Mrs. Irvin, who was known by her maiden name for most of her tennis career, was one of only 10 women to win singles titles at each major championships. A diminutive 5-foot-5 right-hander, she was one of just six women also to win a doubles title at each major, according to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which inducted her in 1970.
Playing before the advent of the Open era, at a time when only amateurs were allowed to compete in the majors, Mrs. Irvin battled such talented players as Maureen Connolly, Althea Gibson and Doris Hart, wielding a wooden racket while playing for nonexistent prize money. She won her first Grand Slam singles title at Roland-Garros in 1951, beating her friend Hart, then the world’s No. 1 ranked player, in straight sets.
Mrs. Irvin won 17 major championships in all, including 12 women’s doubles titles, all but one of them with Hart. For a few years in the early 1950s, the duo seemed nearly invincible, winning four straight championships at Roland-Garros and Forest Hills and taking three straight at Wimbledon.
By the fall of 1954, however, Mrs. Irvin had decided to go into semiretirement, taking a job as a secretary and “copy girl” at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, where she lived when she wasn’t on the tennis circuit.
Mrs. Irvin played on the weekend while nursing a nagging elbow injury. But after being invited to London to play in the 1956 Wightman Cup, an annual team competition between Britain and the United States, she decided to stick around for a few weeks for Wimbledon. Her time there marked the beginning of a remarkable comeback, including title victories at the final three majors in which she played.
At Wimbledon, tennis’s most prestigious tournament, the 29-year-old Mrs. Irvin won the singles championship the same day she won a mixed-doubles title with fellow American Vic Seixas. Seeded fifth in the singles bracket, she came from behind to beat Gibson and defending champion Louise Brough, who each took her to three sets, and then she dispatched Britain’s Angela Buxton in under an hour.
“It was Shirley Fry day at Wimbledon today, and about time,” wrote New York Times journalist Fred Tupper, noting that she had spent nearly a decade trying to win at tennis’s most prestigious tournament. The Associated Press reported that she “laced winners down the sidelines time and time again, relentlessly attacked Miss Buxton’s unsure backhand and coasted home under wraps.”
Before the match, Buxton’s wealthy father had made headlines by promising to give his daughter a pier at an English seaside resort if she won the title. That offer led St. Petersburg Mayor Samuel Johnson to declare that Mrs. Irvin could have her own pier, the one in St. Pete’s, if she beat Buxton.
“Coming soon to collect my pier,” she cabled after her triumph.
Mrs. Irvin was given a ceremonial deed to the pier — “We wouldn’t want to embarrass her with its revenue because it might jeopardize her amateur standing,” the mayor said — and was celebrated in a ticker-tape parade, reportedly the first in St. Petersburg’s history.
By the end of the year, she had defeated Gibson at the U.S. National Championships and obtained a world No. 1 ranking. In her first appearance at the Australian Championships, in January 1957, she swept each of her singles matches and again beat Gibson in the final, while also partnering with her to win the women’s doubles title.
Shortly after her victory, she married an American advertising executive and tennis umpire she met during the tournament, and retired from the international circuit. She had decided to go out on top and “was tired,” she later put it, “of living out of a suitcase.”
The youngest of four children, Shirley June Fry was born in Akron, Ohio, on June 30, 1927. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father was an investor who ran a tennis shop.
By age 9, she was playing competitive tennis and badminton, sometimes traveling alone to tournaments. She played in the U.S. National Championships in 1941, at age 14 — younger than any female player up to that time — and reached the quarterfinals a year later, losing to eventual winner Pauline Betz.
Mrs. Irvin kept playing while studying at Rollins College in Florida, sailing on the Queen Mary to compete in Europe for the first time in 1948, a year before she received her bachelor’s degree. “The only trouble was that you got sea legs,” the tennis hall quoted her as saying, “and it took a while to get used to playing on land.”
After winning her first Grand Slam singles title in 1951, Mrs. Irvin lost in the finals at the next two majors, including a 6-1, 6-0 blowout to Hart at Wimbledon. She later told the Tampa Bay Times she was so angry about the loss that she spent the night drinking champagne; playing in the doubles finals the next day, she “saw about two balls all afternoon” but ended up winning anyway.
In 1957, she married Karl Irvin Jr., who worked in Sydney. They later settled in Connecticut, where Mrs. Irvin coached tennis and raised their children.
While playing tennis with one of their sons in 1976, her husband had a heart attack and died. Survivors include her four children, Mark Irvin of Enfield, Conn., Scott Irvin of Cape Coral, Fla., Lori Hawes of Marco Island, Fla., and Karen Mahoney of Scottsdale, Ariz.; and 12 grandchildren.
Mrs. Irvin had mixed feelings about the professionalization of tennis. Had she won her Grand Slam tournaments today, she told an interviewer in 1990, she would have been worth about $20 million. But more recent stars also seemed more high-strung, focusing entirely on singles matches, while she and her peers had been able to play doubles and mixed-doubles while also “traveling and seeing the world.”
She was unsure whether she could compete with today’s players, she told the Orlando Sentinel in 2000. “I couldn’t possibly. Then I think, ‘Hey, I played mixed doubles and returned men’s serves.’ ”