 13 doubles titles and eight titles in singles. His highest world ranking in singles was eighth, and his best world ranking in doubles was 13th.