Lawn tennis sounds like such a genteel game. Can’t you see the ladies in long dresses and gentlemen in natty jackets lobbing balls back and forth across the net on a summer’s afternoon in the nineteenth century? I fully intended to write a post with the same languid feel to it. But what I learned about lawn tennis, and its predecessor, “real tennis,” surprised me.
For one thing, the game called real tennis was almost exclusively relegated to royalty in the middle ages. Kings in Europe and England were rather determined in their pursuit of the sport, building courts and challenging other gentlemen to matches. And it turns out to have been a rather deadly sport. King Louis X of France died from a severe chill received while playing. Charles VIII of France died from striking his head on the way to a game. When assassins arrived to kill James I of Scotland, he attempted to flee through the sewer, only to find that the drain had been blocked to prevent tennis balls from going astray on the court above it. Alas, the assassins did not go astray.
For another thing, the courtly sport of real tennis died out with much of European royalty around the time of Napoleon, but lawn tennis, the tennis we know today, began to take form. Various versions were played around England, but more as an enjoyable pasttime. However, around 1874, the activity and its terminology became more codified with the publication of rules and the creation of the first tennis club. Popularity continued to increase, and tennis championships soon followed. And the ladies soon joined the gentlemen on the court.
That women played tennis competitively so early also surprised me. The first women’s championships were held in 1879, one in England and one in Ireland. In 1884, the All England Championships began including events for women players. Held at Wimbledon, the singles match was won by Miss Maud Watson, who played her sister Lilian Watson for the title. She won a silver flower basket valued at 20 guineas, while her sister won a silver-backed mirror and brush. Miss Bingley (grand-daughter or great-daughter of Mr. Bingley, perhaps J) advanced to the quarter finals that year, but won in 1886. She won again in 1888, but by that time, she had married and was billed as Mrs. G.W. Hillyard. Those are the lovely Watson sisters in the picture, along with Ernest Renshaw and Herbert Fortescue Lawford, both champions in their own right. Another important player at the time was Lottie Dod, who won the ladies singles five times between 1887 and 1893.
Ladies doubles were first played at Buxton in 1885, with Mrs. Watts and Miss Bracewell taking the championship. Another surprise, however, was that ladies and gentlemen played with each other. For example, in 1888, Mrs. G.W. Hillyard won the mixed doubles championship with her partner Ernest Renshaw. One gentlemen reminiscing of the early days of tennis recounted how Lottie Dod (at left there) had even bested Ernest in a singles match.
Ernest was the twin brother to William Renshaw, both tennis professionals who played in England and France in the summers and hit the Mediterranean in the winter. They had a court build on their property to practice. Ernest appears to have been the lesser light. He lost to William at Wimbledon three times. William, on the other hand, won twelve Wimbledon titles, seven for singles, five for doubles partnering Ernest. One commentary noted that that record for singles has only been matched by Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.
Yeah, about that languid playing? I’m thinking not so much.