Kenny Fletcher started out
life in the 1940s as the only child of Norm and Ethel, who lived
in a small rented white Queenslander on the tram line at Annerley
Just by chance there was an
ant bed tennis court in the backyard. And just by chance when Ken
was five the family was showing him the planes at Eagle Farm
Aerodrome when a French tennis champion saw this little blond boy
and walked over and gave him a tennis racquet.
On the ant bed tennis court
was a tiny practice board, but the racquet was way too big. So
Kenny tucked the handle under his armpit and wrapped his hand
around the neck and starting hitting the ball against the board.
He had to be accurate because the wire around the board was full
of holes and if the ball missed and went through the fence the
lady next door wouldn’t give it back.
Thus began what Harry
Hopman twice called "the best forehand in the world."
Being older parents of an
only child, Norm, a train driver, and Ethel, a housewife, were
They tried to keep Kenny at
home or at school; but he was always escaping towards a bigger
Aged 8 he’d be down at
our cake shop making pies when Norm would appear with a stick;
Aged 9 he’d be swimming in Ekibin Creek or up a mango tree when
he was supposed to be serving as an altar boy at Mass; Every day
Ethel would walk him along Ipswich Road to school at Mary
Immaculate Convent -- and she’d lament to the ladies in our
shop: "I’d be cooking in the kitchen half an hour later
when I’d see this little blond head bobbing past the
Kenny had escaped again.
By the time he was seven,
every Saturday morning Ethel would take Kenny by tram to Red Hill
to be coached tennis.
By 10 he was beating all
the boys his own age 6-0, 6-0, so he started playing older boys.
One was Lance Mesh whose parents owned the Annerley Picture
Theatre. They always played for a malted milk shake. Not only did
Lance let Kenny into the Annerley pictures for nothing, but he
bought Ken a hell of a lot of milk shakes in our shop.
Norm Fletcher loved to tell
the story of the 23-year-old tanned athlete who turned up at
Milton with his blonde girlfriend on his arm; six Slazenger tennis
racquets in his bag; a green crocodile on his shirt, black hair
slicked down with Spruso hair oil.
He looked around and said:
"I’m looking for my opponent, a Ken Fletcher?"
"Yes," said Norm,
"that’s him down playing on the swing."
"Don’t give me
that!" the bloke said.
After being thrashed, the
23-year-old leaned heavily on his girlfriend as she carried him
and his six racquets back to the tram stop.
In 1959, aged 18, Kenny
escaped to the world when he was selected in the Australian Davis
Cup squad that went to America under Harry Hopman and brought back
the Cup. His name is now etched forever on that Cup.
Ken toured the world with
official Australian tennis teams each year in the early 1960s --
escaping Australia for eight months to carry our flag all over the
globe to exotic places like Saigon, Mexico City, Phnom Penh, Turin
and Estonia. Name a town and Ken played there.
concentrated on tennis, gambling, and girls… not necessarily in
At Wimbledon in 1961 Ken
shocked the English when in anger he belted a ball high in the air
on Centre Court and it landed in the Royal Box. It had never
happened before. At interviews later Ken said: "To be a
champion you have to have a bit of mongrel in you. That’s why us
fair dinkum Australians are hard to beat. They were only a couple
of minor royals anyway."
Alf Chave was manager in
1962 and in Moscow -- with the Cuban Missile Crisis underway -- he
warned the team to be careful of what they said in their rooms
because most likely the Communists had them bugged.
Ken lost to the Russian
champion in the final before a howling crowd.
Back in the Hotel, Alf
Chave heard a commotion from down the corridor and went to
investigate. There he saw, through the open door, Kenny addressing
the walls of his room: "Righto you pack of Commie bastards. I
know you’re listening, so I want you to know your whole country
looks like one big second-hand shop!"
As a lonely only child
Kenny set about acquiring big families early in life. In Brisbane
he became part of the Lunn family and the McKeirnan family. In
Cairns he became part of the Lee Longs; in Hong Kong he became
part of the Sun family - direct descendants of Sun Yat-sen who
made China a republic - and also in Hong Kong he befriended the
Pakistani Khan family. Plus he was part of the Australian tennis
family with lifelong friends like Frank Sedgman, Margaret Court,
Jimmy Moore and Colin Stubs.
Maybe that’s why we all
called him "Uncle Ken".
In London Ken created his
own family of Carole and their children Julien and Jennifer.
Then in the 1990s, when he
returned to Brisbane as a bachelor again, Ken used to say "I’m
looking for a girl who is on my side". Finally he met and
fell in love with Cathie Creagh and, no doubt about it, he found
one. At the same time he acquired Cathie’s huge family to add to
his own, and Ken told me he never felt lonely in Brisbane again.
Ken Fletcher was the best
tennis player ever to come out of Brisbane. By far. He won 37
international singles titles -- even winning the Philippines
championship on crushed coral.
In Bombay he made the final
on a cow dung court.
That day it was 50 degrees
in the shade when Ken walked out for the final. He looked up and
there were a dozen vultures watching from the trees above. Ken
turned and said: "I’m really in the poo here Hughie. If I
fall over, I’ll get tetanus -- and if I don’t get up those
bloody vultures will eat me!"
In the mid 1960s, Fletch
played 10 Wimbledon doubles finals with five different partners,
but he never came to terms with the fact that he didn’t win the
singles. Seeded as high as three, he was beaten by the winner
three years in a row in close matches. In one he served for the
match in the fifth set. Which caused Alf Chave to write:
"They say that opportunity knocks only once: in Ken Fletcher’s
case it has almost battered down the door."
His name became so well
known in England that when Keith Fletcher was appointed captain of
the England cricket team some London papers called him "Ken
Tennis players the world
over accepted that Fletch was more brilliant than themselves: but
also more mercurial and less likely to apply himself.
Nothing could keep him down
for long. When I was working in London in 1966, Fletch rang me
from Nice and said "I’ve won a motza on the roulette
tables. I’m rolling in it. I’ve sent you an air ticket. Come
At Nice airport Ken was a
bit shame faced and said: "Have you got any money for petrol?
I’ve done the lot, but I won this VW off the bloke next to me at
the table. He wrote out the transfer of ownership on my
serviette." So Fletch and I headed off in the VW to the next
tournament in Monte Carlo -- and all the way Ken sang at the top
of his voice: "I’m the man who broke the bank in Monte
In Monte Carlo he gambled
with Jackie Kennedy’s sister, Princess Lee Radizwell, and
Onassis’s nephew Peter Theodore Acropolis at the casino.
Ken was always trying
to "pull a rort".
While other tennis players
prepared in Europe for the French Open and Wimbledon, Ken played
in the back blocks of Egypt in exchange for a free round-the-world
ticket from Egypt Air; and then he played in Uganda because he was
trying to do a deal importing beaded cardigans and jumpers from
Hong Kong into Africa.
The biggest rort Fletch
ever tried to pull was when a Chinese millionaire offered him a
Rolls Royce if he could get his son into Wimbledon. So Ken entered
the Wimbledon doubles with this boy who had no international
experience. But the Wimbledon Committee said they would have to
play the qualifying tournament.
silly," Fletch said, "we’d never get through." So
Ken entered with Newcombe instead and they won the title.
Fletch seemed to like
turning up to Grand Slams unprepared.
Margaret Court was shocked
when Ken turned up for the final of the 1963 US Mixed Doubles to
play Billie-Jean King and Dennis Ralston. "Ken!"
Margaret said, "This is our chance to be the first pair ever
to win the Grand Slam of Mixed and you haven’t shaved."
Ken. "I haven’t even been to bed."
They won anyway.
In the 1965 French Open at
Stade Roland Garros, Ken was playing the German champion Ingo
Buding on the Centre Court. Ken led early but the French crowd was
putting him off by cheering for the German. They didn’t want yet
another Australian in the last eight.
Finally Ken walked over and
looked up at the crowd towering above, sweat running down his
forehead, and yelled: "The bloody Germans were goose-stepping
down your Champs-a-bloody-Elysees 20 years ago, and now you’re
cheering for the buggers."
South African champion
Cliff Drysdale wrote: "Fletcher is a man who loves to get OUT
of trouble. He is volcanic, humble, apologetic -- ALL AT ONCE!
This man Fletcher mixes with Royalty; gambles with TV stars; and
yet likes eating in hot-dog stalls with peasants."
In 1970 Ken abandoned
Wimbledon at the last minute to fly to the aid of his friend Farid
Khan when Farid had his throat cut by a robber in Coober Pedy, the
opal mining town in the middle of the desert.
Fletch accompanied a
wounded Farid on his return to the town. I asked Ken if he’d
carried a gun. "Carried a gun? I got a bloody cramp in my
hand from holding on to it," he said.
That was the end of Ken’s
Wimbledon career until the year 2000 when Wimbledon honoured its
greatest 60 players of the last century. They flew Kenny over from
Brisbane to walk across the red carpet before a capacity Centre
Kenneth Norman Joseph
Fletcher was always looking for sorrows greater than his own.
When I was in his unit one
time, many years ago, I went into Ken’s en suite and was
surprised by the picture stuck to the back of the door. It was cut
from a magazine and stuck up with sticky tape.
It wasn’t a Playboy
centrefold; it wasn’t a picture of a racehorse winning at Ascot.
It was a photo of a little
child starving in Africa.
I asked Ken why, and he
said it was to remind him to seek out those who need help. Which
was something Ken did all his life.
I was there in Hong Kong on
Christmas Day 1964 when Fletch announced he’d organised to take
half a dozen orphans out for Christmas Day: ferry rides, a trip to
Kai Tak airport to see the planes, and lunch in the Grand Hotel.
Ken had done it all before
and he had a great time.
He always wanted to
"make a million dollars" so he could "do
good". But it was impossible as a tennis player back then:
when he and John Newcombe won the Wimbledon Men’s doubles in
1966 they each received a 20-pound voucher to Lilywhites store.
Ken thus gravitated towards
people who could "do good". And his contacts
around the world were unparalleled in Australian history.
Ken once talked the Shah of
Iran into paying him to take a team of Iranians on a world tennis
tour. He took Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and
Charlton Heston to Wimbledon. Ken took Gerry Sung, one of the
richest businessmen in south-east Asia, around the world with him
one year as his doubles partner.
Believe it or not, they
even won several matches.
An Arab sheik used to send
a plane to London to fly Ken to Spain for "fun"
weekends. On the way home Ken would open the envelope he was
always given: inside a gold watch, or maybe 1000 pounds. This was
a real boon for Ken who sometimes had to borrow money to buy his
Then Ken rang me up:
"I’m afraid I’ve put a spoke in the wheel. I’ve told
the sheik I can’t spend any more weekends with him because there’s
no grog, no gambling and no girls!"
Ken stayed on in London
until his 50s and became one of the 330 members of the exclusive
Wimbledon Club. Over the decades all of his friends got to
experience Ken’s generous hospitality at Wimbledon during the
Ken’s closest friend in
London became the man he most admired: Leonard Cheshire VC, the
great British Strategic Air Command pilot. Ken admired Leonard
Cheshire -- not as a World War II hero -- but because Leonard
opened homes for crippled children and the disabled across Great
Britain and in 55 other countries.
"Leonard is a
saint," Ken always said.
Back in Hong Kong days in
the 1960s Fletch befriended a young Irish-American businessman
called Chuck Feeney who opened a duty free store at Hong Kong’s
airport. Over the next 30 years, Chuck expanded and ended up with
2,000 duty free stores around the world.
But Chuck did much more
Besides bringing peace to
Ireland, Chuck made himself the biggest philanthropist in the
world by putting $6000 million in cash into a charitable trust
to give away in his own lifetime.
In 1992, Fletch brought
Chuck Feeney out to see his home town of Brisbane. Chuck loved
our city and decided Ken had escaped for too long and should
come home -- so he appointed Ken his man in Australia.
Chuck has so far given more
than $350million to Australian medical research institutes and
universities: most of it in Queensland.
None of this would have
happened but for Ken Fletcher.
Fletch, you did good.