The First Wimbledon Championships
- July 9th 1877 -
The very first championships held by the All England Club, Wimbledon, were about as far removed from today’s version as one could possibly imagine. The only similarity was the rain delay that moved the final from Monday 16th July to Thursday 19th. With the new retractable roof covering Centre Court today even this has changed.
The game of tennis emerged from the French game, Jeu de Paume which was started in the 13thcentury. This was a game played with the palm of the hand but soon rackets were introduced. This indoor game resulted in Real, or Royal, tennis and then Lawn Tennis which was developed by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield in the 19thCentury. The rules were originally made the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), guardians of the laws of cricket. It soon became very popular.
The All England Croquet Club opened on 23rdJuly 1868 on four acres of meadow in Worple Road, Wimbledon for the purposes of playing croquet. It was the All England Croquet Club. As lawn tennis became more and more popular facilities for this game were added in 1876. It was decided that a tournament would be played the following year. The weekly magazine, The Field, carried this advertisement: “The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon, propose [sic] to hold a lawn tennis meeting open to all amateurs, on Monday, July 9, and following days. Entrance fee, one pound, one shilling.” Dr. Henry Jones, a leading member of the club, decided to draw up a new set of rules. These included the dimensions of the court, six games in a set, with one fault allowed for the server, and a scoring system based on the dial of a clock.
22 amateur players registered for the tournament but 21 turned up on the day to play in the inaugural Gentlemen’s singles. They would play for a 25 guinea cup. 11 players were left by the following day, which then went down to 6 and then 3 on July 12th– the day of the semi-finals. A round robin produced two finalists – the Cambridge blue, William Marshall and the Old Harovian rackets player, W. Spencer Gore.
Due to the traditional Eton v Harrow cricket match taking place at Lords on July 13thand 14th, it was decided to postpone the final until the following Monday – 16thJuly. It rained. Eventually it was played on Thursday July 19thin front of 200 spectators, each paying a shilling to watch. The match was played on the main court, around which all the others were set out – thus the tradition of the centre court. The game was a disappointing and one-sided affair with Gore winning in just 48 minutes – 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.
The club was now almost exclusively used for tennis and the word croquet was dropped in 1882 only to be restored 17 years later. In 1884 the Ladies’ Singles was added and, at the same time, the National Doubles Championships. Ladies and mixed doubles were added in 1913. In 1922 the club moved to its present location, just off Church Road, and the facilities have improved regularly ever since – with massive demand for tickets. The Centre Court has a roof and Court 1 is currently having one put on as well.
The All England Championships remain the pinnacle of achievement in tennis. The courts are still grass and the intimacy of those first championships, as well as many of the traditions, remain.