JPR Williams chose to play rugby, and played it vigorously for Wales and the Lions, so much so that on the Lions tour to New Zealand in 1971, he was actually barred from certain training sessions because he had a habit of injuring his team-mates, but his tennis-playing feats are largely forgotten.
Only real aficionados of the game are aware that he played in one of the most historic tournaments of all, the one in Bournemouth in 1968 that launched the open era.
The event cleared the way for the Australian maestro Rod Laver, who had been barred from defending the Wimbledon title in 1963 because he had turned pro, to compete again for the game’s crown of crowns – and this time receive a cash prize.
For regaining the Wimbledon title in 1968, Laver won £2,000.
Laver, it so happens, is the player JPR admires most and, although he missed out on playing him in 1968 at Bournemouth, where the Australian was top seed, he did play doubles with and against him in a charity event in the 1980s. ‘He was my all-time favourite, a great player and, just like Roger Federer, a real gentleman.’ Williams is a fan, too, of Andy Murray.
JPR is a retired orthopaedic surgeon, he and his wife Scilla have four children who have inherited the sporting genes.
Their three daughters have played hockey for Wales, and their son is an excellent golfer
Williams had his last game of rugby for Tondu Veterans in 2003 and gave up tennis at about the same time, he has had a hip replacement, but still looks fit and a solid unit.
Of 1968 he says ‘I don’t think the players I knew realised quite how special the occasion was,’ he says, ‘but we all felt very much in awe because we were playing with these professionals such as Laver and [Ken] Rosewall, which had never happened before.’
Williams made it into the main draw in Bournemouth after winning his qualifier against RF Johansen, in the first round of the competition proper, Williams played the Australian Bob Howe, one of the world’s great doubles players in his prime, but by then he was 42 and moving towards retirement. Williams reckoned he had chances, but lost in straight sets. ‘I was very disappointed,’ he says, ‘because I fancied that I could beat him, but he was just too crafty for me.’
By 1968, Williams had proved himself a tennis player of great promise, having first made an impression in 1964.
He played in the British under-15 tournament on grass in Exmouth that year,’ he says, ‘and surprised everyone by getting to the final.
He describes himself as having been a clay-courter with a reasonably good all-round game. ‘My backhand was better than my forehand, because, like most people, it was my weaker side when I started out and I spent all my formative years practising it.’
His steady improvement led to a major success in 1966 when he won Junior Wimbledon, beating David Lloyd in the final.
The Times reported that Williams’s victory over Lloyd was ‘the biggest upset of the week’,
He rated as an even greater success his title victory the following year in a world junior event in Canada, the Canadian Centennial tournament, in which he beat two young Americans, Sandy Mayer and Dick Stockton, who went on to make the world top 10.
‘There was no publicity in this country at all,‘ he says, ‘but that was probably a greater performance than winning Junior Wimbledon.’
Many years later, when Williams was the subject of This Is Your Life, the BBC’s greatly respected commentator Dan Maskell, who had been a leading coach, said that Williams’s fighting qualities meant he would have gone a long way in the sport and his decision to concentrate on rugby had been tennis’ loss.
The day on which Williams lost to Howe at Bournemouth would be a crucial one in his opting for rugby. By losing in straight sets, he left time for his father, Dr Peter Williams, to drive him back to Wales to play for Bridgend in a match against Newport.
Williams, still to win his first cap for Wales, arrived at the Brewery Field just in time for the 7.15pm kick-off and played a blinder. ‘I pulled off two tackles on Stuart Watkins, who was the Wales international winger at the time, and I think that cemented my selection for the tour of Argentina in 1968,’ he says.
Next morning he drove himself back to Bournemouth to play doubles, but soon he would have to choose between tennis and rugby.
The moment to decide came during that summer of ’68. he played in the British under-21s in Manchester and had to scratch after reaching the quarter-finals because he had to get back to Wales for a training session for the tour of Argentina,’ he says. ‘That was the real clash, when rugby took over from tennis.’
If there was any doubt in his mind about abandoning the possibility of a career in tennis, Williams’s father removed it. ‘My father was a big influence on me,’ he says.
‘”Professional sport is not for you.” he told me and that he wanted me to go to medical school.
If you were a good rugby player in those days then you had a very good chance of getting in to one of the London teaching hospitals – and I could do that and keep up the rugby.
‘The other thing was that Gerald Battrick, who was a very good player from Bridgend and was highly ranked in the UK, did not even feature in the top 10 of Welsh sporting personalities. So I thought, “Well, tennis isn’t very popular in Wales, but rugby is.” That also had a bit of an influence on my decision to choose rugby.’
What, though, would he choose now if faced with the same decision, with tennis a veteran of open competition and rugby union just having entered its teens as a professional sport?
‘I would have chosen tennis before rugby,‘ Williams says after barely a moment’s hesitation.
If that is a surprise, how about this: ‘I’d have done so because tennis is much more lucrative now and much more enticing – and because of the dangers of rugby. It’s much more physical than when I played.’
It’s hard to imagine that one of the greatest players ever to put on a Welsh shirt could have been lost to tennis, their loss was our priceless gain.