Combining his loves for literature and tennis, Gregory Wilkin published his second book, a biography of Henry Wilfred “Bunny” Austin, an acclaimed British tennis player, on October 26.
Wilkin, Instructor in English and Andover Boys Varsity Tennis Coach, titled his book “The Rabbit’s Suffering Changes: Based on the True Story of Bunny Austin, the Last British Man—Until Murray—to Play in the Finals of Wimbledon,” and it focuses largely on the little-known aspects of Austin’s life after he gave up his career in professional tennis.
Austin was one of the best tennis players in England in the 1920s. For 74 years, he was the only British man to place in the final rounds of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, according to Wilkin.
“He was beaten by the great American Ellsworth Vines in the fastest Wimbledon final ever, and then came back to beat Vines for the Davis Cup, which was an enormous deal in those days,” said Wilkin.
At the height of his fame, Austin disappeared from the tennis world in order to join Moral Re-Armament (MRA), an interfaith, non-governmental organization (NGO), according to Wilkin.
“His plunge into obscurity after all [his success] was positively Acapulcan,” said Wilkin, referring to a group of professional cliff divers based in Acapulco, Mexico.
“Bunny gave up tennis to join MRA as it toured the American airplane factories, trying to get labor and management to examine their consciences and settle their differences, in spite of interference by Nazi and Stalinist operatives who were in league with each other at the time,” continued Wilkin.
He led the organization on an international level, traveling to Canada, India, Switzerland and the Philippines to promote “reconciliation between family members, community members, ethnicities, countries,” according to Wilkin.
After his exit from the tennis world, Austin married Phyllis Konstam, a then-famous British actress. They were one of the most well-known celebrity couples of the time, according to Wilkin.
“As a sports story, I think [the book] is really dramatic, but it’s also a great love story,” he said.
Wilkin spent nearly 20 years working on the book after publishing a profile on Austin in “Tennis Magazine” in 1996. The profile was inspired by an interview Wilkin conducted with Austin in 1983 while Wilkin was on a Fulbright Teacher Exchange to Dulwich College, an independent boys’ school in South London, England.
“Our London neighbor heard that I was ‘quite keen on tennis’ and thought I might like to meet a close friend of his named Bunny Austin,” wrote Wilkin in an e-mail to The Phillipian.
“The name didn’t ring any bells, and so I didn’t move heaven and earth to make the meeting happen, but I saw his picture a few years later in the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, and when the chance came up again to meet him, I didn’t hesitate,” Wilkin continued.
The more he learned about Austin’s past, the more Wilkin was inspired by the former tennis star.
“Bunny was a terrific man, a real hero to me,” he said.
At the urging of Austin’s friends and family, Wilkin wrote a biographical screenplay. The book is based on the unpublished screenplay.
Andy Murray, finalist in the 2012 Wimbledon Championships, was the first British man to play in the Wimbledon finals since Bunny Austin. Wilkin hopes his book will appeal to renewed fans of British tennis.
“Andy Murray’s recent triumphs… brought Bunny back into the spotlight a bit. I’m hoping to sell a few copies to tennis fans all over the world,” said Wilkin. “I wanted to catch the wave of ‘British guy in Wimbledon final’ mania.”
Wilkin published the book with iUniverse, an online self-publishing company. Despite Wilkin’s initial hope that iUniverse would allow for quick publication, the process took four months.
Wilkin credits three Andover colleagues who helped him with the final stages of editing. John Gould, novelist and former Instructor in English, and Rob Long ’83, former Instructor in English, both read over the text. Christopher Walter, Instructor in Music, helped Wilkin review passages and clarified cricket rules in an excerpt describing Austin playing a cricket match.
Wilkin is no stranger to the publishing world. He wrote a novel called “Violations of Recent Memory” about Yale University, and some of Wilkin’s short stories, including “The Robber Bridegroom” and “New Run,” have appeared in literary journals such as the “Saint Katherine Review” and the “Northwest Review.”
Wilkin is currently reworking his Ph.D. thesis on the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail into his next book, which he said will also be “an outgrowth of academic work” that he has already published in the journals “English Studies” and “SPENSER Studies: A Renaissance Poetry Annual.”
Wilkin majored in English at Yale and earned a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto.