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Tennis star, philanthropist celebrated in ‘Great Fletch’ bio

Resource type: News

ABC Brisbane |

Original Source The late Ken Fletcher was widely known in the 1960s as a larrikin tennis player with the best forehand in the world, who never fulfilled his potential. But his death three years ago hardly made the headlines, and his friends fear his role in Australian sporting history has been largely forgotten. Brisbane author Hugh Lunn has written a biography of his childhood mate entitled The Great Fletch. Hugh Lunn gives an insider’s account of international sporting stardom before the age of multi-million-dollar sponsorship deals and an unlikely partnership with an American philanthropist. “I didn’t just write the book because he was my best friend, but he was, you know, the most amazing larrikin in world tennis, and he had such a brilliant, dazzling career,” Mr Lunn said. It is the story about the rise and fall of a 1960s sporting hero, and a partnership with an American billionaire who kick-started massive investment in medical research in Brisbane. “Ken was able to hook us up with the people that we thought we could work with,” philanthropist Chuck Feeney told Australian Story in 2006. Half a century ago Brisbane’s Milton Courts were at the epicentre of world tennis. It was here that Fletcher as well as grand slam champions Rod Laver and Roy Emerson cut their teeth in tournaments such as the 1962 Davis Cup. “It was the golden age of tennis, I’d say, the ’60s, late ’50s, ’60s,” Fletcher told Stateline in 1999. “You had so many good players, it was marvellous getting in the team, and I think it was the first year ever that three Queenslanders were in the team.” Mr Lunn says Queensland kids were tough during that so-called golden era, and grew up with that natural instinct required to excel in the sport. “There was lots of land and so people had tennis courts, particularly in country towns and in Brisbane. Brisbane was covered in tennis courts. They knocked them all down now and put up houses,” he said. “And the kids were tough, you know, they were brought up in the heat, they played tennis in bare feet. And, you know, Ken said: ‘They had the mongrel in them’.” Fletcher was widely acknowledged as having the best forehand in the world, and he won the mixed doubles grand slam with Margaret Court in 1963. “Fletch and I just clicked. I probably enjoyed playing with him more than anybody I ever played with,” she said. Tennis rebel But at the peak of his powers, Fletcher fell out of favour with tennis officials after they clamped down on players receiving generous tournament fees by banning overseas travel before April. “Kenny announced to the press, ‘We don’t live in bloody Moscow’. He always had a good way of summing things up, ‘So I’m going’,” Mr Lunn added. “And so the five top Australian players at the time all agreed that they would go, and they left.” From 1964 Fletcher lived in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong and later London, although he continued to be a regular fixture at Wimbledon. Despite his well acknowledged tennis genius, Fletcher never won a grand slam singles title. “Ken didn’t train and, you know, went out and gambled the night before his matches, and got home at 4:00am,” Mr Lunn said. “But as he said, to win Wimbledon you need God on your side. And, you know, Ken used to go to Lourdes hoping to get God on his side, but God wasn’t on his side.” Fletcher found it difficult making a life for himself after tennis and was declared bankrupt in the 1980s. Change of fortunes But the tennis champion had many friends. One of those, an Irish American businessman whom Fletcher met in Hong Kong in the 1960s, had over the course of two decades become one of the richest men in the world. “Ken was a great tennis player at a time when it didn’t pay well,” Chuck Feeney said. Feeney made his fortune from duty free shopping and was shocked when he renewed his friendship with Fletcher in 1990. “Chuck said to me, you know, ‘Ken was bordering on catastrophe.’ So Chuck employed Ken and he thought he should come home to Brisbane. And Chuck said Ken was Brisbane-oriented,” Mr Lunn added. “Chuck liked Ken because he was a friend from before when he became one of the richest men in the world.” Feeney was going through a life change himself. After spending three decades acquiring wealth, he started drawing up plans to give away his entire multi-billion-dollar fortune before he died. “My own approach is kind of low key. I liked the thrill of the chase, but once you’ve done it and you’ve got money, there’s got to be something you can do better with that money than unfortunately what’s done by many people,” Mr Feeney said. He eventually set up Fletcher as his scout in Brisbane, looking for environmental or medical science projects to support. But remarkably, they had trouble finding any takers. “They were a couple of men in their 50s, wandering around town. And no one was taking any notice of them. It was sort of incredible,” Mr Lunn said. “And eventually Chuck said to me, I said, ‘what are you going to do Chuck?’ and he said, ‘I know what to do, I’ll give someone $20 million, and then they’ll all want to talk to me’.” The rest is history. The $20 million went to the Queensland Institute for Medical Research, along with $10 million to the University of Queensland for a bioscience institute. So far Mr Feeney has contributed more than $200 million to medical research institutes and universities in Australia. “Ken was at the heart of bringing the money, you know, I list all the money he’s given. He then gave money in Melbourne and Sydney, but most of it he gave in Brisbane,” Mr Lunn said. Mr Lunn is hoping his book will help his friend claim his rightful place in Australian sporting history. “It’s so sad that Ken has been forgotten because he was one of our greatest tennis players ever.”