The amazing tale of how the first ball ever hit on Centre Court ended up moth-eaten in a sock drawer
Few offices come with a view to match those housing the secretaries at Wimbledon.
‘You get a look along Centre Court,’ Martin Godfree says. He would know. The 85-year-old popped in recently with a query.
‘Help me,’ he asked. ‘One hundred years ago, my father was standing there with a tennis ball.’
Leslie Godfree served it, Algernon Kingscote netted the return, Godfree dashed to pocket the ball.
Martin Godfree, 85, with one of the Wimbledon trophies that his late mother Kitty won
‘Why would he have done that?’
The secretary speculated: perhaps he sensed its significance, or just fancied a memento?
‘I don’t know what the answer is,’ Martin says. Nor is he sure what happened next. ‘It never occurred me to think about it.’ Not until lately, anyway. Because June 26 marks a century since his father served the first ball on the new Centre Court – and kept it.
The Mail on Sunday went in search of that ball, only to unearth a remarkable story involving royalty and the ruling couple of those lawns. A tale that bounces between SW19 and an open sock drawer. Between five Olympic medals and two floating German soldiers. At almost every turn, the story of Leslie and Kitty Godfree poses yet more questions.
For years, the ‘playroom’ of their family home, a few miles from Wimbledon, contained silverware from two record-breaking careers. Now, it holds a large printer. Most of the mementos and memories are in the museum. But not that ball.
‘The English weather did its usual stuff and poured with rain,’ Martin begins, winding back to the 1922 Championships and a new 13,500-capacity arena, on new grounds at Church Road.
Leslie Godfree was the man to serve the first ball on Wimbledon’s Centre Court a century ago
‘George V and Queen Mary were the royal spectators… they must have been twiddling their crowns.’
When the skies cleared, Leslie Godfree lost in straight sets. He did, though, secure a keepsake. His son only discovered the white ball around 1947, when he was eight or nine.
‘I went into his room while he was getting dressed and a drawer which contained his socks was open. So, nosy little bugger that I probably was, I put my hand in and said: “Oh Dad, what’s this tennis ball doing here?”‘ Martin remembers.
‘Knowing him, he probably said: ‘Oh it was something that happened a few years ago.’
Martin continues: ‘It stayed there. He died in 1971 (aged 86) and I think it was probably there then.
‘But like all things woolly – and socks in those days were – the moth took a fancy to them. It also took a fancy to the nap on the tennis ball.
Kitty Godfree curtseying at the All England Club for Queen Mary, the wife of King George V
So the last time I remember seeing it, about the time he died, it was just a grey, uninteresting-looking round object.
‘I suspect, when it came to sorting out his belongings, that went in the bin… rather a sad story.’
Fortunately, not even a peckish insect could erase his parents’ enduring legacy.
Kitty and Leslie Godfree remain the only married couple to win the Wimbledon mixed doubles.
Kitty amassed seven Major titles – including two singles wins at SW19 – and five Olympic medals. She won eight All-England badminton titles and represented Scotland at lacrosse.
She was a skilled skater who played cricket and took up golf in her sixties. Her handicap was around 15. She played tennis into her 10th decade and by her death, aged 96 in 1992, she was an avid cyclist.
‘If she still had her bike… she would have probably pedalled up there,’ Martin says, gesturing to the heavens.
Martin lives in his childhood home with wife Helen, herself the child of a junior SW19 champion
Leslie’s was a storied life, too – as a player, soldier and administrator.
Neither boasted of their CV or royal encounters. ‘There was absolutely no: ‘I did this, I did that’,’ says Martin.
There was little sentimentality for that playroom-turned-trophy-cabinet either. ‘She’d say: ‘Look at all the dusting, what do I need that for?’
Martin now lives back in his childhood home with his wife Helen – herself the child of a junior Wimbledon champion.
These days, pictures of royalty and those green lawns jostle for space on the mantelpiece with family snaps.
Other souvenirs are piled in a tub behind the sofa – the ‘Godfree Family Box’; Helen retrieves books from upstairs, returning with dust down her trousers. Outside, a blue plaque tells passers-by that Kitty was here. No mention of the ball anywhere.
‘Why did you have it in a sock drawer?’ Martin once asked his dad. ‘Well it’s as good a place as any, isn’t it?’ Leslie replied. His son chuckles.
‘When it got to the stage where it hadn’t got any nap left, I said: ‘Ah! Perhaps it was to encourage the moths away from your socks, was it? He said: ‘Oh, might be, I don’t think it crossed my mind.’ The offending moth has never been caught.
Kitty playing at Wimbledon in 1924, the year she won the women’s singles and mixed doubles
Leslie Godfree was a solicitor in his first life. Even then, he left a trail of mystery.
He had a first wife. ‘I know nothing about it except, apparently, she was called Queenie,’ Martin says.
He was a war hero, returning to Brighton from the fields of France with a military cross. ‘We can’t find anything,’ his son adds. ‘It seemed to be about getting something across a bridge.’
He later ended up in Lancashire. ‘I’ve never discovered why.’ Or why Leslie came back to London.
The dots his family can join? By the time Godfree returned from war, his wife had ‘done a bunk’.
‘But apparently – as he put it – he made a c***-up,’ Martin says. So newspapers soon ran the headline: ‘Solicitor messes up his own divorce’.
No wonder Godfree headed north. ‘He must have realised that playing lawyers was not anything like as much fun as playing tennis,’ Martin says.
Kitty presents the women’s singles trophy to nine-time champion Martina Navratilova in 1986
He never turned back. Among (many) other ventures, Leslie was on the committee at Wimbledon and might have been secretary of the All England club, only for war to intervene once more.
Godfree had won the 1923 Wimbledon doubles only to lose the mixed final a year later to his future wife – then Kitty McKane. Shortly after tying the knot in 1926, they triumphed together.
‘Somebody came up to him and said: “How come you didn’t argue?”‘ Martin says. Leslie’s response? ‘We haven’t been married long enough for that.’
Kitty won her second singles title that year. ‘My mother got 5 guineas or something and she went and spent it in London… Mappin & Webb seems to come to mind,’ Martin says with a smile.
Martin still heads down to Wimbledon to watch the action and catch up with old friends
She captured five doubles titles, too, and medalled at two Olympic Games. ‘I must have got them later through the post,’ Kitty once recalled. Over the years, her medals went missing and had to be replaced.
Self-taught, Kitty was also one of the first female players to volley. Not bad, given she was left-handed and played with her right.
In 1922, Kitty reached the Wimbledon doubles final with her sister Margaret. They went one better in the badminton. Margaret, meanwhile, was also a scratch golfer.
What was in their porridge? “If boys were capable of playing games then so were my girls,” their father always insisted.
At school in Scotland, he told the headmistress: “They will have cold baths in the mornings. And they will not stay for the sermon when they go to the church.”
Later in life, Kitty spent many days at Wimbledon – watching The Championships, still playing for fun too. Martin was often her mixed doubles partner. Or opponent.
Kitty and husband Leslie remain the only married couple to win the Wimbledon mixed doubles
‘Heaven help me,’ he reflects. “Martin, if I’m on the tennis court, I’m there to win”,’ she would say.
‘My father used to get a bit short about it… I think he thought his son ought to be able to play tennis a bit better.’
Alas, the trophy haul dried up. ‘I can’t hit the bloody ball over the net,’ Martin says. An engineer, he played a lot of squash and fives; his late brother David helped run the Wimbledon’s croquet club for years.
Martin did play tennis at SW19 every Sunday morning for about five decades. He still heads down to watch, and catch up with old friends.
His hopes of carrying the family flame, however, seemed doomed from childhood, when he was evacuated to Devon during the war. There were courts nearby.
‘My father came down on leave. I said: “I want to be the ball boy”. So I was standing at the net, he mishit the ball and it landed straight in my mouth. I thought: ‘Oh god, if this is what tennis is all about…’
He made other, more gruesome, discoveries down there.
‘My brother and I found two German airmen floating in the river,’ Martin says.
‘A policeman with a proper helmet on, on a 28-inch-wheel bicycle came along and said: ‘Now, what have we got here?’
Back in London, Leslie was working in intelligence. During the first World War, Godfree was a Captain in the 331st Royal Field Artillery Brigade.
During the first World War, Leslie was a Captain in the 331st Royal Field Artillery Brigade
‘There were 19 officers,’ Martin says. ‘They all went over there roughly at the same time… every one of them came back in one piece.’
His dad was never forthcoming about the details.
Nor were Martin’s parents particularly chatty about tennis. ‘It just never cropped up,’ he says. His mother’s main talking point? “This garden”.’
No wonder, then, that following their father’s death, Martin’s brother began clearing that playroom. ‘My mother didn’t want it,’ Martin says. ‘She knew what she’d done.’
Her son does still have a mini Venus Rosewater Dish. Kitty was never awarded the real thing. She wasn’t even the most recognisable face in her own family until her final years. Leslie was more well-known.
‘They suddenly realised that here was this English champion, still alive, well and compos mentis,’ Martin says. ‘So they brought her out, dusted her down and stuck her in front of a microphone.’
The Duke and Duchess of Kent award Kitty a specially-commissioned Waterford Crystal vase
Helen adds: ‘She used to say: “Somebody spoke to me at the shops but I’ve no idea if I know them or not”.’
All the while, Kitty kept playing. Injury never had been an issue. ‘She didn’t really even have a problem dying,’ Martin says. ‘She got on with it. It’s extraordinary. My father was much the same.’
No special routine, no particular diet. Just a remarkable pair. If only Martin had asked more questions.
‘I wish I had. But I’m not sure, after his disinterest in the tennis ball, that one would have got very far.’
One memento he does have? A cigarette packet, dated 1919. ‘It’s the only really material thing I’ve got that shows him being active, playing tennis,’ Martin says. Second prize in a tournament while with the Rhine Army.
Sportsmail’s Daniel Matthews chats to Martin at his home a few miles from Wimbledon
‘An extraordinary story,’ Martin says. ‘There was a bloke in Norfolk, who was digging his garden over about 5 years ago.’
He stumbled across it and got in touch. How it got there? Another mystery to solve. But that one can wait.
‘Where is that photograph of him serving that wretched ball?’ he asks. Check the drawer, perhaps? Martin recently spoke at a centenary celebration at Wimbledon, “about the story of the sad little tennis ball”.
He was a hit: ‘I got three laughs.’ His team won the quiz, too. Alas, the search for answers goes on.