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Wimbledon: Possibly the most famous British suburb in the world

June 2017

Summer in Britain is a lovely time and there are a few well known events that make it extra special.

One of these is Wimbledon. You don’t have to be a sports enthusiast to associate this suburb in south London with tennis…the Wimbledon Championships are well known the world over and mark the peak in the list of annual top tennis tournaments.

Even international competitors say they especially love Wimbledon with its sedate and charming atmosphere, highlighted with Pimm’s and strawberries and the beautiful grounds.

Many people believe that tennis was a British invention, but in fact this is not the case.  Some Arabic descriptions suggest a game involving racquets was taking place as early as the ancient Egyptians. Certainly the word racquet is thought to have evolved from the Arabic word for palm…rahat.

Then there was a game involving hitting a ball off walls, albeit with hands, that was played by 12th century monks in France. The balls in these times were often made of a wad of hair, wool or cork wrapped in string or cloth or sometimes even leather. Either way it was fairly hard on the hands, and by the 1500s a wooden frame racquet strung with sheep cut was being used to hit the balls.

This was the game that evolved into indoor courts and what we now know as “Real Tennis”. It became popular with certain members of the aristocracy including Henry VII and Henry VIII, and there is one of these early real tennis courts, built in 1625 at Hampton Court, that is still in use today.

Really though it was the invention of rubber and subsequently rubber balls by Charles Goodyear in the 1850s that started the development of the modern game.  People started experimenting with different ball and racquet games, and it was found that rubber balls bounce well outdoors on grass courts.

Croquet was hugely popular in the late 19th century and smooth grass croquet courts proved popular for people who wanted to have fun with racquets and a bouncing rubber ball.

In 1868 six gentleman got together and formed the All England Croquet Club, holding its first tournament at a lovely croquet lawn in Wimbledon. This steadily grew in popularity.

In 1874 Major Walter C Wingfield saw a way to make some money, and patented a New and Improved Court for Playing the Ancient Game of Tennis. He started marketing the game the same year, selling “tennis” set of rubber balls, net, poles, court markers, rackets and instructions. At this time, his idea was an hour glass shaped court and the net was higher than today, 4 feet, 8 inches.

His game and indeed his tennis sets became popular quickly, and to join in the trend, the All England Croquet Club changed its name to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club and one lawn was set aside for the game. In 1877 the club committee came up with the rectangular court and the set of rules that are pretty well still used today. Their first “Wimbledon” tournament was held the same year.

Wimbledon ChampionshipsThere were rivals, including the Leamington Tennis Club which was set up by two doctors in 1874. But ten years later Wimbledon organised not only a major singles championships but also included ladies’ singles and gentlemen’s doubles events and the location became recognised as the centre for tennis in England. This was enhanced by the 1908 summer Olympics, when tennis events were held on the grass courts at Wimbledon.

Last year nearly 500,000 people visited Wimbledon during the course of the tennis tournament, and thousands more watched it on TV across the world.

A century and a half ago, few would have thought this little known suburb in south London would become quite so famous!

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