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History of tennis: The rise in popularity of tournament tennis from humble beginnings

Once tennis grew in popularity, it wasn’t long before the first clubs and tournaments began to emerge and tournament tennis, as we know it, gradually began to grab the attention of tennis fans. Enjoy with Tennishead this look back into the history of tennis

Lawn tennis first saw the light of day in the mid-1870s, but such was its popular appeal that within a few years it was being played by thousands of people in newly-formed clubs around the world. People were liberated by tennis, casting aside the workaday world as they took to the courts for fun, exercise and, increasingly, competition. Within a few years of the game’s launch in 1874, Walter Wingfield’s original rules were refined, the court shape was altered and the net height reduced so that the game was largely the one we recognise today.

Leamington Spa in Warwickshire is thought by many to be the home of the world’s first lawn tennis club. The Leamington Club was founded in 1872 by Augurio Perera and Harry Gem, a Birmingham-based solicitor, and the game first played there was Pelota, introduced by Perera from his native Spain. Perera and Gem were also early pioneers of lawn tennis, and by late 1874 their club, along with lots of others, had opened its doors to this popular new sport and amended its name to Leamington Lawn Tennis Club.


How tournament tennis began


The most prestigious club to add tennis to its roster was the All England Croquet Club in Wimbledon. The club had been founded at a meeting in July 1868 at the London offices of The Field, “The Sporting Gentlemen’s Newspaper”. The meeting was chaired by the magazine’s editor JH Walsh, who nearly a decade later would be one of the driving forces behind the first Wimbledon championships. The new club set about searching the London area for suitable grounds, and after a number of false dawns a lease was taken out in 1869 on a four- acre site just off Worple Road, halfway between Wimbledon and Raynes Park.

In the summer of 1875 the club set aside one croquet lawn for use as a tennis court, and in 1877 its name was changed to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club. Other early lawn tennis clubs included New Orleans (founded in 1876), Dublin (1877), Northern, Manchester(1881), Surbiton(1881), Southfields (1884), Queen’s Club, London(1886), Nice (1890) and West Side, Forest Hills(1892).


How tournament tennis began


The Victorians were sports lovers and great organisers, and it was inevitable that tournaments would be set up for the more competitively-minded players. The first Wimbledon Championships, however, came about largely by accident. The All England Club had added four more courts at its Worple Road grounds in 1876, but by the summer of 1877 was facing a financial dilemma. One of the keys to the upkeep of fine croquet and tennis lawns was the regular use of a heavy roller pulled by a pony to keep the playing surface flat. The club’s pony roller – originally donated by JH Walsh and which can be seen today as part of Wimbledon Museum’s guided tour of the club – had broken and was in need of repair. To raise funds, the committee decided to stage its first open tournament. The first Wimbledon Championships began on July 9 1877, with 22 men paying a guinea (one pound and five pence) to enter. The first prize, worth 12 guineas, was won by 27-year-old Spencer Gore, a local sportsman whose main love was cricket. Gore won a silver trophy worth 25 guineas which had been donated by the proprietors of The Field. The tournament was played over 11 days, including a two-day break for the Eton versus Harrow cricket match at Lord’s. The Wimbledon final was watched by around 200 spectators who each paid one shilling (five pence) for admission.

Reports in The Field and other periodicals quickly spread word of the success of the first Championships, encouraging the growth of tournament tennis in Great Britain and beyond. In the US, tournaments were held as early as 1876 but the first official US Championships weren’t until 1881, when Richard Sears beat William Glyn of Great Britain in the final at Newport, Rhode Island. Sears would go on to win the title for seven straight years. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Renshaw brothers were dominating Wimbledon during the same period, with William winning seven singles titles and his brother Ernest winning one.


How tournament tennis began


The Renshaws, along with Sears, were the first true tennis stars, and such was their celebrity that they began to wield influence beyond the confines of the tennis court. An archive photograph from this period shows the Renshaw brothers posing in a studio- like setting dressed in tennis clothing which derived much in its style and functionality from cricket attire: long flannel trousers, long-sleeved shirts with sleeves rolled to the elbow, necktie and military belt. This is how the fashionable sportsman dressed in late Victorian times, and this was the first fashion trend from the manicured lawns of SW19.

Ladies tournaments were staged in various locations during the late 1870s and early 1880s, but it wasn’t until 1884 that they made their debut at Wimbledon. Thirteen women competed for a silver cup worth 20 guineas, and 19-year-old Maud Watson, a rector’s daughter from Coventry, beat her elder sister, Lillian, in the final to become Wimbledon’s first ever ladies singles champion. Also in 1884, the first men’s doubles event was played at Wimbledon, and three American players, including Sears and James Dwight, became the first overseas entrants. Tennis was coming of age as an international sport.

This feature was orignally published in Tennishead magazine back in 2007 and you can grab your own annual subscription, which includes 4 stunning printed magazine editions and 24 issues of The Bagel newsletter.

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Tim Farthing, Tennishead Editorial Director & Owner, has been a huge tennis fan his whole life. He's a tennis journalist and entrepreneur as well as playing tennis to a national standard. He also helps manage his local club and volunteers for his local tennis organisation. He's a specialist in content about the administration of professional tennis and tennis coaching for all levels.