The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which is responsible for staging the world’s leading tennis tournament, is a private Club founded in 1868, originally as ‘The All England Croquet Club’. Its first ground was situated off Worple Road, Wimbledon.
In 1875 lawn tennis, a game introduced by major Walter Clopton Wingfield a year or so earlier and originally called Sphairistike, was added to the activities of the Club. In the spring of 1877 the Club was re-titled ‘The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club’ and signalled its change of name by instituting the first Lawn Tennis Championship. A new code of laws, hitherto administered by the Marylebone Cricket Club, was drawn up for the meeting. These have stood the test of time and today’s rules are similar except for details such as the height of the net and posts and the distance of the service line from the net.
The only event held in 1877 was the Gentlemen’s Singles which was won by Spencer Gore, an old Harrovian rackets player, from a field of 22. About 200 spectators paid one shilling each to watch the final.
The lawns at the Worple Road ground were arranged in such a way that the principal court was situated in the middle with the others arranged around it; hence the title ‘Centre Court’, which was retained when the Club moved in 1922 to the present site in Church Road, although it was not a true description of its location at the time. However, in 1980 four new courts were brought into commission on the north side of the Grounds, which meant the Centre Court was once more at the centre of the tournament. The opening of the new No.1 Court in 1997 emphasised the description.
By 1882 activity at the Club was almost exclusively confined to lawn tennis and that year the word ‘croquet’ was dropped from the title. However, for sentimental reasons, it was restored in 1899 and the Club has been known as ‘The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’ ever since.
Enter the Ladies
In 1884 the Ladies’ Singles was inaugurated and, from an entry of 13 players, Maud Watson became the first champion. That same year, the Gentlemen’s Doubles was started, with the trophy donated by the Oxford University Lawn Tennis Club after the end of their doubles championship, played from 1879 to 1883.
As the popularity of Wimbledon increased, the facilities for spectators were improved with permanent stands gradually replacing temporary accommodation. By the mid-1880s crowds were flocking to see the prowess of British twins Ernest and William Renshaw who, separately and as doubles partners, won 13 titles between 1881 and 1889. The boom in popularity of the game in this period became known as the ‘Renshaw Rush’.
For a period in the nineties public affection for Wimbledon waned, but in 1897 the legendary Doherty brothers, Laurie and Reggie, began their 10-year rule of the courts and soon capacity crowds reappeared.
By the turn of the century Wimbledon had assumed an international character and in 1905 May Sutton of the United States became the first Champion from overseas when she won the Ladies’ Singles. She repeated her success in 1907, the year when Norman Brookes of Australia became the first Gentlemen’s Singles champion from overseas. Since that year, only two players from Great Britain, Arthur Gore and Fred Perry, have managed to win the Men’s Singles while there have been five British Ladies’ Champions since Wimbledon moved to Church Road — Kitty McKane Godfree, Dorothy Round, Angela Mortimer, Ann Jones and Virginia Wade.
A New Home
Prior to the First World War the facilities at Worple Road were expanded to meet the ever-growing demand of the public and a move to larger premises was planned. This was not achieved until 1922 when the present ground in Church Road was opened by King George V. The foresight of building the present stadium, designed to hold 14,000 people, did more to popularise the game worldwide than anything that has happened to date.
The new ground, which many thought would turn out to be a ‘white elephant’, was financed partly from the accumulated reserves of the Club and partly by the issue of Debentures. Misgivings about the future popularity of The Championships were dispelled when applications for tickets in the first year were such that they had to be issued by a ballot — a system that has been adopted for every Championship since.
The move to Church Road coincided with a break in tradition, whereby the Challenge Round was abolished in favour of the holder playing through each round.
Each year during the twenties, France produced at least one singles champion. Towards the end of Suzanne Lenglen’s reign the famous ‘Four Musketeers’ — Jean Borota, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet and Rene Lacoste — appeared on the scene and during the next ten years won six Singles titles and five Doubles titles between them. Britain’s Kitty McKane (Godfree) won the Ladies’ Singles in 1924 and 1926 and a year later Helen Wills of the United States started her conquest.
Wimbledon continued to thrive in the thirties. Bill Tilden returned at the age of 38 to gain his third crown and in 1931 Cilly Assem registered Germany’s first win in the Ladies’ Singles. The following year over 200,000 spectators were present for the first time.
The years from 1934 to 1937 were a golden era for British tennis, when a total of 11 titles were captured, including three singles in succession by Fred Perry and two by Dorothy Round. During the same period Great Britain successfully defended the Davis Cup three times in Challenge Rounds staged on the Centre Court. The years just before the Second World War belonged to the United States. Donald Budge won all three events in 1937 and 1938, Helen Wills Moody captured the Ladies’ Singles for the eight time and Alice Marble brought a new dimension to ladies’ tennis with her serve and volley game.
During the Second World War the Club managed to remain open despite a severe curtailment of staff. The premises were used for a variety of civil defence and military functions such as fire and ambulance services, Home Guard and a decontamination unit. Troops stationed within the vicinity were allowed to use the main concourse for drilling. Another familiar sight around the ground was a small farmyard consisting of pigs, hens, geese, rabbits, etc. In October 1940 a ‘stick’ of five 500lb bombs struck Centre Court, resulting in the loss of 1,200 seats.
With the war in Europe over, signs of normality began to return to Wimbledon during June and July 1945, when a series of matches between Allied servicemen took place on the old No. 1 Court, which had escaped enemy action. During August the final stages of the United States European Championships were played and Charles Hare, an Englishman serving in the US Army, became champion.
Early in 1946 the decision was taken to resume The Championships that summer. The monumental task of organising the meeting in so short a time was entrusted to Lt. Col. Duncan Macaulay, the newly appointed Secretary. With unlimited enthusiasm he overcame a multitude of problems created by the rationing of almost every commodity, available only by licence, permit or coupon. Much of the war damage was cleared and repairs carried out in an attempt to get the ground back to normal — a situation not achieved until 1949 when building restrictions were eased.
The Post-War Period
The American dominance of Wimbledon continued well into the fifties. Outstanding among an array of champions were Jack Kramer, Ted Schroeder, Tony Trabert, Louise Brough, Maureen Connolly and the late Althea Gibson, the first African American winner.
From 1956 until the early 1970s, the Gentlemen’s Singles was virtually the property of Australia as Lew Hoad, Neale Fraser, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and John Newcombe became household names. The sequence of American wins in the Ladies’ Singles was not broken until 1959 when Maria Bueno of Brazil triumphed. In the 1960s, Margaret Smith became the first Australian to win the event, while Angela Mortimer and Ann Jones revived the British interest.
The expansion of air travel in the 1950s meant more and more overseas players were competing at Wimbledon and other tournaments throughout the world, but with this new era came an epidemic of what had become known as ‘shamateurism — the receiving of financial assistance in excess of amounts permitted by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the authority in charge of the rules of lawn tennis and the governing body of the game worldwide.
The need for reform was evident. The initiative for reform came from the then Chairman Herman David who in late 1959 put forward a proposal to the Lawn Tennis Association that The Championships be made open to all players. The following July the ITF rejected this move and several years followed in which argument persisted at all levels of the game. In 1964 the Club tried to persuade the LTA unilaterally to declare The Championships ‘open’ but support was not forthcoming.
In August 1967 an invitation tournament (sponsored by the BBC to mark the introduction of colour television) was held on the Centre Court with eight players taking part — all professionals. Most of these players had won honours at Wimbledon in their amateur days but had forfeited the right to play there on turning professional. The segregation of the two categories was soon to come to an end.
In December that year the Annual Meeting of the LTA voted overwhelmingly to admit players of all categories to Wimbledon and other tournaments in Britain. Faced with a fait accompli the ITF yielded and allowed each nation to determine its own legislation regarding amateur and professional players. In 1968, Rod Laver and Billie Jean King became the first Wimbledon Open Champions. The total prize money that year was £26,150.
1973 was a sad year for Wimbledon as 81 members of the Association of Tennis Professionals boycotted the meeting following the suspension earlier in the year of Nikki Pilic by the Yugoslavian Lawn Tennis Association. Despite the absence of so many players, attendance reached over 300,000. Jan Kodes of Czechoslovakia and Billie Jean King won the singles titles.
In recent years long-standing records have been broken. In 1980 Bjorn Borg of Sweden became the first player to win the Gentlemen’s Singles five times in the post-challenge round era; a feat replicated by Roger Federer between 2003 and 2007. In 1985 Boris Becker, aged 17, became the youngest player, the first unseeded player and the first German to win the Gentlemen’s Singles. In 1987 Martina Navratilova of the United States became the first player to win the Ladies’ Singles six times in succession and in 1990 she attained the all-time record of nine victories in the event. Pete Sampras of the United States registered his seventh win in 2000 and in 2001, Goran Ivanisevic became the first wildcard to win the Gentlemen’s Singles. In 2009, Roger Federer surpassed Sampras’s record of 15 Grand Slam singles titles at Wimbledon, defeating Andy Roddick to win his sixth Wimbledon title, and 16th Grand Slam singles title.
In 1977, The Championships celebrated their centenary. On the opening day 41 of 52 surviving singles champions paraded on the Centre Court and each received a silver commemorative medal from HRH The Duke of Kent, the President of the Club, to mark the occasion. On the second Friday, The Championships were honoured by the presence of HM The Queen, who presented the Ladies’ Singles trophy to Virginia Wade on Centre Court, together with a special trophy to mark Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee. As part of the celebrations the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and the Kenneth Ritchie Library were opened.
The centenary of the Ladies’ Singles Championship was celebrated in 1984. The highlight of The Championships was the parade on the Centre Court of 17 of 20 surviving champions, who each received a unique piece of Waterford Crystal from HRH The Duke of Kent.
The 100th Championships in 1986 were celebrated in a variety of ways, including a special dinner party for those who had made significant contributions over the years, and the formation of the Last 8 Club. 1993 marked the 100th Ladies’ Championships and the occasion was suitably commemorated.
The occasion of the Millennium was celebrated on the first Saturday when 64 Singles Champions, Doubles Champions four or more times, and Singles Finalists at least twice, paraded on Centre Court.
The Ever Changing Scene
Over the years the Club has constantly been aware of the need to provide facilities and ground improvements compatible with the pace and demand of modern day sport. Seldom has a year gone by without alteration to the Grounds or some organisational change taking place. In recent years the momentum has increased and major works programmes have provided improved facilities for the players, spectators, officials and media.
In 1979 the roof of the Centre Court was raised one metre to provide room for another 1,088 seats. The same year a new Debenture Holders’ Lounge was constructed on the north side of the Centre Court. In 1980 the Members’ Enclosure was made into a permanent building. The following year the old No.1 Court complex was rebuilt and enlargements to the North and South Stands increased the capacity of the court by 1,250.
Aoragni (Cloud in the sky) Park was brought into the perimeter of the Club’s grounds in 1982 to give more room during The Championships.
The East Side Building of the Centre Court was opened in 1985. This vast operation provided over 800 extra seats and additional media commentary boxes, new accommodation for the administration staff, a redesigned Museum and an improved Tea Lawn. In 1986 a new two-storey pavilion in Aorangi was constructed.
In 1991 the Centre Court North Building was extended northwards to provide greater accommodation for the Debenture Holders’ Lounge, Museum offices, stores and Library and Club facilities.
A mammoth operation in 1992 replaced the Centre Court roof by a new structure, supported by four pillars, instead of 26 giving 3,601 seats a perfect view, instead of a restricted one.
Wimbledon in the 21st Century
Wimbledon is acknowledged to be the premier tennis tournament in the world and the priority of The All England Lawn Tennis Club, which hosts The Championships, is to maintain its leadership into the twenty-first century. To that end a Lng Term Plan was unveiled in 1993, which will improve the quality of the event for spectators, players, officials and neighbours.
Stage one of the Plan was completed for the 1997 Championships and involved building in Aorangi Park the new No. 1 Court, a Broadcast Centre, two extra grass courts and a tunnel under the hill linking Church Road and Somerset Road.
Stage two involved the removal of the old No.1 Court complex to make way for the new Millennium Building, providing extensive facilities for the players, press, officials and Members, and the extension of the West Stand of the Centre Court with 728 extra seats.
Stage three was completed with the 2011 Championships. The construction of a new Championships entrance building, housing Club staff, museum, bank and ticket office at Gate 3 left the Centre Court east side empty and allowed development to provide better facitilies for the public. The seating capacity was increased from 13,800 to 15,000 and a ground-breaking retractable roof was erected over Centre Court. Among other ongoing developments, No.2 Court and No.3 Court have also been re-built and improved.
A new era?
The culmination of the Long Term Plan of 1993 was marked by the staging of the 125th Championships in 2011, which celebrated the advent of two new champions. Novak Djokovic becaue the first man not named Federer or Nadal to lift the Challenge Cup since 2002. Becoming world No.1 in the same fell swoop, the Serb continued an extraordinary year which saw him win the Australian Open, and then complete an almost unheard of 43 match-winning streak up to the semi-finals of the French Open.
In the women’s draw, another new champion was crowned. 21-year-old Petra Kvitova zoomed past all-comers to become the first left-handed female singles champion at The Championships since Martina Navratilova in 1993.
With the 2012 Olympics the next important beacon on the All England Club’s horizon, on the heels of the 2012 Championships, Wimbledon continues its legacy as one of the most unique sporting events in the world.