" When we have matched our rackets to these balls, We will, in France, by God’s grace, play a set, and shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard .” — William Shakespeare, in Henry V. Henry V of England was responding to the Dauphin of France who sent the king a gift box of tennis balls with the advice that he should occupy himself with games rather than war.
“ History to be above evasion must stand on documents not on opinion .” — Lord Acton
“ A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history .” — Mohandas Gandhi
Like the Big Bang that ignited our universe, an Englishman sparked an explosion in 1874 that created modern tennis. Such was the appeal of this new sport that it would spread across the world within two years and attract both sexes with equal fervour.
Although various ball and racket games had intermittently flourished in Europe since the 12th century among the royalty, the church, and even the masses, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield captured the fancy of well-to-do Victorians with a different pastime that rapidly surpassed in popularity all earlier racket games put together.
In The Birth of Lawn Tennis , Robert T. Everitt and Richard A. Hillway produced by far the most authoritative and comprehensive history of the genesis of our sport. Everitt and Hillway answer hotly debated questions and, in fact, serve up all the controversies and conflicts that marked the early, exhilarating years of tennis.
Both authors bring impeccable credentials. Everitt, a 63-year-old Englishman born in Wolverhampton with an honours degree in graphic design, has been a keen lawn tennis historian and researcher since he was 21 years old, and has assembled a large and extensive collection of rare tennis memorabilia. He authored two books — One Hundred Sporting Summers (1995) and Racket Sports Collectibles (2002). Quite apart from an acknowledgement for his part in the design of their book, Everitt has designed and edited over 70 issues of The Tennis Collector magazine. In 2014, he published (privately) a booklet titled Who Introduced Lawn Tennis ? An accomplished tournament player, Everitt won junior, men’s, and veteran’s titles. He also qualified as a lawn tennis teacher.
The American half of this synergistic trans-Atlantic partnership, Hillway is equally passionate and proficient. An international historian, Hillway, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, has authored more than 100 published tennis articles, many in the English and American Tennis Collector magazines. He owns more than 2,000 tennis books and even more tennis letters, as well as many hundreds of tennis periodicals, and is an expert on Wingfield and Bill Tilden. Hillway ranked No. 1 in men’s open singles in the six-state Intermountain section in 1966 and 1970. A longtime USPTA member, he served as a head or assistant coach of 46 boys’ and girls’ high school state champion tennis teams. Hillway founded the Colorado Tennis Hall of Fame in 2000 and is still its chairman.
History is often called an argument that never ends. In their lavishly illustrated, 562-page magnum opus, The Birth of Lawn Tennis, the authors get in the last words, at least for now, with meticulously researched stories and cogent analyses of a fascinating bygone era. In this incisive interview, Richard Hillway treats us to the highlights of their remarkable work and much more.
What makes The Birth of Lawn Tennis different from other history books about the genesis of our sport?
Our book is all-inclusive, sort of one-stop shopping, in that it includes the entire early history of lawn tennis from 1874 through 1878, and more. We think it solves most of the debate questions that have been argued for 140 years. It has 562 pages with over 500 pictures, most from the 19th century, and many never seen before. It tells exactly what happened from the invention of lawn tennis through its beginnings, in a step-by-step chronological approach. No other book has ever told the full and accurate story of that period.
The Birth of Lawn Tennis features contemporary accounts that are well-documented. New York rare book dealer Larry Lawrence stated, “It is the most well-researched and wonderfully illustrated book on the history of the early years of any major sport that I have ever seen.” John Barrett, the author of the official history of the Wimbledon Championships, wrote in our Foreword, “Every now and then a book appears that transforms our understanding of its subject. This is one of those seminal works.”
Was the sport of lawn tennis considered an “invention” or simply a part of the evolution of racket sports? And what is the copyright definition of an invention?
Yes. Lawn tennis was an invention. Some insist that it was not an invention at all, but was merely a part of the evolution of racket sports. But what is an evolution? It is simply change over time due to the creation of one invention after another.
Lawn tennis met the four requirements necessary for an invention to receive a U.S. patent today. It was:
a. novel — something new.
b. “unobvious” — not so obvious to the public or it would have probably been invented earlier.
c. it worked — Leonardo da Vinci drew a flying machine, but it did not work in practice.
d. Its written description was clear and understandable to the public.
George Alexander corresponded with the British Patent Office in the 1970s, and I visited the U.S. Patent Office in Denver, Colorado, in 2015. They each considered it not only an invention, but a very significant invention that had spread all over the world within a year, and had brought much happiness to many people. The Denver Office noted that this one invention had led directly to hundreds or thousands of subsequent inventions related to tennis — rackets, balls, shoes, courts, clothes, nets, and other items.
What exactly did Major Walter Clopton Wingfield invent?
Wingfield invented a game that he called lawn tennis or sphairistike , an ancient Greek game of that name. It was different from any of the earlier tennis games. Wingfield was the first to name his new game lawn tennis, to patent the court for it, to provide written rules for it, to introduce it to the public, to advertise it, and to sell the entire game in boxed sets through his French & Co.
His was an imperfect game with only six simple rules. But from that beginning, with the help of others, lawn tennis grew, step by step, until it became the modern game of tennis today. The original invention is largely clouded by all the changes over more than 140 years.
Here are some of its characteristics. The most important part of the invention was the use of a hollow rubber ball. The game was played on a portable court that could be set up on any level surface, but started on grass or turf out-of-doors. It used an hourglass-shaped court until the first Wimbledon in 1877. It encouraged women as well as men to take part, different from earlier tennis games. The game could be played either outdoors or indoors, whereas real tennis was an indoor game.
Wingfield stated that his court could be set up in five minutes, but that sounds very optimistic. After he introduced lawn tennis in February of 1874, others immediately came out with their own imitation games, often called lawn tennis, but with all sorts of different sizes of courts, heights of net, sizes and weights of balls, locations of the service line, and service boxes, etc. But as lawn tennis took off in all different directions, all of these games can be traced back to Wingfield’s game which is almost unrecognisable today.
When and where did royal families and aristocrats around the world start becoming enamoured of lawn tennis?
Royal families and aristocrats played lawn tennis right from the very start, in 1874. Major Wingfield had published his first booklet on the game, The Major’s Game of Lawn Tennis , in February of 1874. He published his second edition later that year, in November. It was titled, The Game of Sphairistike . The first booklet was only eight pages long; the second was 40. Pages 31 through 36 were devoted to a list of royalty and aristocrats who had already purchased his lawn tennis sets.
The heading of this section read, “In testimony of the excellence of this popular Game, the Inventor calls attention to the following List of titled personages who have already bought it. 1st November, 1874.” His extensive list included the Prince of Wales, the Crown Prince of Prussia, the Grand Duke Czarewitch, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Leopold (Queen Victoria’s youngest son who was in love with Alice in Wonderland — Alice Liddell), Princess Louise, Prince Louis of Hesse, and Princes Batthyany, Bariatinsky, and Wolkonsky. Also listed were 7 Dukes, 14 Marquises, 1 Marchioness, 49 Earls, 10 Countesses, 8 Viscounts, 30 Lords, 38 Ladies, and a large number listed as Honourables, Right Honourables, and Sirs.
Lawn tennis became popular early with the royal family in Russia. So in only eight months, the game had been adopted by the aristocracy who had leisure time and plenty of grounds upon which to set their portable courts. Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward VII) took a Buchanan set of lawn tennis when he played the game on the ship HMS Serapis on his ‘Royal Visit to India,’ which departed from England in October of 1875 for a seven-month trip. In 1881, 24-year-old Princess Beatrice (youngest daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) played lawn tennis at Windsor Castle. Prince Alfred (Duke of Edinburgh) purchased lawn tennis implements from Wingfield’s French & Co. on 22 September 1874.
An article in the 9th of September 1907 issue of The West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser stated, referring to 1874, that Wingfield had set up courts “at Buckingham Palace, where H.M. the King, the present Tsar of Russia, and the Duke of Edinburgh were amongst the first in England to play the game, and at St. James’s Palace, where the Prince of Wales and the late Duke of Clarence played daily and themselves assisted in marking out the court.”
The British and foreign aristocracies loved this new game. These are just a few specific examples of its early popularity with the well-to-do.”
Some books and newspapers reported that the Leamington Club was founded in 1872, and thus was the world’s first lawn tennis club. Is that fact or fiction?
It is fiction. The Leamington Club was not founded in 1872 as so many books have reported, at least since the 1940s. It was founded in 1874, as were many other clubs, soon after Wingfield had introduced lawn tennis earlier in the year.
There are three sources that make this obvious. First, the Leamington Club’s first rulebook, in its title, used the phrase “Lawn Tennis, or Pelota.” The term “lawn tennis” was not around in 1872, and first appeared in Wingfield’s rulebook on 25 February 1874. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) confirms the 1874 year for the term. Second, the local Leamington newspaper on the 24th of July, 1875, reported that the Leamington Club had been “recently established, this being only the second year of its existence...” Third, the local Leamington newspaper, on the 2nd of April, 1898, wrote about the demise of the Leamington Club — partly due to the rise of golf and bicycling — and stated that the club “had been in existence at the Manor House (hotel) close on a quarter century.” This meant not quite 25 years — 1874. So the books, the sign at the club, and the centenary celebration of the club in 1972 were all wrong.
All things considered then, what are the legacies of Harry Gem and Juan Batista Augurio Perera?
Gem and Perera will be remembered mainly as lawn tennis pioneers in the early days of lawn tennis. After Wingfield had introduced lawn tennis, sometime during 1874, probably in the summer, Gem and Perera founded the Leamington Club where they played a form of lawn tennis that differed in some ways from the Wingfield’s original game. Gem called Perera the founder of that club. Clubs grew up all over Great Britain during 1874, and they were one of the earliest. Their game of pelota did not become popular, nor did it spread very far. This was the period when each club tended to have its own set of rules. The Leamington Club was no exception.
Gem and Perera had been original members of the Bath Street Racket Club in 1859 in Birmingham, and both had been active rackets players, playing both open and closed rackets prior to the introduction of lawn tennis. Perera was one of the country’s best rackets players. They were gentlemen and athletes. They were naturally attracted to lawn tennis. Gem had been a barrister, and Perera a merchant. Gem had also been a very important individual in the Birmingham Voluntary Corps, formed to protect Great Britain from any foreign invasion.
Tellingly, only one Gem obituary mentioned that he played lawn tennis. Yet after his death, some individuals, without contemporary evidence, claimed Gem and Perera had played a form of lawn tennis as early as 1859 and that they formed the first lawn tennis club in 1872. Many books still print this story, so at this moment, their legacy is much larger than what they actually achieved.
Even though Wingfield deserves great credit for inventing tennis, the distinguished English sports journalist, author, and tennis historian Lance Tingay wrote that Henry Jones, an unsung hero of lawn tennis, was actually “the most important figure of all.” Did you agree with Tingay? And why, or why not?
Lance Tingay was definitely on the right track. Wingfield and Jones were the two most important individuals in the history of lawn tennis. The fledgling game may well have needed both of them to become a success. But I rate Wingfield first and Jones second. Wingfield had thought up the game, tested it on various estates during 1873, introduced it in February of 1874, named it, produced its first written rules, patented a court for it, publicised it, and was the first to offer it for sale.
But his game was very imperfect. It had only six original rules. They were simple, but left the game difficult to understand. He answered many questions about the game in the pages of The Field throughout 1874. After the Marylebone Cricket Club’s “official” lawn tennis rules were published in May of 1875, Wingfield largely dropped out of lawn tennis. His game needed the help of others. Without that help, it may have failed. However, without Wingfield, the others may have had no game to start with that they could improve upon. So Wingfield was the starting point of it all.
Then Henry Jones stepped in, starting with his extremely long lawn tennis letter published in The Field of 21 November 1874, using the pseudonym “Cavendish.” He was an expert in games. He had already examined a number of games, tweaked their rules, and made them more attractive to the public. This was his talent. Wingfield, however, strongly resented this eccentric individual who had suddenly, through The Field, offered his own set of rules and criticised Wingfield’s game.
Henry Jones spent about a decade, actively proposing rule changes to lawn tennis, making it very similar in 1882 to our modern game of tennis. However, Jones was not the only one suggesting changes. Julian Marshall worked very much hand in hand with Jones. They generally agreed with each other, but Jones was much more visible, more public. And there were others.
The result is that lawn tennis grew into an international sport that today boasts an estimated 100 million amateur players worldwide, features lucrative ATP and WTA pro tours and renowned stars, and ranks among the top five in fan popularity in many countries. It is now called tennis. It is a magnificent success.
Why and how did lawn tennis spread across the world so quickly in the 1870s and early 1880s?
There are many reasons for this. The time was ripe for a vigorous new game that could be played out-of-doors. The Victorian upper classes found themselves with much leisure time. How should they fill it? Croquet had been very popular during the 1860s and early 1870s, partly because men and women could play it together. But it was too tame and non-athletic. Badminton had come along but was no good in the wind.
People were ready for a new game. Lawn tennis arose at just the right time, and courts were built on the vacant croquet lawns that were quite flat, and in indoor rinks that had hosted roller-skating. We cannot underestimate how important it was that lawn tennis encouraged men and women to play it together. This increased its popularity immensely. And also, women could play against each other.
During the Victorian era, Great Britain controlled a vast empire with colonies around the world. Each had its military bases, and military life could be monotonous during peacetime. Lawn tennis filled this void, spreading to all these British colonies. British ambassadors took the game to other countries, and foreign ambassadors were introduced to the game. Lawn tennis clubs sprang up everywhere, and existing cricket and golf clubs took up the game. Existing sporting goods companies began selling lawn tennis implements, and new manufacturers and distributors of lawn tennis arose.
Men’s clubs started to accept women as members, or at least let female family members take part in lawn tennis, archery, and croquet during certain days and times during the week. In America, the Staten Island Cricket and Base Ball Club was the first to start, in 1877, a Ladies’ Out-of-Doors Club as an auxiliary. This quickly spread to numerous other clubs. Advertising through newspapers also encouraged the spread of the game.
Some tennis history books contend that Mary Ewing Outerbridge was both the first person to bring lawn tennis to America and to play it there. Is that truth or myth?
It is a myth. The evidence does not support the case the Mary Outerbridge was the first to bring tennis to America and then the first to play it in the US. In cases like this, from the past, it is difficult to prove that she was not the first, but it is very, very unlikely.
The Outerbridge Story — tennis historian Frank Phelps called it the Outerbridge Myth — really began in 1923 when Mary’s youngest brother Eugenius, who would have been only 13 in 1874, wrote to Dwight Davis, president of the USLTA, claiming that Mary was the first to bring the game to America in 1874. Eugenius stated that she brought lawn tennis implements from Bermuda to Staten Island, New York, after spending the winter in Bermuda and returning in the spring. Later it was discovered that Mary had made a round-trip, New York to Bermuda on the ship Canima, and returned on 2 February 1874 — really on 31 January. Some thought this evidence clinched the Outerbridge case. Mary had died in 1886.
The story gained traction during the 1930s with the publication of Tennis Origins and Mysteries (1932), written by Malcolm Whitman, U.S. champion in 1898-1900. Whitman committed suicide by jumping off of a tall building later that year. Whitman strongly supported the Outerbridge case.
But for a hundred years, no one knew exactly when Wingfield had introduced the game. Most thought it had been brought out in late 1873, especially since his first rulebook was dedicated to his friends who had attended a December 1873 party at Nantclwyd. Whitman believed the game had been introduced in December of 1873. A century later, in 1973, American historian George Alexander discovered that Wingfield’s first rulebook was actually published on 25 February 1874. Mary could not have found lawn tennis being played in Bermuda by late January of 1874, since the game was not introduced to the public until more than three weeks later, and in England.
Mary Gray, the expert on Bermuda tennis, remembers lawn tennis first coming to Bermuda in 1875. Frank Phelps examined the passenger lists of all ships arriving into Bermuda from 1871 through 1889. On Mary’s first visit in early 1874, she stayed in Bermuda for only about five days. Her next round trip from New York to Bermuda was not until 1877. That was the year she spent the winter in Bermuda and returned in the spring, as Eugenius had stated. So 1877 was likely the year that Mary brought lawn tennis to the Staten Island club. It was the first summer for which there is any evidence of lawn tennis being played at that club. But by 1877, lawn tennis was already widespread in the United States.
We will likely never know who was the first person to bring tennis to America.
When did black tennis players in the United States begin playing tennis?
Lawn tennis came early to black Americans as well as white. Some were surely playing during the 1880s and possibly even in the 1870s. This is difficult to pin down because the black players were mainly playing at their own homes or nearby non-segregated parks. They were not involved at that time in organised tournaments that were reported in newspapers.
There are drawings from as early as 1885 which picture blacks playing lawn tennis. Upper and upper-middle class blacks, such as doctors and professionals, were probably the earliest blacks to play, since they owned land and had leisure time. Black tennis likely started in the northern cities the same as white tennis did.
It has been claimed that tennis was brought to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama between 1890 and 1895, after faculty members had seen it in the northern cities. This may have been its entry into the South. Edward Bancroft Henderson’s The Negro in Sport (1939) explains the early organisation of black tennis. “To the Rev. W.W. Walker the credit seems to belong for pioneering in tennis. (He was a member of the Chautauqua Tennis Club which was founded in Philadelphia in 1890 and was a centre of black tennis in the North.) He was the prime mover in sponsoring the first inter-state tournament which was held in Philadelphia. Its first singles champion was Thomas Jefferson of Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, and his award token was a ‘fine tennis racket.’” Another such tournament was held in Philadelphia in 1899, and then the event moved to Washington, D.C. in 1900.
Why did lawn tennis suffer from an early reputation as an effeminate game?
There were various reasons for this, and in some areas, this reputation, unfortunately, lasted for many decades. At first, it was a new game and most people didn’t understand it very well. When Wingfield played his first exhibition match on 6 May 1874 at the Prince’s Club, it was a men’s doubles match which included as one of the players Edgar Lubbock, a cricketer. As the exhibition went on, a number of prominent cricketers gathered around the court and laughed with scorn at the players. But before long, many of the cricketers had become active lawn tennis players.
Second, most of the early players were well-to-do individuals from the upper classes, often property owners who never had to work. Many in the lower- and lower-middle classes, the working class, those in trade, the ones doing physical labour, were naturally jealous of those who had so much leisure time to play individual games, and even had their own courts. Some who played football, soccer, cricket, baseball, or who competed in boxing, did not consider lawn tennis a manly game. Rarely were the tennis players bruised and bleeding after a match. Some favoured these rough team sports over the individual sports of tennis, archery, badminton, and croquet.
It did not help that women from the very start were encouraged to play lawn tennis, and they played it enthusiastically. The men in cricket, football, and baseball were not playing with women. When Ted Tinling, then a lieutenant colonel Royal Army Intelligence Corps, asked permission to stage an exhibition match for the Red Cross in Algiers in 1943, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a memo, ordering, “No. This is a man’s war and tennis is a woman’s game.”
Third, the tradition taken from cricket meant that tennis players generally wore white clothing to hide the perspiration. This made tennis players easy to identify. The sportswriter Al Laney said that when he went to see tennis matches at the West Side Tennis Club in New York in 1914 while wearing white, he had to find a way to get to the matches without being seen by other boys who might give him a bad time for playing what they considered a “sissy” game.
Fourth, the scoring system in tennis included the word “love.”
This negative view of tennis changed over time. Maury McLoughlin won the national U.S. title as the first champion to come from the public parks, from the West, and not from a private country club or cricket club or an Ivy League school. He revolutionised the game with his cannonball serve, an aggressive net attack, and a power forehand. This made the sport appear more masculine.
Bill Tilden helped the sport’s image since he had the most powerful serve yet seen. Alice Marble showed that women could play the serve-and-volley game in the same manner as men. As tennis became more popular, many athletes from team sports tried the game and found out how difficult and exhausting it was. In addition, television showed how strenuous tennis was, and the great athletes playing it. It did not hurt that years later so many players became millionaires in the Open Era.
During your exhaustive research, which finding or discovery surprised you the most?
It was such a simple thing. For years I had tried to discover what distinguished lawn tennis from all the earlier racket games. Many early games included things such as two or more competitors, courts with boundaries, rackets, balls, nets, serves, service boxes, rules, etc. So how did lawn tennis differ?
Then, one day the answer came to me. I realised it was simply the hollow india-rubber ball. This is the one key factor that separated lawn tennis from all the earlier racket sports such as real tennis, rackets, field tennis, open tennis, longue paume , and badminton. All of them used either solid balls or shuttlecocks in their written rules.
Wingfield was the first to devise a racket game using sturdy rackets and hollow rubber balls. This allowed participants to have fun playing the game on grass courts and other surfaces, since the ball bounced sufficiently high off the grass for the first time. Of course, a hollow rubber ball that stood up to a hard hit from a sturdy lawn tennis racket was not available until about 1870. Even when Wingfield brought out the game in 1874, he had to order his lawn tennis balls from Germany, and these were barely acceptable. Balls improved over time.
American Charles Goodyear received a patent for vulcanised rubber in the United States in 1844. This made rubber balls possible — first solid balls and later hollow rubber balls with which children could play. But it took time to produce hollow rubber balls sturdy enough for lawn tennis.
If you could spend the day with two historical figures you researched, who would they be, and what would you have liked to talk about?
There were so many interesting tennis leaders over the years. Some of the ones I would most like to visit are my two favourite tennis journalists, S. Wallis Merrihew and A. Wallis Myers, and early champions Will Renshaw, Maud Watson, Reggie Doherty, Blanche Bingley Hillyard, Richard Sears, and Anthony Wilding. But my two top choices are Major Walter Wingfield, the inventor of lawn tennis, and Dr. James Dwight, the “father of American tennis.”
Wingfield could tell me the inside story about how he came up with the original idea for lawn tennis, the details of bringing out the game, the problems he had to overcome, and information about his allies and competitors.
From Jim Dwight, one of the first players in America and the president of the USNLTA for 21 of its first 31 years, I could learn more about the earliest days of American tennis: the early players and tournaments in Boston, Newport, New York, and Philadelphia; the 1880 Staten Island tournament; the progress of champion Richard Sears whom he coached; the early manufacturers; and of the workings of the USNLTA.
I did not choose irrepressible Henry Jones because he would probably overwhelm me with too much information with only one day to tell his stories.
What is the most intriguing mystery about the origins or early years of lawn tennis that you would still like to solve?
The most intriguing mystery concerning the origins of lawn tennis, and the one Bob Everitt and I spent the most time exploring, is what we consider to be the Gem-Perera myth or the Leamington myth. One reason it interested us so much is that it had been reported in hundreds of books and articles as a factual story, and still is today, although it is backed up by no contemporary documentation.
But we think we solved this mystery. We think that we found the answers to a number of other early tennis questions that had been debated for more than 140 years. Questions such as: Was lawn tennis an invention? Who was the inventor? How did lawn tennis differ from the earlier racket games? When did lawn tennis begin? Was Mary Outerbridge the first person to bring lawn tennis to America? Of course, Bob Everitt and I were not alone in these discoveries, but received much help from historians George Alexander and Frank Phelps, researcher Geoff Phelps, and others.
We think that all these problem questions have now been solved. But that does not mean that these questions shouldn’t be further explored in a search for new contemporary evidence. Even ancient Greek and Roman history is still being explored. A historian’s work is never finished. New documents are still being discovered.
The mystery that I would like to solve more fully, with more documentation, is still the Gem-Perera myth. There may still be something to be found. But maybe not. It is likely not a story at all. Some students of tennis history still believe that Harry Gem and Juan Batista Perera played a game similar to lawn tennis as early as 1859. We found 12 or 13 contemporary written statements that indicate they were simply playing rackets. One example is a six-page article Gem wrote in 1873 about different types of rackets he loved. In that article he made no mention of any game similar to lawn tennis. That is because lawn tennis was not known until the following year. Written documentation does show that Gem and Perera were playing rackets in 1859. That is all.