In Memory: Shirley Fry Irvin ’49

August 11, 2021

By Elsa Wenzel

Rollins women’s tennis team in the 1940s, including Shirley Fry Irvin ’49
Rollins women’s tennis team in the 1940s. Seated, center: Shirley Fry Irvin ’49.Photo by Courtesy Rollins College Archives.

One of the brightest tennis stars to emerge from the Rollins pantheon, Shirley Fry Irvin ’49 was one of only 10 women in the world to win all four Grand Slam singles titles.

International Tennis Hall of Famer Shirley Fry Irvin ’49, a child prodigy who grew up to inspire legends like Billie Jean King and Serena Williams, passed away at age 94 on July 13 in Naples, Florida.

One of the greatest tennis champions to emerge from an impressive tradition at Rollins College, Fry Irvin was a household name in the 1950s. She became one of only 10 women to win the singles titles at all four Grand Slam tournaments, including Wimbledon, the U.S. Championships, and the Australian Championships, in which she also won 12 women’s doubles championships.

Known for her light-footedness on the court, Fry Irvin was also well loved for her kindness, humility, and sportsmanship. She played for the love of the sport and blazed a trail for future women in tennis.

“Generations of Rollins women’s tennis players have felt a deep sense of pride knowing they are a part of a program in which the phenomenal Shirley Fry Irvin participated,” says Rollins women’s tennis coach Bev Buckley ’75. “It’s truly an honor and a privilege for me to have played and now coach on the very courts where Shirley once played.”

Early Years

Born June 30, 1927, in Akron, Ohio, to Ida and Lester Fry, Fry Irvin grew up with three siblings during the Great Depression. She recalled her mother passing out brown paper bags of popcorn to hobos at the back door.

With a father who ran track and a mother who loved tennis, the athletic child sampled a variety of sports, including hiking, swimming, ice skating, and badminton, eventually finding her niche in tennis.

By age 10, the girl nicknamed “Small Fry” was winning titles and riding alone on buses to tennis tournaments around the country. Fry Irvin was the youngest person to play in the U.S. amateur championship at age 14, eventually making 16 appearances in the U.S. National Championships. Once she won any competition, her father made her try a new one.

Shirley Fry Irvin ’49 pictured on the tennis court at Rollins College with five of her teammates.
Third from left: Shirley Fry Irvin ’49Photo by Courtesy Rollins College Archives.

The Rollins Set

Already ranking in the top 10 in the U.S. by 1944 (and remaining there for 13 years), Fry Irvin graduated from Central High School in Akron in 1945, appearing in Seventeen magazine shortly thereafter.

Friend and fellow player Betty Rosenquest Pratt ’47 urged Irvin to check out Rollins College, where she found a fitting home for her talents at a time when attending college was rare for women and playing on a tennis team almost unheard of. While at Rollins, Fry Irvin graced the cover of Life magazine while also finding time to serve as president of the Alpha Kappa Theta sorority.

Seven years earlier Rollins had become one of the first colleges to support women’s tennis players, spawning a long line of stars. In 2009, The Bleacher Report named Fry Irvin “perhaps the greatest of all the former Rollins players,” including Pratt, Dorothy “Dodo” Bundy Cheney ’45, and Pauline Betz Addie ’43.

Fry Irvin graduated from Rollins with a degree in human relations and traveled for tournaments to Ireland, England, France, Switzerland, the Bahamas, and Mexico.

Scoring Big

In 1951, Fry Irvin won the singles title at the French Open against friend Doris Hart. She persisted even after counting a number of losses in the finals and semifinals at Wimbledon in the early ’50s.

In 1956, Fry Irvin was invited to represent the U.S. against Britain in the Wightman Cup, where she played for six years, winning 10 of her 12 matches. Fry Irvin would go on to take the Wimbledon and U.S. titles that same year, followed by the Australian Championships in 1957, after which she retired from tennis for good.

Fry married advertising executive Karl Irvin, whom she’d met in Australia where he moonlighted as a tennis umpire. The couple went on to have four children within five years and raise their family in West Hartford, Connecticut. After her husband passed away in 1976, Fry Irvin moved back to Florida, where she took up golf, soaked up the sun, and played many a fierce round of gin rummy with her 12 grandchildren.

From left: Tennis legend Shirley Fry Irvin ’49 and her husband, Karl Irvin; a table spread of photos and memorabilia from Fry Irvin’s life, adorned with the most recent issue of Rollins magazine.Photos by Courtesy Lori Irvin Hawes.

Leaving a Legacy

Fry Irvin was admired by tennis greats who came after her, including Billie Jean King. “That flatters me because I really wasn’t that good of a player,” Irvin told The Orlando Sentinel in 2000. “I wasn’t a natural. I had athletic ability, I could run and I could concentrate. I excelled in running and concentration. I had no serve.”

However, Fry Irvin’s children grew up with little realization of their mother’s accomplishments.

“As we got older we began to appreciate that she was someone important,” says daughter Lori Irvin Hawes, who was at Wimbledon in the 1990s when Martina Navratilova and Serena Williams approached the family, calling her mom a legend.

“We used to joke about her commandments being telling the truth, obeying authority, and being kind to everybody,” says Irvin Hawes. “She was also a big believer that sportsmanship was more important than winning the tournament.”

Even though Irvin had won practically every tennis tournament in the world at one time or another, she remained humble.

“Tennis was an avocation for us and not a vocation,” says longtime friend and fellow Hall of Famer Belmar Gunderson, who played four times at Wimbledon. “You lugged your luggage with you, and your rackets and everything else you had to carry. If you were by yourself, it was tough, but Shirley was always a trooper and a wonderful gal and lady and human being. She was never impressed with herself.”

In an era of wooden rackets, tennis was an amateur endeavor even for the likes of Irvin Fry. Today, Grand Slam wins pay millions of dollars. Back in the ’50s, the world’s No. 1 woman tennis champion played in exchange for lodging, laundry, and sometimes a prize that furnished tennis equipment. But Fry Irvin loved every minute.

“I think we had a lot better time than they have today,” Fry Irvin told the Tampa Bay Times in 2013. “We were traveling and seeing the world. That meant a lot to us.”