Much more to for­got­ten Clark than first black player at Wim­ble­don

Ja­maican blazed a trail at SW19 in 1924 but his feats lit up a dizzy­ing list of sports, says

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Final Whistle - Simon Briggs

en­nis, 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 to­mor­row – 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 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 Gleaner in Ja­maica ran an obit­u­ary that oc­cu­pied half a broad­sheet page.

His dizzy­ing list of ac­com­plish­ments in sport in­cluded win­ning 19 ti­tles at Ja­maica’s ten­nis cham­pi­onships, as well as tak­ing first place in the na­tional golf­ing match play event in 1933. On top of this, Clark was a reg­u­lar for Mel­bourne Cricket Club – a hugely dis­tin­guished team who have pro­duced play­ers in­clud­ing Michael Hold­ing and Courtney Walsh – and is cred­ited with “a great cover drive”.

From The Gleaner ar­ti­cle, it is not clear whether he played foot­ball for Ja­maica as a half-back, or merely in lo­cal leagues, although na­tional cap­tain Clarence Pas­sailaigue told the pa­per that “I was never hap­pier than when he was with me on the field”.

The fi­nal straw, for any read­ers feel­ing their self-es­teem shrink 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. He did man­age to progress from a hum­ble Trea­sury clerk to re­tire as sec­re­tary of the Is­land

Med­i­cal Of­fice, so it can­not all have been chips, putts and serves.

Clark sounds like the in­ven­tion of a wish­ful­fill­ing 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, it was 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 in 1951.

The de­tails are sketchy, so any­one hop­ing to film the 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.”

Trail­blazer: Ber­trand Clark was a sports­man par ex­cel­lence

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