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Wimbledon has been more than a site for the greatest players to shine; often, it has shaped the entire sport. (iStockphoto)

A Brief History of Wimbledon

From a 19th century garden-party event to today's international spectacle, the storied tournament has defined tennis

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For two weeks beginning in late June, the greatest tennis players in the world will converge on Wimbledon, a suburb on the southwestern outskirts of London. They will compete for a total of about $34.8 million in prize money, with the winners of the men's and women's singles competitions taking $2.4 million each. But more than that, they will be competing for a place in tennis history. John Barrett, a former Wimbledon player and author of Wimbledon: The Official History, says that Wimbledon is the most sought-after title in tennis because it's "the granddaddy of them all." Indeed, since the late 19th century, Wimbledon has been more than a site for the greatest players to shine; often, it has shaped the entire sport: "It is the history of tennis," Barrett says.

The Overthrow of Croquet

Monks and kings had played indoor ball games that resembled tennis since the Middle Ages, but it wasn't until the late 19th century that tennis acquired the form we recognize. In about 1873, an Englishman adapted indoor tennis to be played on grass, naming the game "sphairistike," after an ancient Greek game. Sphairistike quickly became popular among the idle upper classes, who were itching for a new sport to play: "The game has much more healthy and manly excitement than croquet," the Dundee Advertiser proclaimed (though the Sporting Gazette wondered "why a less jaw-breaking name could not be found").

As the game's popularity grew, various "lawn tennis" clubs—sphairistike yielding to a simpler term—arose to settle the question of just how it ought to be played. Among these was the All England Croquet Club, located near Wimbledon station, which in 1877 changed its name to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club and announced it would hold the first tennis championships, largely in order to raise money for "a pony-drawn roller for its croquet lawns," according to Cameron Brown, author of Wimbledon: Facts, Figures, and Fun. Within years, however, those croquet lawns were all but obsolete, and at one point the All England Club even dropped the word "Croquet" from its official name. Eventually it was reintroduced merely, says Barrett, "for sentimental reasons."

Forging a Sport

In the weeks prior to the first Wimbledon championships, the commissioners of the All England Club "achieved something truly remarkable," writes Heiner Gillmeister in Tennis: A Cultural History. "When the first ball at a Wimbledon tournament was served on Monday, 9 July 1877, they had laid down rules which have been allowed to stand until the present day, and with hardly any exception." Since then, the All England Club has been "the supreme court of appeal on the question of rules," codifying and shaping the game.

This is not the only way in which Wimbledon has made tennis what it is. Since each year's championship would bring together the fiercest, most innovative players the sport has seen, the All England Club became an annual Darwinian laboratory where competitors were forced to adapt or perish. The first championships were won by a man named Spencer Gore, who employed the novel idea of approaching the net and swiftly volleying the ball left and right (his opponents, used to playing from the baseline, were flabbergasted).

The following year, Gore's innovation was met with a new one, when a man named Frank Hadow in effect invented the lob shot, pitching the ball over Gore's head. A gentler game persisted at Wimbledon until 1881, when twin brothers William and Ernest Renshaw debuted the overhead serve they had been practicing against each other. The awe-struck spectators dubbed it the "Renshaw Smash," and it earned William seven titles that decade, and Ernest one.

Though a mere 200 spectators had flocked to the first Wimbledon championships, the crowds had grown along with the game by the heyday of the "Renshaw Boom." Thousands were flocking to the stands by the mid-80s, and by 1905, the championships would attract competitors from overseas. Tennis had grown up rather quickly.

A Game for Amateurs

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