After another great Wimbledon season, we thought it would be appropriate to talk about why it’s such a big deal in the tennis world. Each summer the best tennis players in the world converge on Wimbledon, a suburb on the outskirts of London. For two weeks they will pit their skills against one another for cash prizes to the tune of about $35 million, but more importantly, they are there to fight for a place in the annals of tennis history. Winning at Wimbledon is considered the granddaddy of wins. But why?
Because since the late nineteenth century Wimbledon has been more than just a place for athletes to shine. To experience Wimbledon is to have a hand in shaping the entire sport of tennis. Each year the fiercest, most innovative players the sport has seen converge on the London suburb to take part in an age old rite: adapt or perish.
Around 1873, an Englishman by the name of Walter Winfield made some changes to the then popular game of indoor tennis so that it would be played outside, on grass. He called the game Sphairistike—a Greek word meaning ‘skilled at ball playing.’ Sphairistike soon became popular with the bored upper classes of London, who were looking for a new sport to play. The Dundee Advertiser declared: “The game has much more healthy and manly excitement than croquet.”
With the growing popularity of the game, various “lawn tennis” clubs popped up to settle the question of how Sphairistike should be played. Among these was the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club (All England Club for short) which announced an intent to hold the first tennis championships to raise funds for a pony-drawn roller.
In the weeks prior to the first opening day of the Wimbledon championships (on July 9, 1877), the commissioners of the All England Club managed to lay down rules which have been allowed to stand until the today. From that time, the All England Club has been considered “the supreme court of appeal on the question of rules, codifying, and shaping the game.”
Spencer Gore won the first Wimbledon. He had the novel idea of approaching the net while swiftly volleying the ball left and right, which frustrated and confused his opponents. The next year Frank Hadow came on the scene with his ‘lob shot,’ which sent the ball over Gore’s head. Three years later, in 1881, twin brothers William and Ernest Renshaw blasted into history with an overhead serve they’d practiced to perfection on each other—the Renshaw Smash. Between the two brothers, they earned eight tennis titles that decade.
A mere 200 spectators assembled for the first Wimbledon championships, but crowds grew with each passing year until, in the mid-1880s, guests were numbering in the thousands, and by 1905 would begin attracting competitors from overseas.
Fun Tidbits about Wimbledon
1884 Women begin playing at Wimbledon
(but it takes until 1920 before they can do so without wearing a corset)
1951 Althea Gibson is the first African-American player invited to Wimbledon
(becomes first black player to win singles title in 1957)
1968 Wimbledon allows professionals to compete—players who were paid for their tennis ability in some manner—ushering in the “open era”
1986 The use of yellow tennis balls is allowed (more easily seen by television cameras)
A Wimbledon tradition is eating strawberries and cream.
One year, spectators consumed 59,000 pounds of strawberries and nearly 2,000 gallons of cream.
Though England is the birthplace of Wimbledon, unfortunately Englishmen haven’t had much luck with keeping the titles at home. The last Englishwoman to win the singles was Virginia Wade in 1977; the last Englishman was Fred Perry in 1936.