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Tennis master Sidney Wood dies

Publication: The Southampton Press
By Brendan O'Reilly   Jan 14, 2009 1:06 PM

Sidney Burr Wood, an International Tennis Hall of Famer and a longtime Southampton resident, died on Saturday, January 10, under hospice care at the age of 97 in Palm Beach, Florida.

Mr. Wood split his time during the latter years of his life between Southampton and Palm Beach. His East End roots go back to childhood summers in East Hampton and playing tennis at the Meadow Club in Southampton as a teenager.

Mr. Wood, who was born November 1, 1911, in Black Rock, Connecticut, and grew up in New York City, was plagued for the first decade of his life with health issues that nearly killed him.

“I was a very sickly boy. They could’ve nearly given me up,” Mr. Wood said in a 2007 interview at his Southampton home. “There was nothing they could do. I wasn’t going to live. I was playing the piano, that was my main exercise, but that wasn’t getting me better very fast. I learned a lot of noisy music. I had all the possible illnesses you could have, the worst probably tuberculosis.”

His life turned around at the age of 12 when he began what would turn into a successful tennis career. Mr. Wood credited his uncle, Watson Washburn, a Davis Cup team member, with introducing him to the game.

“I started using the garage door,” Mr. Wood said. “That’s how it usually started for players, hitting the ball into the garage door.”

The right-handed racquet-wielder went on to win the Arizona State Men’s Tournament on his 14th birthday. His family had moved him to Tucson, Arizona, hoping to improve his health, he said.

The win in Arizona qualified him for the French Championship, which led to Mr. Wood earning a spot at Wimbledon, the world’s oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament.

At Wimbledon, Mr. Wood faced defending champion Rene LaCoste in 1926, and lost. He returned to Wimbledon several more times, and became the singles champion in 1931 when he was just 19 years old­, making him the youngest player to ever win the event, an achievement that stood until 1985, when Boris Becker won the tournament at the age of 17.

Mr. Wood was also the only tennis player to win a Wimbledon championship by default. He was supposed to face Frank Shields in 1931, but Mr. Shields sprained a knee in his semifinal match and dropped out of the final.

With no real interest in trying to make a living as a tennis player, Mr. Wood then went to Wall Street, which, in 1932, was mired in the depths of the Great Depression. He became a runner, ferrying orders to the trading floor.

Mr. Wood and J. Donald Budge, another tennis champion, founded Budge-Wood Laundry services in Manhattan.

Through connections he made on Wall Street, Mr. Wood got reacquainted with the California gold mining industry, a business he had grown up with as the son of a gold miner. By the time Mr. Wood was 26, he was a part owner in a number of mines.

He also held onto his love for tennis, competing until he was about 40 and playing well into his 70s. He also won the national father/son tournament title with his son, Colin.

He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1964 and was the oldest living hall of famer when he died.

Aside from leaving his mark as a player, Mr. Wood also gave back to the sport he loved, inventing, designing and patenting Supreme Court, a synthetic indoor playing surface that remains widely used today. He was also a financial supporter of the Town Tennis Center, which today is an exclusive rooftop tennis complex, one of Manhattan’s oldest, on Sutton Place and East 56th Street.

Mr. Wood chronicled his life in an autobiography, “Aged In the Wood,” which has not been published.

“He writes beautifully,” Patricia Murray Wood, his widow, said. “He kept re-writing it. He didn’t think it was good enough, but I think it was excellent.”

He also liked to give out copies, she said. “I said, ‘Sidney stop handing it out because somebody’s going to copy it and use it.’”

Her late husband had an unbelievable sense of humor and was very intelligent, Ms. Wood said. “He was great fun to be with.”

Mr. Wood had been married four times. His first wife, Edith Betts Wood, gave him his first two children, Godfrey, of Falmouth, Maine, and Sidney, who predeceased Mr. Wood. He married again to Anne Keys and divorced again. His third wife, Suzanne Mulligan, gave him his third and fourth sons, Colin of Los Angeles and David of Woodside, Queens.

Mr. Wood met his fourth wife, Patricia, during the 1950s she said.

“I knew who he was because we always watched the tennis matches at the Meadow Club every summer,” she said on Monday. They got together after a dance at the club. “He came and cut in on me, and that’s how the romance started.”

They married in 1960 at city hall in New York, followed by a honeymoon in Nassau, Bahamas.

The couple had no children together, but the nuptials gave him two stepdaughters, Robin (née Roche) Pickett and Hilary (née Roche) Ross.

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