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Hall of Famer Shirley Fry Irvin Dies at Age 94

By Joel Drucker | International Tennis Hall of Fame Historian

Shirley Fry Irvin, one of the only ten women to have won the singles titles at all four of tennis’ major championships, passed away in her sleep on July 13, 2021. A 1970 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, Fry Irvin was living in Naples, FL at the time of her death. She was 94 years old.

Competing under the name Shirley Fry, she earned a sweep of the singles majors in the 1950s that can arguably be compared to a brief flurry, followed several years later by a surprising storm.

Fry won her first singles major at Roland-Garros in 1951. Having learned to play tennis on clay in her native Akron, Ohio, Fry’s fast feet and solid groundstrokes made her extremely effective at the French Championships. The highlight of that effort came in the finals, when Fry beat her close friend and frequent doubles partner, Doris Hart, in three sets. That Hart was ranked number one in the world that year made the win exceptionally sweet.

Five years later came the storm. In the summer of 1956, Fry won Wimbledon, then the U.S. Championships. She kicked off 1957 with a title run at the Australian Championships.

Amazingly, Fry’s procession through three straight grass court majors almost didn’t happen. Tennis was largely an amateur game during her prime, with little chance for a player to make a sustainable livelihood. So it was that by early 1956, the 28-year-old Fry retired from the tour and took a job as a copygirl at the St. Petersburg Times.

But that spring, Fry was invited to travel to Europe and represent the U.S. in the Wightman Cup – a team event between America and Great Britain held at the All-England Club just a few weeks before Wimbledon. From there, why not stick around?

Seeded fifth at Wimbledon, Fry faced a pair of late-stage challenges versus two highly skilled net-rushers. In the quarters, she earned a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over red-hot Althea Gibson, who had just taken the title at Roland-Garros and would win Wimbledon the next two years. One round later, Fry got through another three-setter, this time versus the holder, four-time Wimbledon champion Louise Brough. A battle-tested Fry faced little opposition in the finals, taking just 50 minutes to beat Great Britain’s Angela Buxton, 6-3, 6-1. Upon returning to St. Petersburg that July, Fry was given a car, flowers and the key to the city.

The U.S. and Australian efforts were far less challenging, Fry dropping just one set in total on the way to those two prestigious championships. The Australian win made her only the third woman to have earned singles titles at all four majors (the other two were Doris Hart and Maureen Connolly). Between 1946 and ’56, Fry finished the year ranked inside the world’s top-ten nine times.

Fry also won 13 Grand Slam doubles titles. Twelve came in women’s doubles, Fry raising the champion’s trophy on four occasions at both Roland-Garros (’50-’53) and the US Championships (’51-’54), three times at Wimbledon (’51-’53) and once in Australia (’57). Of those women’s doubles victories, all but one came with Hart, the sole exception a run to the Australian title in ’57 with Gibson. A mixed doubles title at Wimbledon in ’56 with Vic Seixas rounds out Fry’s resume.

Shirley Fry was born on June 30, 1927 in Akron, Ohio. Her father enjoyed track and made sports a vital part of life for all four of his children. Shirley started to play tennis when she was eight. Quite quickly, Fry commenced her competitive career. As she recalled in the book, Once A Champion, “My parents didn’t have much money, and to be interested in sports you had to be independent, learn to go it alone. So by nine years old, I was given my first test, which was to go up to Cleveland to see the Exposition up there all by myself . . . take the train and all, stay with people, and then return. From then on, I was going to tournaments to compete.”

Progress came swiftly. By age 14, in 1941, Fry made the first of 16 straight appearances at the U.S. National Championships, held then at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York. A year later, she reached the quarterfinals.

To give you an idea how different tennis was in Fry’s time, in the spring of 1948, when she made her first trip to compete in Europe, she got there by taking the iconic ship of that era, the Queen Mary. “The only trouble was that you got sea legs, and it took a while to get used to playing on land,” said Fry. “But it was such fun.” Once recovered, Fry reached the finals at Roland-Garros and the quarters at Wimbledon.

A year later, Fry skipped Roland-Garros and earned a degree at Rollins College. Upon returning to Roland-Garros in 1950, she advanced to the quarterfinals of the singles and won the doubles.

Tennis was also where Fry met her husband, an umpire and advertising executive named Karl Irvin (he died in 1976). The two had four children: Mark, Scott, Lori and Karen. In addition to her children, she is survived by 12 grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews.

Photo credit: International Tennis Hall of Fame