The world’s premier tennis tournament, the Wimbledon Championships, will be held from Monday 29 June to Sunday 12 July 2015. The origins of the competition go back to July 1877 when the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club held a Lawn Tennis Championship to raise funds to mend its pony lawn-roller.
The All England Croquet Club had been formed in 1868 at Wimbledon, then an outer suburb of London, where the club leased four acres of land on Worple Road, backing onto the railway track. Croquet had become very popular among the growing middle class in the 1860s, coinciding with the invention of lawnmowers, which allowed the pastime to flourish. Various forms of tennis and tennis-type games had been played over the centuries. From the mid 19th century, real tennis and rackets, both indoor games, had become quite popular. A new tennis game was about to emerge, one that would be played on grass.
In the late 1860s, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield developed a version of tennis he called ‘sphairistike’, which is Greek for ‘ball play’. In 1869, he gave a demonstration to the fifth Marquis of Landsdowne, Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, and two of the lord’s friends, Walter Long and Arthur Balfour. The four of them played this game a number of times that summer. They felt the name ‘sphairistike’ was too hard to pronounce or remember. Balfour suggested that ‘lawn tennis’ was a better name.
Wingfield took out a patent on the game in 1874 and started packaging sets of ball playing equipment, including net posts, rackets, balls and instructions for five pounds. Many people still referred to the game as ‘sphairistike’, which was commonly abbreviated to ‘sticky’. Wingfield’s court was hourglass shaped, being 60 feet long by 30 feet wide, tapering to 21 feet at the net. The net was seven feet high at each side and four feet eight inches at the middle. The server stood in a marked area at mid court. The game was like a cross between badminton and modern tennis. But within a year, the court was increased in size to 84 feet by 36 feet, with a slightly lower net, and the server played from the baseline. Lawn tennis was an immediate success, gaining popularity quickly.
The game was introduced to Wimbledon in 1875 when the All England Croquet Club officially allowed one of its courts to be used for lawn tennis. Players used racket heads that were long and narrow with a short handle, not unlike the shape of traditional snowshoes. Balls were sewn by hand. Serving was round-arm rather than overhead. Players changed ends after each set. Clothing restrictions were put in place, for example, a sign at the club said that men were not to play tennis in their shirtsleeves if any ladies were around. Unlike croquet, tennis players could build up a sweat, and the club installed a bathroom.
The Field, a sports magazine in London, announced in 1877 that it would sponsor “a lawn tennis meeting, open to all amateurs” at Wimbledon, offering a trophy to the winner. Entry fee was a guinea, or one pound and one shilling. The event would become the club’s first Lawn Tennis Championship. Just prior to the tournament, the size and shape of the court was changed to the present rectangular form, with dimensions of 72 feet by 27 feet. The net was still slightly higher than today’s net. Overall, the rules by then were fundamentally similar to those of today.
In preparation for the championship, a stand was built of three planks of wood to seat about 30 people. The Gentlemen’s Singles was the only event. Twenty-two players entered the competition. Four knock-out rounds started on Monday 9 July 1877 and continued through to the Thursday. Then there was a break so people could attend an important cricket match between Eton and Harrow schools played at Lords on Friday and Saturday. The tennis final was scheduled for Monday, as no sport was allowed on Sundays in those days.
Wet weather meant the final was postponed until Thursday, which was still damp, and the start of play was delayed an hour. At last, some 200 people, who had each paid one shilling, watched W. Spencer Gore beat C. G. Heathcote 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 in 48 minutes. Gore was not a regular lawn tennis competitor, but an old Harrovian (i.e. Harrow) player of rackets and real tennis, as well as a county cricketer for Surrey. The 27-year-old received 12 guineas and a cup worth 25 guineas for winning.
Such was the success of the championship and the burgeoning game of lawn tennis that the club changed its name to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club later in 1877. The game we know as tennis and its most famous tournament were born. By that time, lawn tennis had become very popular, at the expense of croquet, and both tennis and the Wimbledon competition went from strength to strength.
Following on from the tournament’s origins in 1877, the inaugural Ladies’ Singles took place in 1884, won by Maud Watson from 13 players. Gentlemen’s Doubles was also added in that year. By the mid 1880s, large crowds were attracted to the tournament, and permanent stands replaced the temporary structures. By the start of the 20th century, international players were participating. May Sutton of the US was the first overseas player to win, taking out the Ladies’ Singles in 1905.
The club moved to new premises at Church Road, Wimbledon in 1922, where a stadium with a capacity of 14,000 was built. In 1932, the championships attracted over 200,000 spectators for the first time, despite the Great Depression. The distinction between amateur and professional was eliminated in 1968 and the tournament was able to consistently attract the best players from around the world. Wimbledon has become one of tennis’s Grand Slam tournaments and the premier competition in world tennis.