London Top Destinations

A Brief History of Wimbledon

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

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

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Perhaps surprisingly, the program for the first championships specified that only "amateurs" were allowed to compete—something that remained true at Wimbledon for more than 90 years. If this seems incomprehensible, it is because "amateur" meant something very particular to the earliest organizers at Wimbledon: "the term amateur had become a synonym of gentleman," explains Gillmeister; "the term professional … had the stigma of the manual laborer." To the elite running exclusive country clubs of the day, sport wasn't sport unless it was played purely in one's spare time—which was a lot easier to do if you could afford to build a private court on the French Riviera, as the Renshaw brothers had.

It wasn't until 1968 that Wimbledon first allowed professionals—players who in some manner were paid for their tennis ability—to compete at the championships, ushering in the "open era." "Open tennis came far too late," laments Barrett. He decries that professional athletes were viewed as "second-class citizens," and says that the decades-long insistence on amateurism "held back" the entire sport of tennis.

Traditions Good and Bad

"Tradition is a very strong part of Wimbledon," says Barrett—a fact that accounts both for the tournament's charm and for the more unsavory bits of its history. In some ways, the history of Wimbledon is a history of an institution slowly yielding its traditions to the changing times.

Women began playing at Wimbledon in 1884, seven years after the men, but it has taken until this year for Wimbledon to institute complete prize money equality. 1920 was the first year in which a woman played without wearing a corset, and it took until the 1930s until shorts were acceptable on either men (in '33) or women (in '39). Althea Gibson became the first African-American player invited to Wimbledon in 1951, and was the first black player to win the singles title, in 1957. Wimbledon refused to use yellow tennis balls, which are more easily captured by television cameras, until 1986.

But Barrett says he would be loath to see one Wimbledon tradition disappear: grass. Wimbledon is the last of the four Grand Slam tournaments (the others are the French, Australian, and U.S. Opens) to use grass courts. "It would be a sad day if we ever failed to play it on grass," says Barrett, who loves the surface because it "is never the same two days running, so you have to be able to adapt very quickly." And naturally, the longstanding Wimbledon tradition of eating strawberries and cream is also widely loved: in one recent year, spectators consumed 59,000 pounds of strawberries and nearly 2,000 gallons of cream.

There is one tradition, though, that Barrett and most of his fellow Englishmen would like to see broken: that of the English consistently losing at their own tournament. The last woman to win the singles at Wimbledon was Virginia Wade in 1977; the last man, Fred Perry in 1936.

David Zax has written brief histories of the Orient Express and the Honus Wagner baseball card.

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