- Historic Sites
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
Miss Mary Ewing Outerbridge was unquestionably one of New York’s most respectable young ladies. Her Staten Island family was socially impeccable and correspondingly well-to-do; she was seen in the best places at the right times. It was therefore a considerable shock when the attractive Miss Outerbridge, returning from a holiday in Bermuda in March, 1874, had trouble getting through customs in New York.
Certainly she looked like anything but a smuggler, but in her luggage the inspectors found some curious and unidentifiable objects. There was a long, narrow net that did not seem to be designed for catching fish; there were several implements with long handles and webbed heads. Were they rug beaters? Snowshoes? Butterfly catchers?
Miss Outerbridge explained that these things were the equipment for a new outdoor game called sphairistiké. This was Greek to the inspectors, and it was only because the young lady’s brother, who was travelling with her, had connections in the shipping business that they were persuaded to pass her without further ado.
A few weeks later, passengers on boats sailing past the grounds of the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club were puzzled to observe a game being played on the fresh spring grass that was clearly neither cricket nor baseball. Across a net hung between two posts, gentlemen and—yes, ladies! —were hitting a bouncing rubber ball with some sort of bat, running hither and thither with little cries of exhilaration.
Tennis had come to America.
The immigration of what is today one of America’s favorite warm-weather sports occurred almost simultaneously with its birth. It was only in February, 1874, that Major Walter C. Wingficld, a British ofHccr and sportsman, had applied for a patent on “a new and improved portable court for playing the ancient game of tennis.” The truth was and Major Wingfield claimed as much—that the new “portable court’ constituted a new game. The “ancient game, which was and is called court tennis, is an indoor affair with complicated rules deriving from the fact that the ball can bounce off all four walls plus the ceiling and still be in play. It goes back some five hundred years, and there are familiar allusions to it in Shakespeare. Major Wingfield’s game, which he first introduced to liven up a house party in Wales in 1873, was far simpler. All it required was a level expanse of lawn, a couple of posts and a net, and rackets to hit the ball with. It was, in short, much like badminton, which also appeared about 1873, with the important difference that in lawn tennis a rubber ball was used instead of a feathered “bird.” This made for a more energetic contest, which was what the major was after.
It is a tribute to the intrinsic appeal of tennis that it caught on despite the name with which Major Wingficld first encumbered it. A classical scholar to the extent that became a gentleman, he based its name, sphairistikc, on a Greek word that means “ball-playing.” Arcane nomenclature may have helped convince the proper authorities that he had something patentable, but for a popular game this was, as various wits remarked, a bit sticky. “I hear,” wrote one, “that Major Wingfield … intends bringing out an indoor game at Christmas with a Latin name. … The name, I understand, will not exceed ten syllables, and may be easily mastered in six lessons.” Incidentally, badminton took its name from Badminton Manor, where the game was first played in England. As the major’s family were the possessors of Wingfield Manor, it may have been by a narrow miss that tennis was not christened wingfield. In any event, since the new game was clearly descended from court tennis, the nickname lawn tennis was quickly taken up, and sphairistike soon forgotten.
One thing that did seem to be a kind of subliminal tribute to Major Wingfield’s family name was the shape of his original court, for it was in fact wing-shaped that is, narrow at the net and wide at the two base lines. There was no evident advantage to this. The net was high and sagging, ranging from seven feet at the posts to four feet eight inches at the middle. Since the court was just sixty feet long, it is obvious that the only way to get a ball over the net and still keep it within the lines was to pop it up in a gentle parabola. Even at the net’s low point anything distantly related to a drive carried the ball across the base line and out. It is thus not surprising that lawn tennis at first was looked upon as something of a lady’s game, or at best a diversion for mixed company that would not derange a lady s costume or composure. Its evolution into the fast and gruelling competition that is seen at any modern championship match was, however, rather rapid.
By the time the first All-England championship matches were held at Wimbledon in 1877, the court had become a sensible rectangle with the same dimensions it has today: seventy-eight by twenty-seven feet for the singles game. The net was now down to five feet at the posts and three feet three inches in the middle. These changes apparently were arrived at by judicious trial and copious error, the end in view being always a livelier game.