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

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

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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