You can divide most sports into those that take place in the real world (road cycling, sailing, cross country running) and those that are played on the artificial space of a court or pitch. Some (golf, croquet) occupy an uncertain middle ground, which may be one of the reasons they are so tedious to watch. Others (football, rugby) started as the former and, as they were codified, became the latter. Eton Fives was first played against a wall at the bottom of the chapel steps at Eton College, a particular space that has now been reproduced as ghostly simulacra across the world.
‘Real tennis’ (or ‘royal’ or ‘court’ tennis) first emerged in French monasteries in the 13th century. Sports historians believe that the court on which it is played – with long covered galleries on two sides and a ‘tambour’, a low wall which abuts the court on the ‘hazard end’ – mimics the layout of a dining hall or long forgotten medieval street. In part because of the size and complexity of the court, real tennis was from the beginning an exclusive game, often associated with royalty. Two French kings died of tennis injuries. Anne Boleyn was watching a game of tennis when she was arrested before her execution (Henry VIII was also a keen player – news of Anne’s death, legend has it, was brought to him mid-set). ‘At the peak of its popularity in the 16th century,’ David Berry writes in his history of tennis, ‘Paris alone had 250 courts, including one at the Louvre and another at Versailles, the latter of which was occupied in the revolution of 1789 by the Third Estate as a symbolic protest at the elitist nature of this sport.’
Real tennis is still an extreme minority pursuit, kept alive by the kind of enthusiast who might also enjoy a weekend of cosplaying, or a bracing round of frisbee golf. These days ‘tennis’ – the name derives from the French tenez (‘take heed’), once shouted by players as they served – means lawn tennis, a game first played in public on 6 May 1874, at the Prince’s Club cricket ground in Knightsbridge. The game’s inventor, Walter Wingfield, was an army major and serial entrepreneur – his other schemes included a school of French cookery and a sport that combined synchronised bicycle riding with martial music (both were failures). The other players were Clement Scott, theatre critic for the Telegraph, an army captain and a cricketer named Lubbock. Wingfield’s new game, which he called sphairistikè (a loose rendering of the Ancient Greek for ‘belonging to the ball’), consisted of a net, four wooden racquets, some rubber balls, pegs to mark out the hourglass-shaped court, and a rule book. A journalist for the Morning Post called it a ‘clever adaptation of tennis to the exigencies of an ordinary lawn’ which would ‘undoubtedly become a national pastime’.
Despite its unwieldy name, sphairistikè soon took off, but it was by no means the only new game in town. Nineteenth-century Britain witnessed a sports explosion, during which hundreds of games were invented, promoted and played before quickly going extinct. Direct competitors to Wingfield’s invention included ‘five-ten’, a combination of tennis and fives, and ‘Hildegarde’, a hybrid of real tennis with rounders and cricket. Compared to these, Wingfield’s game was affordable, easy to understand and – crucially – could be played anywhere a decent lawn could be found, which, after the invention of the lawnmower in 1827, was a lot of places. Another technological development essential to the rise of tennis was the discovery of vulcanisation by Charles Goodyear in 1844, which allowed for the production of bouncier balls than the hair-filled ones used in real tennis. ‘When a cut lawn and a soft rubber ball were eventually put together,’ Berry writes, ‘lawn tennis became inevitable and, because it was such a satisfying game to play, inevitably popular.’
Before long, tennis was attracting celebrity endorsements: Oscar Wilde, an early enthusiast, lent it louche glamour; Prince Alfred renewed the royal connection with the game by setting up a court at Buckingham Palace. Within a year tennis was a feature of country house parties, and soon the craze spread to Europe. By 1875 it was being played in Brazil, India and South Africa. As other sports fell out of favour, tennis came to colonise the spaces that had been set up for them. Wimbledon was first established in 1868 as the All England Croquet Club (it is still formally known as the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, and retains a single croquet lawn), but by 1875, as interest in croquet waned, members turned to tennis. The first tennis championships were held there in 1877, attracting 22 entrants, including two vicars and the mayor of Norwich. The following year the final was won by Frank Hadow, ‘a big-game hunter who ran a coffee plantation in Ceylon and who returned there after the tournament never to be seen at Wimbledon again’.
Tennis’s international appeal derived from its dependability (it could be played on lawns, but also on clay and other hard surfaces) and also from its symbolic potential: any patch of ground in a far-flung corner of the empire could be made English simply by stringing up a net, laying out a court and knocking a few balls about. Collegiality, fair play (or the semblance of it) and social spectacle were as important as winning. ‘Tennis should be played with a bright warm sun overhead,’ one early commentator wrote, capturing something of the game’s enduring idealisation. ‘There should be a cool shadow of a tree, strawberries and cream, an iced claret mug and a few spectators who do not want to play but are lovers of the game. If these conditions are present, an afternoon spent at lawn tennis is a highly Christian and beneficent pastime.’
The first wave of the tennis craze lasted a decade or so, but despite its initial popularity its dominance as a global sport was by no means inevitable. At the turn of the century it looked as if sphairistikè might go the way of five-ten and Hildegarde. By 1890 Charles Dodgson, an early and enthusiastic player, had given it up to focus on billiards and stamp collecting (Wilde had renounced it long before). Attendance at Wimbledon declined – in 1896 the Ladies’ Singles had only seven entrants – and by 1903, thirty years after Wingfield first unveiled his game, lawn tennis was given no more space than whippet racing, elk shooting or kangaroo hunting in Frederick Aflalo’s Sports of the World.
What saved the game, Berry argues, was the rise of the suburbs. Early industrialisation and urbanisation meant that court and pitch-based sports had always been more popular in Britain than they were in the rest of Europe. (One reason road cycling has historically been so much more important in France, Spain and Italy than in the UK is that in those more sparsely populated countries getting a crowd together in one place to watch a match was difficult, whereas during a Grand Tour your sporting heroes could come to you.) Tennis, which rewarded court craft, defensive play and cunning, seemed a more cerebral game than many others, and proved to be the ideal sport for the new, upwardly mobile inhabitants of Metroland. The clubs that sprang up to accommodate them inevitably reflected – Berry would say contributed to – the changing social relations of the time. ‘This’, he writes, ‘led tennis clubs in the first two decades of the century to pioneer a new relationship between the sexes that had rarely been seen in public before: friendship. The early tennis clubs’ radical contribution to sport and society was to start developing a social practice where adult men and women who were not related could be friends.’ Tennis clubs were exclusive, but not too exclusive (unless you were of the wrong race or class): men and women, young and old, could play together, and flirt while they did so.
If the tennis club was the main reason tennis entrenched itself as the chosen sport of middle-class professionals in the interwar years, what allowed it to become one of the most popular global sports of the 20th century was its watchability. Before tennis, most sports were enjoyed because they were pleasurable to play, but tennis created space for a new kind of participant: the spectator (more people in the world today play badminton than tennis, but many more people watch tennis than badminton). Soon watching tennis – being a fan – became a large part of the pleasure it offered.
Live tennis was first broadcast from Wimbledon on 21 June 1937, when there were only around four hundred private television sets in Britain. There was no listing in the Radio Times, as it was feared the experimental technology might not work. Two cameras were set up on Centre Court, with pictures beamed out from a bus in the car park. There was some concern that ‘high-frequency currents of diathermy’ at Hornsey Central Hospital might interfere with the broadcast, so ‘the hospital agreed to suspend this treatment during transmission.’ The pictures came through clearly. The BBC soon realised that watching people watch tennis was almost as much fun as watching tennis and in 1939 a third camera was added that focused on the crowds: close-ups of arrivals in the Royal Box and reactions from spectators. By 1948, the Wimbledon fortnight was watched on television by 200,000 people, almost as many as watched it live. David Foster Wallace, a junior tennis champion before he was a novelist, thought that ‘TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love.’ Non-players may feel differently: there is something inherently legible about tennis, so you can enjoy watching it even if you’ve never held a racquet. With its rectangular court, small number of participants and strong, geometric play, the game can look almost as if it were designed to be watched on a screen.
Tennis’s ‘radicalism’, as Berry sees it, stems from this watchability. He sees it as a particularly egalitarian sport, whose fans are more willing than most to embrace players from different cultural and social backgrounds. The role of television, he says, was crucial in turning fans into aficionados and players into celebrities, whose personalities were picked over as much as their playing styles. ‘While fans from other sports identify with place,’ Berry writes, ‘tennis fans at Wimbledon connect with character. The spectators at the annual championships, most of whom have been British, have consistently shown a refreshing ability to embrace a new champion whatever their nationality’ (though nationalism isn’t entirely absent – nothing else can explain the enthusiasm for a player as uninspiring as Tim Henman). Berry is right, I think, to stress the importance of early tennis stars who were often representatives, if not always advocates, of social and political causes: players such as Angela Buxton, Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe.
It’s less easy to accept his argument that the institutions of tennis can be seen as inherently progressive: that the clubs formed in early 20th-century Britain to promote the game were uniquely inclusive. ‘At their best,’ he writes, ‘tennis clubs have kept alive the spirit of voluntary endeavour that was common in society when tennis started back in the 1870s but is much rarer today.’ This, as he acknowledges, is only part of the story. At their worst, tennis clubs were (and in some cases still are) exclusionary, racist, class-divided places, designed as much to keep people out as to welcome them. Perhaps that’s one more reason it’s better to watch it on TV.