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Introduced not quite a century ago under a name born for oblivion, the game itself promises to last forever
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
In baseball the harder a man can clout the ball the better; and if he knocks it out of the stadium, he has a home run. In hockey a hard-slung puck is usually prevented from going out by the sides of the rink. In football, soccer, and basketball, a ball projected out of the playing area temporarily halts the game but does not change the score. In tennis, if you hit the ball out, your opponent gets a point. Yet the subtle balance between net height and length of the court means that you can hit the ball with all your strength and still see it fall inside the lines—if you have the skill to hit it correctly. A ball with an off-the-racket velocity of a hundred miles per hour, struck from one base line at a height of just over four feet and with an initially level trajectory, will skim the net and strike the ground about a half second later, well within the court on the other side. Few, even among the experts, have the power and control to make such a shot consistently. But the game has a beautiful self-adjusting character. The more gently the ball is hit, the more generously it can be allowed to soar above the net with plenty of margin for error and still no danger of its going out. Serious beginners are almost automatically accommodated, yet reckless incompetence is severely penalized.
As the years went by, the peculiar ballistics of tennis led the top players to startling new ploys. The first British champion, Spencer W. Gore, discovered that if he moved up close to the net, he could dispose of the ball as it came over and before it could hit the ground. In other words, he discovered the volley. This was regarded as ungenteel by some players, notably those whom Gore had beaten; but a close search of the rules turned up nothing against it. The countervailing weapon was soon introduced: the controlled pop-up, or lob, which sailed neatly over the volleyer’s head to land near the base line. Then a fierce competitor named William Renshaw—another Englishman—learned to run back under a lob and hit it on the way down, like a serve, thus producing an ungettable shot known admiringly as a Renshaw smash. Renshaw fought a series of verbal and court duels with another ranking player, H. F. Lawford, who had developed an enormously powerful drive and who disdained the volley. For a while, that is. As a commentator observed in 1885, Lawford finally came over to the volley game himself, “finding that Mr. W. Renshaw invariably beat him.”
The volley had come to stay, but its use among the better male players unfortunately widened the gender gap and turned mixed doubles into a game avoided by anyone who played tennis seriously. It was simply taken for granted that ladies had neither the wit, the strength, nor the agility to volley, and the instruction manuals of the 80’s and go’s are full of admonitions to the effect that, as Dick Scars put it, “the volley game is not made for ladies.” “With a few exceptions,” declared a book on lawn tennis in 1885, “ladies never seem to know where the ball is going.”
Part of the problem, as Sears gallantly recognized, was not innate inferiority but feminine styles of dress. Right to the end of the century, few ladies ventured out upon the court in anything but lawn-sweeping skirts, and hats were de rigueur . Sears hopefully recommended short skirts—that is, just above the ankle—and “a nice small hat” rather than “a great big hat that waggles about,” but apparently it never occurred to him, or to anyone else, that such superficial adjustments could do much to offset what was assumed to be a natural deficiency. Ladies habitually served underhand until well after 1900, and anyone who broke that custom could expect to be regarded as a hussy.
Tennis dress for men started out on the casual side, and early pictures show a broad variety—knickers, tam’o-shanters, long trousers of varied hues, colorful cravats, and bright blazers. Gradually, white became the favored color, and by the go’s fashionable players were seldom seen on the court in anything else. The regulation costume of long white trousers and a white shirt was to prevail for nearly a half century, giving way finally —in the igßo’s—to the more practical shorts only after a considerable struggle between the innovators and the critics, who felt that the Lord clearly meant calves, knees, and thighs to remain covered on tennis courts. (Nobody has yet dared to appear in an important public match stripped to the waist, although the nature of the game would seem to make that as appropriate for tennis as it is for swimming or boxing.)
Despite the fact that the official name of the game has never changed from lawn tennis, good grass courts have always been scarce, and only a tiny percentage of players have ever played on one. Such a court is devilishly difficult to establish and maintain, and the advantages of less pleasant alternatives—clay, asphalt, and concrete—became obvious before the game was ten years old. In California, where the sport began to be highly popular around the turn of the century, concrete for some reason was the preferred material; elsewhere clay was the more usual substitute for grass. The last decade or so has seen increasing use of rubber or plastic composition.