- Historic Sites
The Tennis Racket
How a Courtly Game Became Big Business
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
Essentially his invention was to hit a handball with a tennis racquet over a badminton net. He gave his new creation the unwieldy name of “Sphairistiké” after an ancient Greek game with a similar title, and in 1874 he secured a patent for the manufacture and sale of Sphairistiké equipment to the gentry for their rustic amusement at five guineas per set. The following year Wingfield proudly announced his game had been purchased by no fewer than eleven princes and princesses, seven dukes, fourteen marquises, three marchionesses, fifty-four earls, six countesses, one hundred and five viscounts, forty-one barons, forty-four ladies, forty-four honourables, five right honourables, and fifty-five assorted baronets and knights. The major’s creation did not turn out to be quite the financial bonanza he was looking for. His patent only held for three years, and besides, players soon realized it was not necessary to give the major a royalty just for erecting a net on a piece of greensward and bouncing a ball over it. But the outlines of lawn tennis as we know it today had been laid out. The game quickly made its way to America. Sometime in 1874 Mary Ewing Outerbridge saw a match being played at the British garrison in Bermuda and brought home a set to be erected on the grounds of the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club. The British import caused some confusion at first. A court was established the same year at the home of William Appleton in Nahant, outside of Boston, and neighbors, seeing a match in progress, thought they were watching cricket. But Americans soon got the game sorted out, and just a century ago, in 1881, the first national championship was held on the manicured grounds of the Newport Casino.
For the next forty years, lawn tennis existed in the rarefied atmosphere of club sport. It was rattling good exercise for gentlemen and a pleasant outdoor diversion for ladies.
The quiescence of tennis was dramatically shattered in the years immediately following the Great War by the force of the personalities of two of the greatest figures in the history of the game.
Almost every still photograph of Suzanne K. Lenglen shows her to have been a women of surpassing ugliness. Almost every written contemporary account, however, rhapsodizes about her Gallic charm, her physical radiance, her ballerina-like grace. The apparent confusion may say something about the ability of some women to will themselves to be beautiful, but about Lenglen’s brilliance on the tennis court there is no question. She is routinely ranked with America’s Helen Wills Moody as one of the two finest women tennis players in history. Lenglen was the supreme shot maker. She learned the art of placement from her martinet father who laid out handkerchiefs on a court for her to aim at.
Lenglen burst upon the international scene at Wimbledon in 1919, a vivacious twenty-year-old from France who had never seen a grass court before. Nonetheless, she stormed through the tournament draw and routed the defending champion, Mrs. Lambert Chambers, 10–8, 4–6, 9–7, in a match that is still considered one of the epic contests in women’s tennis. Playing in a Parisian frock fetchingly cut below the knee, Lenglen was a sensation and made center court at Wimbledon her personal property. People who had never seen a world-class tennis match before jammed into the grandstands to watch the Incomparable Suzanne perform, and she rewarded them with a display of extended tennis perfection never known before. She won the Wimbledon title for the next four consecutive years, never losing a set in the finals, and only once losing as many as three games in any set. She withdrew from the 1924 competition but returned in 1925 to triumph once more, losing only five games in all five matches. A stormy and tempestuous performer, Miss Lenglen walked out of the 1926 Wimbledon tournament over a misunderstanding about her starting time and quit amateur tennis forever. She signed on with American sports promoter C. C. (“Cash and Carry”) Pyle, who had figured ways to make money out of everything from a six-day bicycle race to the then fledgling game of professional football. The details of the tour are sketchy, but apparently it was financially rewarding to Miss Lenglen. More important, the American sporting public got their first long look at a tennis star who could be recognized beyond the narrow confines of the current tennis world.
With the possible exception of John L. Sullivan in the late nineteeth century, no athlete had ever ruled over his sport as supremely as did Bill Tilden. He won the men’s singles at Wimbledon in 1920, and for the next six years, until a knee injury cost him a match against Rene LaCoste, Tilden did not lose a match of any importance anywhere in the world. His string included both Wimbledon championships he entered, six U.S. singles titles, and fifteen consecutive Davis Cup matches. In America the saying went, “Tilden and tennis,” and it was no mistake that Tilden’s name came first. If Yankee Stadium was the “House that Ruth built,” the grandstand at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills was the “House that Tilden built.” The stadium was erected in 1924 at a cost of a quarter of a million dollars specifically to hold the crowds who wanted to see Tilden play.