GAME SET AND MATCH
BY Wendy Hughes
As we settle down this weekend to enjoy another final at Wimbledon, how many know that the game of lawn tennis originated in Wales? Real or royal tennis had been known in Britain for centuries, but it had been mostly played on indoor courts, and usually by the rich. However in 1873, a Welshman Major Walter Clopton Wingfield decided to change all that.
Wingfield was born on 16 October1833, in Ruabon, Denbighshire, and was the son of Major Clopton Lewis Wingfield a major in the 66th regiment, and the family that could trace back their roots to the time of William the Conqueror. At the time the Wingfields’ were residing at 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 at Landrinio, his family estate in Montgomeryshire 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 Francis 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, but there are two theories. One is that in 1869 he demonstrated the game in the garden of his Berkeley 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. In was December, hardly a good month for playing tennis, but he invited some friends to play a game of tennis in his garden, and just a few weeks later, on 23rd February 1974, he patented his invention as a ‘portable court for playing the ancient game of tennis.’ In his patent 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 inside or out of doors.
Major Wingfield was soon selling lawn tennis and it is stated that between July 1874 and June 1875, so less than 1, 050 sets were sold, mainly to the aristocracy. The set cost six guineas, and consisted of a net, two racquets, called bats, and 12 hollow balls, accompanied by a rule books titled ‘Book of the Game.’ This game was called Sphairisike, from the Greek ‘pertaining to a ball game.’ It 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 – the shaped of the Major’s court in Wales. His rules also stated that the server stood in a diamond shape 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 Britain, but around the world. Within months is had caught on in Bermuda where British officers were serving, and in Staten Island New York, a 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 tennis arrived in America.
Back in Britain, the Major’s rulebook was proving to be inadequate, and despite his patent, other people were claiming to they had 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 was adopted and around this time too, the Major’s rubber tennis balls were replaced by ones covered in white flannel. Around this time too, another milestone was achieved when the All England Croquet Club in Wimbledon 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.
Sadly the Major suffered some personal tragedies including his wife’s developing mental illness, and the death of his three young sons, and lost interest in the game. In July 1877, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club launched the first Wimbledon championships attracting twenty-two entrants. Initially the competition was only open to men, but the ladies event followed a few years later, in 1884, along with men’s doubles, but it was not until 1913, just one year after the death of its inventor, that Ladies’ doubles and mixed doubles were introduced.
Wingfield lived for a time at 112 Belgrave Road, Pimlico, London and died at 33 St Georges Square London where a blue plague has been erected. Fittingly he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1997 for his contribution to tennis, and there is also a ‘Wingfield Restaurant’ at the All England Club in his honour.
The game has come a long way since those early days. The exact origins of the 15, 30, 40 scoring system supposedly came about because they were based on a clock face at one end of the court. It was originally 15, 30, 45 but was shortened to 40, as 45 took too long to say. Yellow balls were introduced at Wimbledon in 1986 when it was decided that they were more visible to the TV cameras
So as you sit back, perhaps with a dish of strawberries to watch the final, spare a thought of Major Walter Wingfield, the man responsible for Wimbledon’s Welsh roots.