Fred Perry, I can’t quit you.


When I was 16, I decided to become a tennis champion. I had always been a good athlete and naturally assumed that when I picked up tennis, I would become a nationally ranked player. So, I decided to enter my first tournament but first had to get the perfect equipment. A T2000 Wilson metal tennis racquet (the first of its kind, the one Jimmy Connors played), along with a Fred Perry shirt, matching shorts, socks, and sneakers. Why Fred Perry? He was the last British player to win the men’s Wimbledon championship, in 1936, and the first player to win a Grand Slam (the French, Australian, U.S Open, and Wimbledon) by the time he was 26. And he looked great doing it. He was my hero. I felt that if I looked like him, I could play like him. So, dress like a tennis champion, I did. When I went to my first tennis tournament in Schenectady, NY, I felt very confident. And then Eric Brooks, my first match of the day, took one look at me and said, “let’s get this nonsense match over with.” I lost in 24 minutes, 6-0, 6-0. It was humiliating. I went home, and carefully took off all my Fred Perry clothing, and put it away in storage, and never wore it again. I figured I had to do the work to become a good player, and that looking good, without the skills to back it up, was simply ridiculous. I started playing 4 hours a day, in my black Converse sneakers and gym shorts and beat-up t-shirt and a second-hand Jack Kramer autographed wood racket. I lost to every single player that year. But when I turned 18, things began to click. I started to play the way I had hoped and got ranked 18 in the East Coast. And then went on to play number one at college at Washington University in Saint Louis.

So what does this have to do with painting?

Well, when I bought my house in Pacific Heights, I dreamed of having a painting studio. And so I designed it, worked with an architect, and created a beautiful studio with 11-foot ceilings, a 12-foot skylight with automatic blinds, and a 12-foot-by-20-foot glass wall—facing east. It had the perfect light to paint perfect paintings. And when it was finally completed, I just sat in it and looked around and fell in love with it. I didn’t want to paint in it and make a mess. I didn’t want to ruin the perfect space. I was scared I couldn’t paint anything that would merit the use of this perfect studio. I had Fred Perry-ed the hell out of the studio to the point that I was paralyzed by fear of making a mistake. Months went by. My wife suggested that I teach my 3-year-old son to paint to break in the space. I got out some tempera paint, and a large canvas put on some soft calming music, and watched my son begin to explore the canvas. In 3 minutes, he created something that I never could. He was a free spirit, not debating whether or not something was good or not. I was overwhelmed by his freedom and joy. Adam started to really get into the painting. And I mean into the painting. He poured paint on himself and started rubbing his body on the canvas. Then he stripped down and ran around the studio flinging paint everywhere. It was Armageddon. Lord of the Flies. Chaos. He broke my Fred Perry curse. I didn’t need a perfect space—I needed to paint. I am starting to find more joy in my painting than I ever had. And trying to let go of the perfectionist I used to be.

I will miss Fred Perry. Yet I know he is close by, watching me.

Bill Cahan, March 12, 2021