WENDY’S WEEK GAME SET AND MATCH
By Wendy Hughes
How many readers, like me, have settled down to watch another year of exciting tennis at Wimbledon? It always makes me feel proud to be Welsh. Why, I hear you ask. Well the game of Lawn Tennis originated in Wales. Real of Royal Tennis has been known in Britain for centuries, played mostly on indoor courts and by usually by the rich. However in 1873, a Welshman Major Walter Clopton Wingfield decided to change all that.
Wingfield was born on 16 October, in 1833, in Ruabon, Denbighshire, and was the son of Major Clopton Lewis Wingfield of the 66th regiment, and the family could trace their roots back to the time of William the Conqueror. At the time the Wingfields’ were residing in Wingfield Castle in Suffolk, but later moved to Wales and settled in Denbighshire. Walter served in the Dragoon Guards and served in India. In 1858 he became a Captain and two years later took part in the campaign in China. In 1861 he returned to England and retired from the Dragoon Guards a year later. By now he was based in Landrinio, his family estate in Montgomeryshire (now Powys) and became a Justice of the Peace for the county and appointed to the Honourable Corps of Gentleman at Arms in 1870 and employed at the courts of Queen Victoria and her son Edward VII. Interestingly, it is claimed that the major bore a slight resemblance to Sir Frances Drake and his favourite item of clothing was a waistcoat that looked very much like an Elizabethan doublet.
With time on his hands he turned his attentions to tennis as he was very interested in various bat and ball games that were becoming popular. The exact date that the Major brought the game to the attention of the public is uncertain, there are two theories. One is that in 1869 he demonstrated the game in the garden of his Berkley Square home, and another is that he held a party at Nantclwyd Hall in Denbighshire in 1873, after deciding to have a court constructed beside his house. This was in December and hardly a good month for playing tennis, but he invited some friends to play a game in his garden, and just a few weeks later, on 23 February 1874, he patented his invention as a ‘portable court for playing the ancient game of tennis. In his patient he explained that his invention would dispense with the need for expensive brick built courts, and put the game within the reach of all. The portable court, no more than a net, could be erected in minutes and allowed tennis to be played on a lawn irrespective of size, as well as indoors or out. Major Wingfield was soon selling lawn tennis and it is stated that between July 1874 and June 1875, no less that 1, 050 sets were sold, mainly to the upper classes. The set cost six guineas, and consisted of a net, two racquets- called bats- and 12 hollow balls, accompanied by a rule book titled ‘Book of the Game. This game was called Sphairisilke, from the Greek ‘pertaining to a ball game.’ In became such a mouthful to pronounce that people soon shortened it to ‘sticky’ so the Major changed it to lawn tennis. In his original rule book he showed a game of mixed abilities being played on an hourglass shaped court – wider at the baseline than in the middle, like the one of the Major’s courts in Wales. His rules also stated that the server stood in a diamond shaped marked on the court, instead of the baseline as today, and only the server could score points with the service changing hands if a rally was lost.
The game of lawn tennis became a huge success, not only in the UK, but around the world. Within months it caught on in Bermuda where British officers were serving, and in Staten Island New York, lady called Mary Ewing was so impressed with the game that when she returned home she took a set from the British regiment supplies and so the game of tennis arrived in America.
Back in the UK the Major’s rulebook was proving to be inadequate, and despite his patient, other people were claiming to have invented the game, and various versions of the rules were appearing all over the place. The MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) the governing body of real tennis at the time, offered to establish a set of universal rules and Major Wingfield was invited to participate, and the new rules were published in 1875. Wingfield’s hourglass court and scoring method were adopted and his rubber tennis balls were placed by ones covered in white flannel. About this time too another milestone was achieved when the All England Croquet Club decided to use one of the croquet lawns to play tennis. This proved so popular that the club changed its name to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, later changing it to give tennis precedence over croquet.
Despite his achievements the Major suffered personal tragedies including his wife’s developing mental illness, and the death of his three sons, and he lost interest in the game. In July 1877, the All England Lawn Tennis and croquet Club launched the first Wimbledon championships attracting 22 entrants, and initially the competition was only open to men. And it was not until 1913, a year after the death of its inventor, that Ladies doubles and mixed doubles were introduced.
A blue plaque is erected at 33 St George’s Square in London where he died and fittingly he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1997 for his contribution to tennis, and at the All England Club there is a Wingfield Restaurant in his honour.
Since those early days the game has come a long way with yellow balls being introduced in 1986 when it was decided that there were more visible to the TV cameras.
So when you sit back to watch the finals, perhaps with a traditional dish of strawberries and cream, spare a thought of the man, Major Walter Wingfield, who is responsible for the invention of the game.