by Jim McCready
Ah! To bathe oneself in the Champoinships! A fortnight of historic soap and water, soothing the woes in mid-stride of a long tennis year. An English garden party, Wimbledon has long since delivered itself from the title "most important" tournament in the world, to the most "prestigious". Seen as such, because of Britain's national obsession with these two mid-summer weeks and their storied links to the 19th century beginnings of tennis on the lawn.
And, that's what Wimbledon is; storied. Stories of the inaugural rules and first tournaments, the scandalous first over-handed serve, the fairer sex competing in public for the first time, and in every-shrinking above the ankle attire! Or tales from the legions of tennis pilgrims, who long ago braved endless queues and crowded back courts, from as far back as 1877, to recall a personal memory of the best match or rivalry ever witnessed.
Even early on, those Centre Court stories found their way onto the American tennis shores, beckoning the best to visit London and become immortal. As a collector, I was luckily enough on a trip long ago to the UK, to have uncovered a simple but telling story as to why Wimbledon enchants all of us tennis fans in ever corner of the globe.
Cornwall, England is a jump back in time, and in a tiny village I came across a delightful elderly mum with the disposition of my first grade school teacher. She was selling items of interest out of her 300 year-old stone barn. "Oh, lawn tennis" she cooed from behind shoulder high shelves of dusty glass and porcelain. "Here it is, I have a snap". And, for no extra charge, I became audience to her gentle weave of a ten minute story about a great auntie who travelled to America in 1895 to reside in Connecticut. Returning by ocean liner the following year, her homecoming was with a young American tennis star traveling abroad for the first time to play in the tennis championships of the world. I had been on my feet all day, but I didn't mind a bit! It certainly wasn't a sales pitch...
The "snap", a 4 by 6 inch sepia photograph, was in mint, original condition, taken at Wimbledon over a hundred years ago. It trembled slightly in her fingers as she pointed out her worldly relative and who she believed to be the American youngster. The mystique of the ivy-covers Wimbledon walls and century-old stares back into the camera lens left me with the proper sense of history. Centered in the image, surrounded by lawn tennis whites. a couple of racquets and afternoon tea, was the only known snapshot of one of the greatest American champions on his first visit to face the world's best.
Willliam Larned, many would not know, won the US National title (now the US Open) seven times between 1901 and 1911. This trip abroad in 1896 was Bill's baptism with the best before his illustrious career took shape.
What would have happened to this paper-thin slice of life, lost in a tattered box top for a century, if I hadn't strolled along? What a find! Not the photo, but the colorful encounter with the mystique of the AELTC from a woman who has never been to Wimbledon, and is over two hundred miles from the hallowed birthplace of Victorian tennis.
The photo was indeed a rare gem, but the stories and memories are the true reasons why Sampras & Borg, Maritna & Serena, Roger & Nole, dedicate their lives to walk the walk, and then talk the talk. One hundred and twenty-five years ago this guy Larned was doin' the same thing, and nowhere will you find it anymore important, or storied, than at The Championships, Wimbledon.
This year, 2022, will be the much-anticipated 100th birthday for the Church Road location of the famous Centre Court built in 1922. All England Lawn Tennis Club festivities will be the toast of the fortnight, as the on site museum will lavish its attendees with memory after memory from Kitty McKane to Fred Perry, and Ginny Wade to Andy Murray.
Also of note in 2023, tennis will celebrate the inventive concept of lawn tennis and its arrival onto the British country-side. 150 years ago, in 1873, a retired Army Major introduced a outdoor variety of a racquet sport designed with an hourglass shaped court, tall flimsy nets and funky balls. It was a hit!
Happy 100th Birthday Centre Court!