Lawn Tennis: The Sturdy Bastard
Heiner Gillmeister [+]
University of Bonn, retired
At the beginning of the 19th century the old game of tennis led a rather drab existence. After several attempts had been made to take the game out of the stuffiness of its traditional courts into the open it was a retired military man, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, who in the 1870s eventually decided to devise a tennis game that could be played on grass and that could be marketed into the bargain. Not least in order to acquire a patent for it he gave it a fanciful pseudo-Greek name, sphairistikè. At the same time another Major, Harry Gem, experimented with an outdoor variety of tennis in Leamington Spa, but after the extravagancies of Wingfield’s game had been by abolished by a rules committee of the MCC in 1875, his brand of tennis prevailed. When in 1879 the first grand scale lawn tennis tournament was staged on the grounds of the All England Croquet Club London became the hub of lawn tennis. As a consequence, it was here that in 1888 the LTA was founded which succeeded the All England Club as the governing body of the game until as late as 1913 the International Lawn Tennis Federation(ILTF) based in Paris took over. The first Wimbledon event was won by Spencer W. Gore, a rackets specialist, who overcame his opponents, most of them adepts of Real tennis, by volleying from a position close to the net every ball sent to him with the heavy undercut characteristic of their game. In the years to come, the question of what tactics to adopt and what kind of strokes to use in the new game on grass was a growing concern of the tennis community. It was eventually answered by the Renshaw brothers and their fierce antagonist, Herbert Fortescue Lawfort, whose all court game included strokes from the baseline, the volley and the smash. Unlike traditional Real tennis, lawn tennis was the first game to give women a break to play organized sport. However, it took some time to free themselves from the trammels imposed on them by contemporary society, namely the wearing of corsets, long dresses and broad-brimmed hats, glaring handicaps to play the game properly.