Tennis, alas, does not seem to be growing any more diverse. At least, not on the men’s side. This year’s ATP Finals at the O2 Arena – which start on Saturday – will be the 50th edition, and the first to feature an entirely European field. Every one of them is Caucasian.
But if next week’s tournament will be entirely monochrome, the All England Club’s historians have recently uncovered an exception to the rule – and he dates back almost a whole century. It now seems that Bertrand Milbourne Clark, a civil servant from Jamaica, became the first black participant at Wimbledon when he took on Britain’s Vincent Burr in 1924.
The discovery was made by Anne Clark, who is married to one of Bertrand’s descendants. Or perhaps we should say rediscovery, for he was a well-known figure at the time. On Clark’s passing in 1958, the Jamaica Gleaner ran an obituary that occupied half a broadsheet page.
The article makes this early sporting hero sound like the Caribbean’s answer to CB Fry. Admittedly, Clark was not renowned for performing a standing jump onto his own mantelpiece, as Fry was. But his dizzying list of sporting accomplishments included winning 19 titles at Jamaica’s tennis championships (seven singles, seven doubles and five mixed), as well as taking first place in the national golfing matchplay event in 1933.
On top of this, Clark was a regular for Melbourne Cricket Club – a hugely distinguished team which has produced dozens of international players including Michael Holding and Courtney Walsh – and is credited with “a great cover drive”. From the Gleaner article, it is not quite clear whether he played football for Jamaica as a half-back, or merely in the local leagues, although national captain Clarence Passailaigue told the paper that “I was never happier than when he was with me on the field.”
Althea Gibson, Wimbledon's first black champion, is known for breaking the US tennis colour barrier in 1950. We recently discovered that Wimbledon's first black competitor was Jamaican tennis player Bertrand Clark, back in 1924. Images from our collection #BlackHistoryMonthpic.twitter.com/xMLGtj3lN2
— Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum (@WimbledonMuseum) October 22, 2019
The final straw, for any readers who are already feeling their self-esteem shrinking by the paragraph, is the following: “He was also about the best writer on golf and tennis in the Caribbean with a literary style that has no peer among sportswriters.”
For heaven’s sake, Bertrand, take the day off! Haven’t you got some civil-servanting to do? He did manage to progress from his beginnings as a humble Treasury clerk to retire as secretary of the Island Medical Office, so it can’t all have been chips, putts and serves.
With such a packed CV behind him, Bertrand Clark sounds like he the invention of a wish-fulfilling fiction writer – a tennis equivalent of comic-book character Wilson of the Wizard, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s devastating lob bowler Tom Spedegue. But he was entirely real and genuinely significant.
Until Wimbledon’s librarian Robert McNicol publicised the find last month via the All England Club’s Twitter feed, it was widely assumed that Althea Gibson – a trailblazer to rank alongside Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters – had been the first black player to appear at the Championships when she made her SW19 debut in 1951.
The details are sketchy in many respects, so anyone hoping to film the Bertrand Clark story will have to use their imagination. According to an interview with Anne Clark in Who Do You Think You Are? magazine, he was the son of a dentist. The question of how he funded his overseas trips – some by first-class steamer ship, others by air – remains an intriguing and unanswered one.
But the man clearly earned much goodwill in his 62 years – as well as enough trophies to fill a bathtub. As his Gleaner obituary concluded, “When the Great Scorer comes to write against your name, he writes not ‘won’ or ‘lost’ but how you played the game.”