In Depth

Wimbledon 2015: history of tennis at the All England Club

The tennis competition could very nearly have been called the Wimbledon sphairistike championship

By Brian Edwards

Wimbledon is the oldest lawn tennis contest in the world, and remarkably is only three years younger than the game itself. It is also one of the oldest major sporting competitions in the world still taking place.

But it could very nearly have been called the Wimbledon sphairistike championships.

The first tournament took place in July 1877 at the All England Croquet Club off Worple Road in the south London suburb of Wimbledon. The club used the competition to signal its name change to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, by holding the championships on the grounds which only two years previously had been exclusively used for croquet.

How old is 'tennis'?

It may seem odd to think the game we know as tennis is so relatively young. After all, references to tennis date back centuries and Shakespeare refers to the sport in Henry V, a play about the 15th century and written in 1599.

The game played today, however, is a 19th-century adaptation of a variety of different bat and ball games – and it should still officially be termed lawn tennis, even though it is rarely now played on a lawn. On the professional tour the grass court season lasts just a few weeks and Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam which takes place on grass.

What are its origins?

What Shakespeare was referring to in Henry V, when the French Dauphin sends the young King Henry a present of tennis balls to mock his youth, is what is now known as 'real tennis', a complicated indoor enclosed court game which has more in common with squash.

It is generally believed that the old game called tennis derived its name from a French word tenez, meaning "hold", "take heed" or "there you are".

It evolved over the years from the French game 'jeu de paume', a similar court-based ball game where the ball was thwacked across a net by hand, depictions of which date back to around the year 1300.

Across Europe there were also other variations, most notably Basque pelota in Spain, which was broadly similar. The main downside of these versions of the game was the reliance on a correctly sized indoor court, and as a result it was often the preserve of the very wealthy – with royalty across the continent being particularly keen on it. There is a still a real tennis court open to the public at Hampton Court Palace, where Henry VIII was said to be a keen player.

Where did lawn tennis come from?

The invention of lawn tennis in the 19th century came about partly to find another use for croquet lawns, which had been constructed during a brief craze a few years earlier, but also as a way of making real tennis easier to play.

Two sets of inventors lay claim to the creation of the game we know now. A duo in Birmingham, Harry Gem and a Spanish man named Augurio Perara, made a version of Basque-pelota to be played on a lawn in the early 1860s. But the inventor acknowledged by the Lawn Tennis Association, who even has a statue in the foyer of their headquarters, is Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, who created a game he called 'sphairistike' (a word derived from Ancient Greek meaning ball skill).

Wingfield invented and, more importantly, patented his version in 1874. He also published rules and sold (through an agent) a kit containing balls, racquets and nets. Sphairistike (pronounced sfairy-sticky) never really caught on as a name, and Wingfield may have realised this: his rules and kit also carried the suggestion of an alternative name, "or Lawn Tennis".

Lawn tennis soon became very popular at the All England Croquet Club on Worple Road in Wimbledon, and quickly moved on from the single court which had originally been set aside of it, to take over most of the grounds. However, croquet remained the main focus of the club. The original lawn tennis championships in 1877 was partly held as a fundraiser to buy a roller to keep the croquet lawns flat.

Where did the scoring system come from?

The unusual scoring system of 15, 30, 40 still used now is widely accepted to come from the game jeu de paume and is recorded as far back as the early 15th century, although why those numbers were used is mostly a mystery with no definitive answer. One suggestion is that in a traditional jeu de paume court the server could move 15 feet closer, then 15 feet closer again, and then 10 feet closer each time he or she scored a point. Others suggest that it might have something to do with a clock face – although in medieval times that is unlikely. A tempting theory as to why the word for love is used for nil is that it is a corruption of the French for egg, l'oeuf, which looks a bit like a zero.

Who won the first Wimbledon? 

The inaugural Wimbledon championship was open to men only, and was won by a local cricketer called Spencer Gore. 

Gore, who played cricket for Surrey, was hardly the most enthusiastic tennis player, and was even quoted at the time as saying "lawn tennis will never rank among our great games". Even so, he had paid a guinea to enter, and collected 12 guineas (roughly equivalent to £1,300 in today's money, according to the Bank of England). He also found himself automatically entered into the final of the competition the following year (which he lost).

In 1884 a women's competition was created and the first winner was Maud Watson, who had been playing successfully in other competitions for several years. Men's doubles were also introduced that year, with both ladies' doubles and mixed doubles not following until 1913. 

Up until 1922 the competition winner was automatically made a finalist the following year, with the other place in the final being fought for in challenge rounds. This changed when the club moved to its current home on Church Road and a conventional knock-out competition was instated.

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