It's 150 years since the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club was formed – though originally it was solely for croquet, since tennis hadn't yet been invented. Annunciata Elwes explains.
Thwack! Huh! Ahhh! Grunt. Wimbledon has begun and our Pimm’s-mellowed eyes are darting from left to right and left again. This year is particularly special, however, being the 150th anniversary of the All England Club, which runs the annual Championships and is only a few years younger than the game of tennis itself.
Originally called the All England Croquet Club, it was founded one heady summer at the height of a craze for the game, on July 23, 1868, by eight gentlemen at The Field magazine, at the request of a reader. Their reasons were as follows: ‘There can be no disputing the fact so often brought prominently before us by the admirers of the game, that croquet has become a strong rival of cricket, and has to a considerable extent superseded archery.’
The following year, the club found ‘a suitable playing area’ at Worple Road, Wimbledon. However, the fashion for mallet and ball was short-lived and, by 1874, a reader wrote in to complain that ‘the increasing skill required… takes away from the charm of the old game, in which talking and flirting formed the chief ingredients’.
Along came Maj Walter Clopton Wingfield, who, despite the existence of a remarkably similar game that had been popular in Leamington since the 1860s, patented his version of lawn tennis in 1874 and is credited by the Lawn Tennis Association as its inventor. He called it sphairistike, a word derived from an ancient Greek word meaning ‘ball skill’ – that name, thankfully, didn’t stick. His next idea was group bike rides to martial music, which also didn’t catch on.
In 1877, the first tennis tournament was held in Wimbledon – not for its own sake, but as a fundraiser to buy a pony-drawn roller for flattening the croquet lawns.
The winner of the 22-man competition was a local cricketer called Spencer Gore who prophesied that ‘lawn tennis will never rank among our great games’.
The same year, the club’s name changed to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club and then, in 1899, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. The rest is Grand Slam history.
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