Real Tennis: A Cut Above
So, what exactly is your opinion of Major Walter Clopton Wingfield? The overwhelming majority of sophisticated and intelligent people will answer “ahhhh…. None.”
But, for a few who play a game called court tennis, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield is the devil incarnate. Why would this be?
According to Wikipedia, “Major Walter Clopton Wingfield (1833 –1912) was a Welsh inventor of lawn tennis (1873, patented 1874), which he called Sphairistikè (Greek for “ball games”). When not inventing games, he was a Gentleman-at-Arms in the Royal Body Guard and an officer in the First Dragoon Guards.
The website of the Tennis Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted, depicts an older man wearing a Gilbert and Sullivan uniform adorned with epaulettes, a sash draped from left shoulder to right rib and a row of medals.
What’s not to like?
Court tennis players concede that Wingfield invented something and that he made racquet, ball and net kits – much like today’s garden croquet sets – until he let his patent expire in 1877. But whatever he invented, it was not “tennis.” We know this because “real tennis,” as “our” game is still called in England, had been played for 700 to 1000 years before the Major’s entrepreneurial effort.
Court tennis, as “our” game is called in the United States still exists, looking much as it did in the middle ages and the Renaissance, and is played on 45 courts located in four countries – Australia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States – by about 5000 to 8000 people.
Some have called court tennis the “game of kings” but polo and horse racing think of theirs as the games of kings. Perhaps kings just had a good deal of game playing time on their hands? Truth be told, there were some kings who played court tennis and even built courts.
Hit or Myth Some like to think that the Major invented his game at a house party – think “Gosford Park” or any Merchant Ivory movie – and on the day following the requisite white tie and candlelight dinner, the gentlemen went to disport themselves at court tennis. The ladies were invited to watch if at all but certainly not to play. The ladies were rankled. Enter the Major (military rank suggests second son and thus no money) with an eye toward picking off one of the damsels, preferably the richest. He suggests a gentler game outdoors on the lawn (clever fellow knows that ladies like the sun) and thus today’s lawn tennis is sired by a randy social climber. Sadly for us, it appears that, in reality, Wingfield first adapted an old Welsh game at his estate called Nant Clwyd near the village of Cerrig y Drudion in North Wales around Christmas time in 1873.
The world’s oldest surviving court (and the only outdoor one) was built in 1537 by King James V of Scotland at Falkland Palace, north of Edinburgh. The Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court Palace was built and used by Henry VIII and is still in use today. The court at the Palais de Fontainebleau south of Paris was built and played upon by Francois I. Elizabeth I cooled her heels at Hatfield House, site of another court, while waiting for half-sister Queen Mary to die and for the pendulum to swing back from the Catholics to the Anglicans.
But court tennis was hardly clear sailing for kings. Jacques Louis David’s famous painting, Le Serment du Jeu de Paume, depicts the final dramatic events that gave rise to the French Revolution, when deputies of France’s Third Estate seized Louis XVI’s private tennis court and pledged not to leave its confines until a constitution had been drawn up.
But if you ever find yourself at a court tennis court or decide you would like to try to learn to play, here is a hint: don’t say a word about the game of kings. Those who play court tennis don’t think of it in that way at all.
What seems to attract us to the game is something quite different. Indeed, the leading instructional book on the game is entitled “Tennis: A Cut Above the Rest” by former World Champion Chris Ronaldson stresses the mental and physical skills that are required to even try to master the game. Though, like golf, most of us never will perfect it.
It is exceptionally difficult to learn in part because the racquet head is about 1/3 the size of a lawn tennis racquet and the ball is much heavier. Properly struck, the ball has considerable backspin – or “cut” — and it skids along the smooth floor often nestling into a corner from which it is difficult to retrieve.
The court is big – the same size as a lawn tennis court but from fence to fence – so there is much more to cover. It is surrounded by 18 foot high walls that are a part of the game like in squash so it is like being inside of a very large shoe box facing your opponent(s) across a net that ranges from three feet high in the middle to five feet at either end. And the walls are not simple flat surfaces. That would be too easy. Three of them have shed like roofs extending their entire length. These are called penthouses and they have netted windows under the eaves. The fourth wall includes a tall diagonal protrusion called the “tambour” that deflects the ball at an unpredictable angle to its original flight.
High level singles matches can last up to four hours but with no sitting down at the changeovers. Doubles is tough too but for a different reason. There is much more volleying and the ball travels up to 150 miles an hour when hit hard. And those volleys need not be directed at the floor.
But there is more: the complexity of the game requires a far greater amount of tactical and strategic thinking than other games. For those whose speediest years may be behind them, the higher premium placed on experience is most helpful.
But again there is more. Court tennis is one of the most sporting games there is. Before a match, players raise their racquets to salute their opponents, the marker (scorekeeper/referee) and the spectators of whom there are generally not many. If your adversary hits a good shot it is customary to tap your racquet on the wall or floor and tell him so.
In addition to a full schedule of competitive professional and amateur tournaments, every year there are weekend-long social tournaments hosted by most every court in the world; which often include parties at which vigorous training rules are not always observed. In times past the spectacle of tight muscled guys playing in shorts attracted an enthusiastic female following and, biology being what it is, this continues today. But it is now joined by the phenomenon of male spectators attracted to equally tight muscled girls playing in skirts. In both handicap and level (non-handicap) tournaments, they might well be playing against each other but no matter what happens on court the players will be happily celebrating that evening with the person who might have beaten them earlier in the day.
The new player stands at the bottom of a daunting learning curve thanks to the small-headed racquet and low-bouncing ball. And that is before they hear about the rules, which include separate meanings for all of those windows; all serving from one end of the court; an intricate mechanism for determining who serves; and points called chases and hazards that are held in abeyance.
But slowly the drip, drip, drip of addiction sets in and the novices are hooked. Their lives have changed forever and they will likely keep playing well into their 80’s.
So, now you know why we court tennis players dislike Major Wingfield: he swiped the name of our ancient game a mere 150 years ago and created another that is far better known and more popular, but we still think ours is better.
For those who have never seen the game, here is a YouTube “highlight reel.” The match features the two most recent world champions, Rob Fahey and Camden Riviere, who again contested the title in late April 2020.
This story was posted on January 24, 2020 before I left to go skiing. That had no impact on Major Wingfield, but it definitely impacted the note accompanying the video. Rob Fahey (who birthday is today 4/30/20) and Camden Riviere did not contest the world championship as scheduled a few days ago. Like so many other events, it was postponed/cancelled (?) because of the virus. With thanks to Ivan Ronaldson, Head Professional at Prince’s Court and one of the most alert readers of the Pundificator, for calling my attention to this oversight.
Steve Hufford, April 30, 2020 at 6:47 am said:
great article, Haven! and the highlight reel is amazing.
Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 7:06 am said:
Thanks Steve, and it appears on Rob Fahey’s birthday.
Simon Aldrich, April 30, 2020 at 7:33 am said:
Seems another pertinent reason to dislike Major Wingfield; lawn tennis attracts the ladies. Something for male real/court tennis players to ponder:)
Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 9:24 am said:
Grabbing the “outdoor franchise” turned out to be pretty important. Sadly….
Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 9:29 am said:
Thanks Steve, another story in the monthly series to follow on June 1.
RSM, April 30, 2020 at 6:47 am said:
Haven, let us all hope that we can soon get back on court ….. even though our rests are no longer long. Best wishes.
Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 9:28 am said:
If one country opens up first, will players from all over the world flock there to play? We’d hate to be the source of another flareup.
Peter W. Bragdon, April 30, 2020 at 7:07 am said:
For some reason the words of an Episcopal blessing come to mind: “Hold fast to that which is good.”
That is what you, Haven, and others have done. To use an Aussie expression, “Good on you.”
Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 9:25 am said:
Thank you. It also helped to extend an at best modestly successful athletic career.
Peter W. Bragdon, April 30, 2020 at 9:35 pm said:
What is this “moderately successful” stance, Haven? Have you forgotten that at dusk in the ‘cove rink: on the black ice of St. Paul’s you, a Fourth Former, split the defense in overtime to score the winner and nail down the Championship for “The Big I” — the mighty Isthmians — in 1962. Scored the winner for the youngest of the three clubs, a team labeled “The Doormats” by the school paper at the outset of the season — a name we adopted. That is excellence under pressure– nothing moderate about that, Haven.
Garrard Glenn, April 30, 2020 at 8:52 am said:
Is squash a bastardization of Court Tennis?
Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 9:22 am said:
Tracing the origin of games is difficult because many were so obvious. Lots of people would have thought of the same thing. For example, Aztecs had a ball game. If court tennis was the origin (an many believe it was) the family tree passed through racquets (rackets in UK), which was allegedly first played in a prison.
Temple Grassi, April 30, 2020 at 9:43 am said:
The Major goes out in a field and lays out the first ‘crass lawners’ court (a name used by court tennis players when referring to the ‘new game’- there’s a men’s club in Edinburgh called The New Club because it wasn’t started until 1730!) I digress
What tool/machine that was invented about the same time as Winfield started ‘his’ tennis that really ‘thrust a dirk’ into court tennis and almost killed our game!? Haven, shhhh😉
Francis Hamilton, April 30, 2020 at 2:07 pm said:
Spot on, as usual. The clue is in the name. The Major’s invention of what became lawn tennis was only possible because efficient lawnmowers had been invented. Good grass was the key – and still is at Wimbledon, Newport RI etc.
Of course Wingfield’s other advantages were that his lawn version was much easier to play and score, and the courts much cheaper. They could be installed in back gardens anywhere.
Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 2:18 pm said:
Well played Francis. Quick with the correct answer. I was distracted by the horticultural advice given to an American by an English gardener. The American asked how the English created such lovely lawns. The gardener replied “use good seeds, use natural fertilizer, have lots of rain and roll it weekly for 200 years.”
Roy Raven, September 11, 2020 at 7:49 am said:
Dear Mr Glenn: re. your question regarding the origins of squash: an overview of squash (squash rackets) – and its progenitor, Rackets
In its earliest form, rackets was played in the open C18th air, against the yard walls of London’s main debtor’s prisons, King’s Bench and Fleet. Held until they found the wherewithal to repay their creditors, gentlemen would while away the hours by playing skittles or fives, using the hand or a bat. Some brought tennis rackets with them and improvised play against any convenient wall. Side walls were sometimes used but there was never a back wall.
Rackets play at Fleet is mentioned in a poem of 1749 – and also in John Howard’s 1780 report on the state of prisons in England and Wales. Dickens mentions rackets in the Pickwick Papers: we learn the Fleet court had a front wall and one sidewall, similar to a Jai Alai fronton. In 1814 there were four courts at the King’s Bench and – astonishingly – six racket masters to look after them!
By the early 1800s, rackets had begun to extend beyond prison walls. In his Book of Sports and Mirror of Life (pub. 1832), Pierce Egan makes mention of several open rackets courts other than King’s Bench and Fleet. One of these, Pentonville’s Belvedere Tavern, was the venue for most of the Open Court Championships. Others – again at public houses – included the Eagle Tavern on the City Road, The White Bear at Kennington, the White Conduit House and the Rosemary Branch, Peckham. Records also reveal courts at Bristol, Bath, Birmingham and Belfast.
Egan warns that any gentleman seeking a game at a tavern would be obliged to mix with those from society’s lower orders. Implicit in this observation is that the debtor’s prisons offered a better class of player – in terms of both social standing and proficiency. Mention is made of a Major Campbell, who, after 14 years at King’s Bench was the best player there!
Rackets spread to the colonies. Canada’s first covered rackets court appeared in Halifax in the 1770’s; in 1793, Robert Knox, a Scot, built America’s first covered court in Allen St. lower Manhattan, between Hester and Canal. A few years later, the Allen Street court had a local rival – the Butcher’s Court – its given name a reference to the occupation of much its membership. Courts were built in India (1821) and Australia (1847).
Harrow was the first school at which rackets was played, probably when the schoolyard was enlarged in the early 1820s. By the time of the first Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon, Old Harrovian rackets player Spencer Gore would win the singles title.
In the middle of the C19th, rackets played in covered courts began to predominate. The MCC built a court in 1844 and the old Prince’s Club opened in 1853 with several rackets courts and two tennis courts. The main competition court at Prince’s established the standard dimensions: 60′ long by 30′ wide. Before this on the open courts, doubles was played on a court of 80′ x 40′ with two players playing up at the front of the court and two at the back.
The growing popularity of the indoor courts led to an attendant decline in the open courts attached to public houses. Rackets increasingly developed as a game for the wealthy. By 1855, the year of the first Varsity Match, both Oxford and Cambridge had rackets courts. The first covered court at Harrow school, built in 1865, remains in use today. Between 1870 and 1890, courts were built at the new Prince’s Club, Manchester and The Queen’s Club – the venue for the Jeu de Paume and rackets competition at the 1908 Summer Olympics.
Rackets is played in a 30 by 60 foot (9.14 × 18.28 m) enclosed court, with a ceiling at least 30 feet (9.14 m) high. Singles and doubles are played on the same court. The walls and floor of the court are made of smooth stone or concrete and are generally dark in colour to contrast with the white ball. A player uses 30.5 inch (775 mm) wooden racket, to hit a 38mm (1.5 inch) hard white ball weighing 28 grams. Currently there are only two companies in the world producing rackets: Grays of Cambridge (UK) and Harrow Sports (US), A good stroke must touch the front wall above a 26.5-inch-high wooden board before touching the floor. The ball may touch the side walls before reaching the front wall. The player returning a good stroke may play the ball on the volley, or after one bounce on the floor. The play is extremely fast, and potentially quite dangerous. “Lets” are commonplace, owing to the rule that one must not play the ball if there is a risk of hitting another player. Matches are observed by a marker who will call “Play!” after each good stroke. Games are to 15 points, unless the game is tied at 13-all or 14-all, in which case the game can be “set” to 16 or 18 (in the case of 13-all) or 17 (in the case of 14-all) at the option of the player first reaching 13 or 14. Only the server can score: the receiver who wins a rally earns the serve. Return of serve can be extremely difficult; in North America, only one serve is allowed. Matches are typically best of 5 games.
At Harrow, the combination of Rackets and Fives sparked the creation of Squash
Rackets was a big hit at Harrow. The principal place to play was the schoolyard that surrounded ‘Old Schools’ – the main school building. One special nook of the schoolyard was ‘The Corner’: it had two good side walls and a front wall with a buttress which dropped the ball straight down – and a waterpipe, which could send the ball just about anywhere.
In 1850, Harrow built two open-air Rackets courts, but court time proved hard to come by – particularly for the younger boys. Instead, they would play in the tiny, stone-walled yards of their Houses, or in village alleys. The yards and alleys, like The Corner, boasted peculiar hazards: water pipes, chimneys, ledges, doors, footscrapers, wired windows and fiendishly sloping ground. Rackets was desperately difficult in such cramped conditions.
A newly-available product – rubber – had just come into use; the boys took a rubber ball, sawed down their racket handles and commenced playing this new, slower game. This bastardised version of Rackets was termed ‘baby rackets’, ‘soft rackets’, ‘softer’ – or ‘squash rackets.’
In the 1920s London’s Bath Club became the nursery for British Squash. Lord Desborough built a beautiful court, noted for its outstanding lighting and launched the Bath Club Cup, a Squash league for London clubs. League squash greatly increased enthusiasm for the fledgling sport, and Squash in Great Britain owed its success in large part to the Bath Cup competitions of the twenties.
In January 1923, the Royal Automobile Club hosted a meeting of delegates from English clubs and formed a “Squash Rackets Representative Committee.” The committee chose the slowest ball then in vogue and declared the Bath Club court, thirty-two by twenty-one feet, as the standard for Britlish Squash. In December 1928, the Squash Rackets Association was formed to run squash in Great Britain.
Having chosen the most inert ball available, the SRA immediately began slowing the ball down further. Between 1930 and 1934 the standard ball’s speed was cut almost by half.
The future of squash seems bright. Rackets are ever lighter and stronger and the ball is now consistent throughout the World. The introduction of glass walls has rendered television a reality; the advent of portable courts has seen tournaments staged in stunning locations: in New York’s Grand Central Terminal; in Canary Wharf, at The Royal Albert Hall, at Boston Symphony Hall – even at the base of the Pyramids at Giza. Squash has gone global. Germany had a dozen courts in 1973 – and over six thousand by the Millennium. More than 20 Nations now have players in the men’s Top 100 World Rankings.
Not bad for a game devised one hundred and fifty years ago, by schoolboys who couldn’t get on a Rackets court.
Haven Pell, September 11, 2020 at 9:50 am said:
The invention of games is a worthy topic deserving of much attention. I have often found the earliest accounts to be murky because the origins were episodic and ad hoc. Children invented games based on their surroundings, the availability of balls and the weaponry with which to strike them. Usually the games vaporized when the children grew up but sometimes they were good enough to continue. To me, the easiest variable has always seemed to be the ball so I thought your mention of rubber was insightful. Temple Grassi has noted that the key to the success of lawn tennis was the invention of the lawn mower. Perhaps also the roller?
charles g houghton, April 30, 2020 at 9:50 am said:
Great article – many thanks
Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 2:28 pm said:
they will be monthly from now until the end of a tour of all the courts in the world
Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 9:51 am said:
Good thought, Temple. Let’s see who comes up with that excellent answer. [Readers note, I had to call Temple to discuss this with him. It is not easy.]
Richard Moroscak, April 30, 2020 at 10:07 am said:
Another excellent informative article about the game we all love and are missing terribly right now.
Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 1:39 pm said:
This weekend would have been the Georgian Court tournament. Bummer. It would have been fun.
Chip Oat, April 30, 2020 at 10:16 am said:
In the late 1970’s, the daughter of a member who lived at Tuxedo Park was said to be the only woman in the history of U.S. court tennis who was given permission by a club to learn the game and play it (albeit not in competition). Tom Creavy (and, presumably, her father) thought it was an excellent idea and sold it to the club’s leadership. It helped that she was a promising young lawn tennis player who was looking for a way to enjoy Christmas vacation from boarding school – there being very little to do in Tuxedo Park in the winter unless you were male.
I don’t remember her name, and it didn’t really create a stir, but it was noticed that 1) she was pretty good, 2) she was a popular doubles partner for social matches but not so popular an opponent in singles😁 and 3) no other club in the US was willing to give the members’ daughters/wives/girlfriends a similar opportunity.
I’m pleased to hear that women players are not so uncommon anymore. The building of new courts has undoubtedly created opportunities there. Perhaps Aiken was a likely incumbent to follow Tuxedo? Were women permitted to try their hand at Green Tree when you were young?
Russell Seitz, April 30, 2020 at 12:58 pm said:
Chip should recall that one American real tennis venue t was part of a womens college for over a hundred years. It was built in 1899 on Jay Gould’s estate , which became Georgian Court College in 1908, remained in play until after WWII, and was refurbished at the turn of this century.
Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 1:31 pm said:
That court is played on today. In fact there was supposed to be a tournament there this coming weekend. Confusingly, there were two Jay Goulds — uncle and nephew. The uncle was a robber baron whose behavior was so despicable that even fellow robber barons shunned him. (This might well have been caused by his despicable behavior toward them.) The nephew, whose father built what is now Georgian Court College, was the only Olympic Gold Medal winner in the sport (London 1908). The building in which the court tennis court is located was called the Casino, not for gambling but as a place of fun. The walls surrounding the indoor polo field are painted with outdoor scenes to make it feel less confining. It was quite remarkable what could be done before the existence of securities or income tax laws.
Russell Seitz, April 30, 2020 at 2:53 pm said:
Just so- Jay Gould’s less notorious brother George Jay Gould owned the eponymous estate.
Russell Seitz, April 30, 2020 at 3:02 pm said:
The College came down on the side of mixed doubles by going coed and becoming a University in 2013.
Roy Raven, September 11, 2020 at 4:31 pm said:
On his death in 1888, ‘Robber baron’ railroad magnate and financier Jay Gould left his family a $72m inheritance. His eldest son George established ‘Georgian Court’, Pine Barrens, Lakewood NJ.
Designed by Bruce Price and built by L’Hommedieu, the estate featured an 18-hole golf course and what the Gould family referred to as ‘the casino’: a games facility comprising tennis, rackets and squash courts, a bowling alley, a 56’ x 26’ swimming pool, a ballroom, Turkish and Russian baths, an automobile room, a tanbark equestrian ring – and living quarters for the Polo team which lived and trained there. The covered tanbark ring was also used for concerts, plays – and for life-sized games of chess, in which costumed people/pieces moved across the ‘board’ on command.
The family constructed another ‘casino’ at ‘Chichota’, the Gould Property on Jekyll Island, Georgia.
George’s wife Edith possessed a collection of jewels valued at more than $1 million ($23 million today). ‘She was very fond of jewels,’ recalled one acquaintance, ‘and wore them almost constantly, changing them from day to day.’ Edith frequently wore a tiara and brooch suite commissioned from Cartier. The suite was made up of eight diamond peacock feathers adorned with emeralds and had formerly belonged to the Emperor of China. Five fronds formed the lavish tiara; the remaining three were fashioned into a magnificent brooch. For motoring, Edith habitually wore her famous pearls – George had purchased five perfectly-matched strands of pearls from Tiffany at a rumoured cost of $500,000 ($11.5 million today) – although to be fair, to avoid any accusation of ostentatiousness, she rarely wore more than three at a time….
George engaged Frank Forester – formerly of Prince’s Club, Knightsbridge – to tutor his two sons, Jay Gould !! and Kingdon, in Rackets and Tennis. Forester arrived in March 1900 and started the boys off with an hour a day of Rackets. In the Spring of 1901, they turned to tennis – using lightweight (thirteen and a half ounce) rackets custom-made by Robert Moore at Tuxedo.
Leading professionals visiting the US would visit Lakewood – both to see Forester and also to play young Gould. Among them, Peter Latham – the then World Champion – Ferdinand Garcin, the French Master; “Punch” Fairs; Fred Tompkins of Philadelphia; Tom Pettitt; George Standing; Jack White; Alfred White.
Manfully overcoming such difficult beginnings, in 1905, the 16yr-old Gould startled the tennis world by finishing runner-up in Tuxedo’s Gold Racket. The following year, he won – and thus became the US Champion. At London’s1908 Olympics Gould took the Gold medal in Jeu de Paume – and was World Champion from 1914–1915. He held the U.S. Amateur Championship title continuously from 1906–1925, winning 18 times. During this period, he never lost a set to an American amateur – and suffered defeat only once: to English champion E.M. Baerlein.
Allison Danzig tells us that Gould perfected the “overhead American twist” service to the point that it became synonymous with him. In time, it earned the soubriquet The‘Railroad’ – a reference to the source of the Gould family’s substantial wealth. Devastatingly accurate, asserts Danzig, Gould could effect endless variations of pace and spin – and moreover, employ the serve tirelessly throughout a match.
In 1921, Edith Gould died of a heart attack on the Georgian Court golf course. On examination, doctors discovered that she was sheathed from ankle to neck in rubber – a desperate measure intended to regain her youthful figure, having borne seven children. Within a year of his wife’s death, George Gould married Guinevere Jeanne Sinclair, his mistress of eleven years, who had lived in high style at his expense on an estate at Manursing Island in Rye, NY. He also acknowledged the three illegitimate children she had already borne him.
Gould’s obituary in The New York Times; January 27, 1935, reveals that one of the grand salon rooms in his Manhattan apartment – an entire floor 444 East Fifty-seventh Street – featured a penthouse and dedans.
Haven Pell, September 12, 2020 at 5:05 am said:
Roy, these stories are fabulous, especially the penthouse and dedans at 444 east 57th in New York. The rubber-clad wife and the high-living mistress are also high on the list. Thank you.
Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 1:38 pm said:
In the last years of play at Greentree there was a women’s handicap tournament played there. About a dozen women played and the winner was Brenda Sabbag, who had to overcome a huge handicap in the final. Actually it was a declining handicap because her novice opponent kept getting better and better as she adapted her lawn tennis skills to the new game. How do I know this? I am married to the finalist.
RSM, April 30, 2020 at 2:16 pm said:
It was Tommy Greavy. Longtime professional at Tuxedo
Roy Raven, September 11, 2020 at 4:00 pm said:
Down through the years, women have made their mark on tennis. Arguably the most talked-about player of the C15th was Margot of Hainault: arriving in Paris in 1427, Margot proceeded to defeat some of the best men in the game. ‘Journal d’un bourgeois de Paris’, a chronicle of Parisian life – in which Joan of Arc is dismissed as ‘a nuisance’ – offers fulsome praise:
“She played hand-ball better than any man had seen before; playing fore- and back-hand very powerfully, very cunningly, and very cleverly – as well as any man. There were few whom she could not better on court – and they were the very best.”
Then of course, there was Lady Wentworth of Crabbet Park, West Sussex: grand daughter of Lord Byron and society beauty. Her appearance made a strong impression on Edward Burne-Jones, for whom she sat. He wrote “She gives me the impression of perfect beauty combined with the speed and lightness of foot of some wild creature.” Burne-Jones was not merely fanciful: Lady Wentworth became a renowned real tennis player – a game then considered wholly unsuitable for women – and was also strong at squash rackets.
Divorcing in 1923, Lady Wentworth remained at Crabbet Park and devoted herself to numerous pursuits – notably racehorses. Her influence on Arabian horse breeding was profound: today, the lineage of over 90 percent of all Arabian horses can be directly traced to Crabbet bloodstock. Geoffrey Frederick Covey (1881-1957) – Real Tennis World Champion from 1912 – 1914 and 1916 – 1928 was the tennis pro at Crabbet. He also managed with the stud’s financial affairs – and Lady Wentworth left the estate to him in her will. Sadly, Fred predeceased her by just a few days.
Haven Pell, September 12, 2020 at 5:08 am said:
Our Ladies Singles trophy in Washington is named for Margot d’Hainault. We did not know about Lady Wentworth or the doubles could have been named for her.
Bill Gordon, April 30, 2020 at 10:24 am said:
Well now I know where the term “kill it in the corner” comes from! Great history lesson and very fun Utube video to provide the visual cliff notes.
I’ll ski with you anywhere, I might even join you on a hockey rink some day. I am quite confident, however, unless the big party happens first to cloud my judgement, I will not join you on the king’s court!
Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 1:33 pm said:
You would love it and we should make it a mission to have you give it a try. Sadly, I look nothing like those guys when I play.
james burke, May 01, 2020 at 11:34 am said:
Next to one of the doubles squash courts in the Racquet Club of Chicago there is an old lithograph which reads something like:” Horsman’s Outdoor Tennis”. It shows men in long pants and women in ruffled dresses at an outdoor court. I don’t recall the fine print, but it gives the impression that Horsman gave rules to the new outdoor game. One gets the impression that he invented it.
With no access to the club I can’t research the picture any further.
I enjoyed reading your well written piece.
Haven Pell, May 01, 2020 at 11:55 am said:
Many thanks. I had not heard of “Horsman”but you sent me to the internet to find out. Here is what I discovered at http://www.antiqueathlete.com/vintage-tennis-rackets.shtml. “This antique tennis racket is simply the finest we have ever offered. The racket was made by E. I. Horsman out of New York. Horsman is the oldest American tennis racket maker and a highly sought after brand. This is a fine vintage tennis racket made by a quality racket maker and it’s the condition of this scarce flat-top design that makes this racket a true museum quality rarity. The racket originated in an 1880 – 1890’s Horsman boxed tennis kit, which is certainly a significant factor to explain the incredible NR-MT to MINT condition. If the racket has ever been used, it was used very little. There exists no real evidence of it being used, there are a few imperfect strings at the top but this is likely a result of climate changes where it was stored. One trademark of a 19th century tennis racket is the cloth wrap below the throat of the racket. The cloth band on this racket is pristine. The markings, handle and butcap also remain in pristine condition. Vintage tennis rackets of this age, quality and condition are practically impossible to find. An incredible tennis racket to consider for your antique tennis collection! SOLD” My guess is that your man might have been a racket maker more than a game inventor. The reference to “boxed tennis kit” suggests he jumped into the market after Wingfield let his patent expire. The racket itself is quite handsome making a quick follow of the link worthwhile.
Matt Churchill, May 02, 2020 at 1:25 pm said:
“But slowly the drip, drip, drip of addiction sets in and the novices are hooked. Their lives have changed forever and they will likely keep playing well into their 80’s.”
Amen. Thanks Haven.
Haven Pell, May 02, 2020 at 5:47 pm said:
welcome, we could create a support group if necessary.
Vaughan Williams, May 03, 2020 at 2:38 am said:
The nephew of Jay Gould the world champion and still I believe the reigning Olympic champion, (London 1908) , owned a house called Mongewell Park, very near where I live in Oxfordshire U.K., ( and thus near Hardwick ) , where he built a Sticke court and employed a professional . He also owned an estate in Scotland near Forres. As war approached in 1939 he sold up. The house has Since been through a number of incarnations , for many years being the only Jewish private school in the country , Carmel College, but now sadly is derelict , and the sticke court long gone.
Haven Pell, May 03, 2020 at 9:00 am said:
A stické professional? I suppose that makes sense but I had never heard of one before. What equipment was used before there was an adequate supply of defunct lawn tennis rackets and dead tennis balls?
Temple Grassi, May 07, 2020 at 11:54 am said:
I’m world ranked in sticke – I could prove it with the certificate that I was awarded at Hartham ( sp) Park by the sticke ‘czar’, but alas it is locked up at Prince’s Court!
Haven Pell, May 07, 2020 at 1:03 pm said:
and well deserved it was!
Kevin Nelson, June 17, 2020 at 12:38 pm said:
A great article on the game we are all missing playing at the moment. We were fortunate enough to play a number of the U.S. courts a couple of years ago and found everyone to be very friendly and accommodating (Temple joined us for a couple of courts though I am not sure if he will remember). We hope to return when all settles.
Haven Pell, June 17, 2020 at 1:11 pm said:
Kevin, thanks for the comment. We hope you will return as well and look forward to having you with us. Prince’s Court is one of a small number in the world that has re-opened. I am playing this afternoon for the first time since late January.
Roy Raven, September 11, 2020 at 7:33 am said:
Although Major Walter Clopton Wingfield is often credited with the creation of the sport – indeed, his statue stands at the headquarters of the Lawn Tennis Association – it has become increasingly apparent that Major Harry Gem and Augurio Perera should be acknowledged as the founding fathers of Lawn Tennis. Having patented his “New and Improved Court for Playing the Ancient Game of Tennis”, Wingfield commenced actively marketing his game in the spring of 1874. It was a boxed set – comprising rackets, a net with poles, court markers, rubber balls imported from Germany – and a set of rules & instructions. Sets were sold through Wingfield’s agent, French and Co. of Pimlico for between five and ten guineas. The precise date upon which Wingfield launched his version of ‘lawn tennis’ is uncertain. Lord Lansdowne claimed that Wingfield demonstrated the game in the garden of his Berkeley Square home in 1869 – although there are doubts about the accuracy of Lansdowne’s recollection: he refers to ‘Major Wingfield’ although Wingfield didn’t attain that rank in the Montgomeryshire Yeomanry until May 1873. In his meticulously researched work, “Tennis: A Cultural History”, Heiner Gillmeister reveals that on December 8 1874, Wingfield wrote to Gem, commenting that he’d been experimenting with his version of lawn tennis “for a year and a half”.
Thus, Gillmeister deduces
“According to the Major’s own testimony, therefore, lawn tennis à la Wingfield was not played earlier than in the Spring of 1873” Two regulars at Birmingham’s Bath Street Rackets court, solicitor Major Thomas Henry Gem (“Harry”) and Spanish merchant Juan Bautista Luis Augurio Perera (“Augurio”) developed a game on the croquet lawn at Perera’s Edgbaston home, ‘Fairlight’ at Ampton Rd. The two friends had been playing privately as far back as 1865 – and research suggests that experimentation may have started as early as 1859. Perera, Gem would assert, should receive credit for devising the game, which incorporated elements of Rackets and Basque pelota. Originally referred to as Lawn Rackets or Lawn Pelota, by 1872, the game had become known as Lawn Tennis. In that same year, Perera and Gem each moved to Leamington Spa. The Wise family’s Manor House stood immediately opposite Perera’s Avenue Road home – and it was here that they established the world’s first lawn tennis club. The first official game was a doubles match between Gem, Perera and two Physicians from the nearby Warneford Hospital: Dr Arthur Wellesley Tomkins and Dr Frederick Haynes. This was five years before Wimbledon would hold its first championship, in 1877. Gillmeister reveals that Leamington Lawn Tennis Club held an annual tournament from 1874, as evidenced by a printed set of tournament rules dated for that year – two copies of which are extant. It’s even possible that the tournament could be traced back to 1872 – the year of the club’s inception. The tournament was played at Leamington Lawn Tennis Club itself (on the lawns of the Manor House), in the Jephson Gardens and on the lawns of several other large properties in and around the town, including Shrubland Hall and Heathcote. Make no mistake: it was a big event: Leamington-born tennis hero Ernest Renshaw graced the Leamington tournament for several years – and comments in the annals of the All England club observe that in some years, the quality and quantity of the ‘field’ was affected by the competing tournament in Leamington Spa. Although the All England event would eventually rise to primacy, the Leamington tournament persisted until the Second World War. (nb: I was born in 1967 and clearly recall daisies growing where the tennis court line markings had once been on the Jephson Garden’s lawns. The lines would have been marked out with lime – and daisies grow well in lime-rich soil.) Harry Gem: actor, artist, composer, cartoonist, poet and player – a man who once ran from Birmingham to Warwick (21 miles) in under three and a half hours – passed away aged 62, on Nov 4 1881. He steadfastly refused to take the credit for the creation of lawn tennis – citing always his friend Perera as the man who conceived their game. Buried in the heart of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, at Warstone Lane cemetery, his grave location unknown. On May 2, 2013 Gem’s memorial stone was discovered intact, cleared and cleaned by trustees of the Harry Gem Project – a charity dedicated to promoting Gem’s contribution. Augurio Perera left Leamington in 1884, three years after the death of his friend; it would appear that nothing is known of what then became of him.
Haven Pell, September 11, 2020 at 9:53 am said:
What a lovely account, especially the daisies. Since this will be a chapter in the book scheduled for Christmas 2021, it seems appropriate to include the points you made as well. Thank you.
Roy Raven, September 11, 2020 at 10:04 am said:
You’re very gracious, Haven. Thank you.
Haven Pell, November 03, 2022 at 4:17 am said:
Jonathan Fisher, a member of Hatfield House, provided this narrative on November 2, 2022, on the occasion of the opening of Westwood Court Tennis. Clearly, it differs from the narrative above.
First game of lawn tennis at Hatfield House
In 1868 or thereabouts, Lord Salisbury wished to play real tennis on his court at Hatfield House. On being told that Lady Salisbury had already booked the court then, he told Charles Lambert – the real tennis professional at Hatfield House – to make up an alternative suitable game for Lady Salisbury and her friends.
Consequently, with his brother, George Lambert who was real tennis professional at Lord’s and was staying with him at the time, they devised a game of ‘lawn’ tennis for the ladies to play on the lawn at Hatfield House. They hooked up a real tennis net on the lawn, provided real tennis rackets and balls, devised rules and taught the ladies to play. This shows the considerable enthusiasm and inventiveness of the real tennis professionals at Hatfield House which continues to this day.
This event was probably not the actual origins of lawn tennis which possibly started before then – perhaps in about 1859, when Augurio Perera (who played rackets at Birmingham) devised a game on his lawn in Edgbaston which combined elements of rackets and the Basque game pelota. Perera subsequently developed this game of lawn tennis with Thomas Henry Gem at Leamington where they established the world’s first lawn tennis club in 1872.
While Charles and George Lambert’s interesting initiative at Hatfield House might not have been the actual origins of “lawn” tennis, they still played a major part in its development. It was followed by lawn tennis being played on the lawn outside the real tennis court at Lord’s. The MCC set up a Lawn Tennis Sub-Committee to form rules for this game at Lord’s.
Moreover, when the rules of lawn tennis were formally instituted for the Wimbledon Championship in 1877, they included the traditional real tennis scoring of 15, 30, 40 and game – based on a clock’s 4 quarter hours – which presumably Charles and George Lambert used for their game at Hatfield House; rather than the up to 15 individual points scoring which Perera used for his original game from his rackets background. 60 was for centuries a magic number; which is demonstrated by the fact that the French have had to invent special words for 70, 80, and 90.
22 March 2018