by Jim McCready
1800s Print of Prince James, Duke of York, Playing Court Tennis
Racquet sports go back many centuries. Over nets or off walls, indoors or out, one country and people to the next, it was only logical that a popular global racquet sport would evolve into what we now call tennis. In some places it is still referred to as lawn tennis, since it was first played on the lawns of Victorian England. That is where this chapter in sports history begins.
The true grand parent of lawn tennis is the centuries-old game of Royal or Court tennis. At one point there were so many courts and players, legislation was necessary to curtail the amount of time everybody was playing (and subsequently wagering on) the pastime. It was a mess, but evidently lots of fun!
Around 1873, a patented game sprang out of nobleman's party mood one dreary day in Wales, and the new and improved game of lawn tennis captured the people and spread though out the countryside. Indoor court tennis was now professed to be much more fun outdoors, and with the opposite sex no less! Standardized rules, however, were a total megillah. It wasn't until the All England Croquet Club experimented with the first organized tournament, and a new set of rules, that the show really got rolling.
Doherty receiving in a mixed doubles Tournament at East Grinstead, England, ca. 1897
A couple of summers after lawn tennis took off with the upper crust, a leading group of court tennis enthusiasts spent weekends at a castle retreat called Lullingstone. They hammered out how the game was played and improved it through testing the various boundaries of the court and net. At Wimbledon 1877, the first serve was cracked underhanded, and the extravaganza we know today as the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world got its humble start. 140 years later, the heart of the game still relies on those initial rules.
Year after year the tournaments drew more players and interest. The embryonic stages of the game made its way to America via Bermuda. On the shores of Staten Island, Boston and with other small bands of pleasure seekers, lawn tennis was now a multi-celled life form, spreading its joy.
Post Card of Lincoln Park in Chicago, IL, 1904
With the industrial revolution freeing up fortunes and leisure time through the 1870's into the 1880's, resorts of the Victorian era were a natural nesting place for the growth of the game. National championships were cropping up and attracting regulars. The upper class social scene was throwing decadent parties, giving them all a reason to return season after season and compete. Soon there were enough challenging players in various regions of a growing number of countries to establish a level of skill that improved from one innovation to the next.
If the play was freshening so were the few manufactured pieces of equipment. Nets, balls, shoes and of course racquets evolved, from borrowed to specifically designed for the best play. Rules even experienced periodic strengthening as the changing styles pushed them around.
David Cup Souvenir Program, 1902
There was still, however, in the 1890's, a giant ocean separating the two largest factions of the game. Occasionally the bravest and best would summer across the pond and search out the myths of Wimbledon, or visa versa, the boldness of Newport. These were the two centers of the lawn tennis universe. Many club tournaments, now staples of a blossoming tour in each country, were becoming ever more popular. The trophy for a victorious campaign at either of these two venues bore the highest level of achievement. Consequently, the American and English styles varied and they began to feed off of each other's genius.
International invitational tournaments were a logical step, but hastened by the gifting of a large silver bowl and set of rules. The International Lawn Tennis Challenge Trophy very quickly became known as the Davis Cup, as a philanthropist of the game, Mr. Dwight Davis, donated it in 1900 to the tennis community. Davis was a pretty good player, a doubles specialist, and his donation of this bowl was as significant as the All England Club's effort to nurse the game to health in the 1870's.