In a Genteel Era 64 Years Ago, Amos Wilder Challenged the Best on Wimbledon's Centre Court

updated 06/30/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/30/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The lush grass courts, players in immaculate tennis whites: There's a timeless grace to Wimbledon, which is marking its 100th anniversary of championship play this week. Few appreciate the poetry of the moment more than Amos Wilder, the older brother (by 17 months) of Thornton Wilder, the late Pulitzer-prizewinning novelist and playwright. Amos is a poet, a Congregational minister and divinity professor emeritus at Harvard. He is also, at 90, the oldest surviving player of Wimbledon's hallowed Centre Court.

The Wilder boys were born in Wisconsin but did most of their growing up in California. While Thornton was precocious in literary matters, Amos was always the better athlete. As a Yale senior, he was national intercollegiate doubles champion with Lee Wiley. In 1922, while reading theology at Oxford University, Amos and British partner Charles Kingsley bravely entered the Wimbledon tournament. "Kingsley and I were playing over our heads," he admits. Indeed, they were beaten in the first round (6-2, 2-6, 6-1, 9-7) by Aussies Randolph Lycett and James O. Anderson, who went on to take the title that year.

Wilder, however, has only fond memories of those days in England. "Tennis then was a kind of garden party game, more like croquet than tennis is today," he says, sitting in the library of his home in Cambridge, Mass. While he worries over the professionalization of international tennis ("I hope the big money they earn now doesn't take away the enjoyment of the game"), he is certain the mystique of Centre Court endures. "That's where it all began," he says. "That's the mecca, the holy place of tennis, and there's no such one place in any other sport."

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