The early beginnings of tennis are believed to have originated in twelfth-century northern France, when the object we now know as a racquet first came into use. But what about Wimbledon? In the world of sporting competitions and tournaments, some have stood the test of time and have existed a lot longer than others. Wimbledon is one of them. The Wimbledon Championships were founded in 1877, so this year it is just shy of being 140 years old. Technically, it is older than the modern incarnation of the Olympic Games (the International Olympic Committee was founded 122 years ago) although not quite as old as The Americas Cup sailing competition, which supersedes Wimbledon by 26 years. However it is THE oldest tennis tournament; older than the US Open and Roland Garros (French Open).
With thanks to Data Set Match for the Wimbledon statistics – visit www.datasetmatch.net to be taken on a statistical journey through the SW19 championship and to access fully interactive charts.
Legend has it that the inaugural Championships of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club were held in order to raise money to repair the club’s pony roller, the one used to maintain the croquet lawns. Then again comedian Billy Connolly once said that legend is nothing more than rumour plus time, so make of that what you will. What is for sure is that they very first Championships got underway at around 3.30 p.m. on Monday 9 July 1877 with play taking place at the club’s then home beside the London & South Western Railway in Worple Road, Wimbledon. Twenty-two men each paid a guinea to take part with one, an old Etonian by the name of C.F. Buller, dropping out before a ball had even been hit. The final saw local land surveyor Spencer Gore comfortably defeat William Marshall 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 in just 48 minutes, the match having been postponed several times over a number days due to a combination of bad weather plus the annual Eton versus Harrow cricket match – a highlight of the social season – taking place at Lords. As for the Women’s final? Well there wasn’t one. Not until 1884 did the ladies get a competition all to themselves with 19-year-old Maud Watson beating her elder sister Lilian 6-8, 6-3, 6-3 in the final.
Well before the outbreak of the First World War it had become blindingly obvious that the 8,000 ground capacity at Worple Road was inadequate. And so the All England Club, to coin its abbreviated title, started looking for a new site. It eventually settled on an area of land off Church Road to the north of Wimbledon town centre, moving to its new home in 1922. At the time the relocation was seen as something of a gamble, costing as it did approximately £140,000. The club has stayed put ever since. In fact there’s probably more chance of hell freezing over than Wimbledon moving from Church Road.
Up until 1968 when tennis finally went professional nobody ‘officially’ earned a penny for competing at Wimbledon (the payment of backhanders to amateurs was however rife throughout the sport, hence the term ‘shamateurism’ frequently being used). In fact during the early years of the tournament players ended up out of pocket having had to pay an initial entrance fee for the honour of competing. When Rod Laver won the Men’s final in 1968 he was rewarded with a cheque for £2,000 which nowadays wouldn't come close to paying for one of Roger Federer’s extravagant cream suits (for the record Federer bagged a cool £850,000 for winning Wimbledon in 2009). And if you think that’s paltry then pity Billie Jean King, winner of the Women’s Singles in 1968, who collected just £750 in prize money for her efforts.
The third ever man to win the Wimbledon Men’s Singles title was a North Yorkshireman by the name of John Hartley, otherwise known to his parishioners in rural Burneston as the Reverend John Thorneycroft Hartley. This man of the cloth hadn’t expected to reach the latter stages of Wimbledon which explains his return home on the middle Saturday of the 1879 tournament to fulfil his religious duties the following day. Come Monday afternoon he was back at Worple Road ready for his semi-final having caught a train from Thirsk to King’s Cross station that morning before hot-footing it across London to the All England Club. He duly won, despite the haphazard pre-match preparation, going on to defeat the Irishman Vere Thomas St Leger Goold in the final. Hartley successfully defended his title in 1880 and reached the final again in 1881 only to be absolutely crucified – not literally of course – by William Renshaw in a match that lasted just 37 minutes, the shortest recorded time for a Men’s Singles final at Wimbledon.
Several years after losing to John Hartley in the 1879 final, Vere Thomas St Leger Goold was found guilty along with his wife Marie Girodin of killing a wealthy Danish widow by the name of Emma Liven in Monte Carlo. He was sentenced to penal servitude for life on Devil’s Island, French Guiana, where he died in 1909 at the age of 54 by which time Hartley had become an Honorary Canon of Ripon Cathedral. Now there’s a salutary lesson in right and wrong for you.
In 1947 Hans Redl of Austria progressed to the fourth round of the Men’s Singles event at Wimbledon. Nothing of particular significance about that you might think. Not until I tell you that Redl had lost his left arm while on active service during the Second World War, fighting at the Battle of Stalingrad. As a result special dispensation was granted for him to touch the ball twice every time he served, tossing the ball into the air with his racquet before hitting it. Redl went on to compete at Wimbledon until 1956.
The arrival of the First World War saw the Championships suspended from 1915 to 1919, during which the All England Club managed to survive on donations from members and wealthy benefactors. By the time hostilities resumed again in 1939 Wimbledon had moved from Worple Road to Church Road becoming a larger, more resilient and far less amateur operation in the process. Between 1940 and 1945 the club remained open to members though the Championships themselves were suspended, the grounds being used for a variety of war-related purposes including civil defence training. On the night of 11 October 1940 a ‘stick’ of 500lb bombs caused considerable damage to the club’s grounds with one striking the Centre Court roof. This meant the crowd capacity of Wimbledon's most famous arena was reduced for the first three Championships after the war while rebuilding work took place.
In 1921 Liverpool-born Max Woosnam won the Wimbledon Men’s Doubles competition along with Randolph Lycett. Not bad when you consider Woosman was better known for his exploits with balls of a slightly larger nature, playing centre-half for Chelsea and Manchester City as well as earning a solitary England cap in 1922.
In 1962 Stanley Matthews won Junior Wimbledon. No, really! Oh alright, it wasn't actually the famous England footballer but his son, also called Stanley, who defeated the Georgian youngster Alexander Metreveli 10-8, 3-6, 6-4 in the final.
For more fascinating facts about the Wimbledon Championships be sure to check out The Wimbledon Miscellany by Spencer Vignes.