Back in the mists of time, the green meadows of England were the laboratory where all tennis experiments took place. Two inventors, Spencer Gore and Frank Hadow, pushed themselves to bequeath to modern tennis her first “eccentric” shots – one would invent the volley, the other was the father of the lob. It is Wimbledon, 1877, and this is their story.
Chapitre IMonday, July 9, 1887. It is 3:30pm on Worple Road, a near-mythical and bucolic street in Wimbledon, south-east London. The heat is stifling. To the left, fields as far as the eye can see. To the right, magnificent bourgeois houses built a few hundred yards from a railway track. It is here, in the middle of a meadow, that a crowd of curious people, dressed in their Sunday best, watches the first official match in tennis history. At this time, the Sphairistiké (from the Greek: “Art of the ball”) is much closer in appearance to a recreational pastime than to a full-blooded sport. Played in party attire, it is a subtle blend of garden party and elegance contest. It was an exclusively male endeavor, with the participants wearing superb boots, vests and classy trousers. The most sophisticated among them would stand out by their choice of a flat rubber shoe, imported directly from India, the jewel of the Empire. Not without a hint of ridicule – for it does not kill – some would even don a pith helmet of cork of vegetable fiber covered in fabric to guard against the sun’s rays. “This sport was reserved for the landed gentry and not the aristocratic elite. This was the class of people who had houses, open spaces and gardeners who could create the individual courts” says Gilles Destremau, French tennis historian. Finally, the court reflects its participants… exceptionally well mannered. Apart from a few wayward tufts of grass, the carpet of lawn of Wimbledon is the standard-bearer of the surface. “The English are crazy about gardening! They have always had a fondness for extremely well-kept lawns, manicured, perfectly-rolled” notes Gilles Destremau. It was on this occasion that Henry Jones, the tournament director, would review and improve the rules of “his” sport. In 1877, for the first time, the court would no longer be in its old hourglass shape but in the now-familiar rectangle, and played to rules which, with only minor alterations, are still in force today.
From Harry Potter to Dr HouseThe inaugural Wimbledon tournament would take place from the 9th-16th July 1877. A total of 22, mostly English, participants were to meet on the Central Court of the All England Croquet Club, the leading croquet club in town. At stake, a silver cup worth 25 guineas (a guinea being worth 21 shillings). The result of a “popular tennis” says Gilles. “The players would keep it rather than resell it, and certainly would not melt it down. It was a glorious symbol of success”. As for the media, The Times was cautious about the new competition. “You need to go to page 11 to find 8 lines about Wimbledon, at the bottom of a long column dedicated to a rich, detailed account of a cricket match” laughs the journalist Christian Quidet in his book “La Fabuleuse Histoire du Tennis”. That year, only The Fields, a gazette sponsoring the tournament, dedicates more than a few lines to the event. Spread over five days, it suffers in the media spotlight and public interest thanks to the attention given to a cricket match between Eton and Harrow taking place on the weekend of the 12th-14th July. On one side, the alma mater of psychedelic author Aldous Huxley and Hugh Laurie (Dr House). Opposing them, the seat-of-learning of Winston Churchill and Spencer Gore. Who is Spencer Gore? A 27-year old British former cricketer, switching over to tennis, who would go on to become, on the 19th July 1877, the first-ever Wimbledon champion. A symbol.
“A Butterfly Hunter”Spencer Gore crushed his compatriot M. Marshall, who had his roots in jeu de paume, in straight sets in the first final, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4, and with that, his name was on the front page of every newspaper in the country. “Spencer Gore has developed a great style-of-play. He ate up the ground and returned shots which seemed impossible to reach. He used his head.” So wrote The Fields underneath a portrait of the new champion. A portrait which our resident historian completes: “He was one to the first players to be fairly athletic, dynamic, in good physical condition. He looked good and had muscle tone.” In fact, it was his legs, combined with his head, which allowed him to make the discovery of the time, or even of the century. With nearly every shot, he would go in to the net and stay there to “capture” all his opponent’s shots. “Like a butterfly hunter” remarks Christian Quidet, putting into metaphor what nobody understood at the time: This guy has gone and invented the volley. Better yet, the serve-volley! In fact, with a net raised to 1.52m at each end and dropping to 1.21m at the centre, tactical options and the likelihood of a successful passing shot were very limited. However, the ease of his victory soon gave rise to controversy. “I’ve never seen it written but, yes, covering the net as Gore did was considered to be a ‘cheat’, not in the spirit of the game”, recalls Gilles Destremau. “The English were playing a gentle form of the game, not going in for a more brutal vision of how it should be played. The audience wanted to see a tactical game, akin to a ballet: with the courtesy of not crushing your opponent”. In the end, luckily, the tournament committee accepted the volley as a valid stroke for the second edition of the tournament provided that the player did not touch or cross the net. Spencer Gore would not profit from this, however, when he would face in the final a college-friend even smarter than him. Or almost. To be continued…. By Victor Le Grand