Wimbledon 2016: Origins and history of the Tennis Championships

Novak Djokovic will aim to defend his Wimbledon crown this year, but just how much has The All England Club changed since the first Championships were played in 1877?

Wimbledon 2016: Origins and history of the Tennis Championships
Wimbledon's Centre Court which earned its name due to being in the centre of the surrounding courts at the original venue on Worple Road | photo: Getty images

The Wimbledon Championships, one of the four major tennis grand slams, will commence on Monday 27 June. The highly prestigious tournament is the oldest, and arguably the most famous, tennis competition in the world. The most renowned names in the sport will grace the lush green grass-courts over the next two weeks, while almost two hundred thousand people from all over the world will walk through the entrance as spectators.

However, the championships - formed 139 years ago – are certainly not what they once were. The evolution has always maintained a few permanent principles, but the general organisation and fanfare would be almost unrecognisable for the average viewer of the modern version of the championships.

How were the Championships formed?

The All England Club in Wimbledon had originally been called the All England Croquet Club when it opened in 1869 due to people using the grounds to play the very popular sport, Croquet. However, as the new game of lawn tennis began to grow in popularity at the end of the nineteenth century, the club decided to provide tennis courts for its Croquet members. Due to this change, the Club was officially renamed as the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis club in April 1877.

The championships many people are familiar with watching today has five major tournaments, including singles and doubles for the men and women, youth singles, as well as invitational and wheelchair competitions. However, when the championships were first devised, only men’s singles were contested as women were not allowed to compete until 1877.

The first-ever Wimbledon champion was 27-year-old Spencer William Gore, who won the competition contested by 22 male participants. The final is believed to have been played in front of a crowd of 200 spectators, a vast difference from the 15,000 who will watch the 2016 final at Centre Court. Gore beat his opponent, William Marshall, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 in a match which lasted only 48 minutes.

How has the game evolved since Gore won in 1877?

Lawn tennis was still very basic in its early days; players wore poor clothing, equipment was handmade and the players' stroke technique was far less accurate than that of the modern day. Professional players, rather surprisingly, did not compete at a Wimbledon tournament until 1968.

Many of the rules are still similar, however, and some of the only differences include the height of the net and the court dimensions – which were slightly smaller than the ones used today.

Technology has also evolved, exemplified by the introduction of Hawk-Eye, which is a system that uses several cameras that follow the movement of the ball and confirm whether the ball landed in or out of the court. Players are allowed three 'challenges' during each set of a match to contest a line judge's decision - this is when Hawk-eye is used. 

Andy Murray turns away as Hawk-Eye is used to contest a decision | Photo: Getty images
Andy Murray turns away as Hawk-Eye is used to contest a decision | Photo: Getty images

Following the end of the Second World War – when no tournaments were held at Wimbledon – the original site of the championships on Worple Road, a rented piece of land, was moved to the much larger site on Church Road, where it continues to be played to this very day. Just over a decade later, the 1967 tournament became the first event to be broadcast in colour.

The winners of the tournament have been presented with a trophy ever since the championships were formed, although prize money was not introduced until the professionals were allowed to play in 1968.  in 1886, the All England Club decided that future winners would receive replica trophies whilst the original pieces of silverware were housed in the Wimbledon museum.

The men’s singles winners receive a silver cup engraved with the words "The All England Lawn Tennis Club Single Handed Champion of the World" and inscribed with the name of winners dating back to Gore’s win in 1877. In 2009, when there was no more room for the names of future Wimbledon Champions, so a black plinth adorned with a silver band was incorporated so that more names could be engraved.

The ladies' singles winners receive a silver salver plate, more commonly known as the 'Rosewater Dish', which was first introduced in 1886, and for each of the doubles tournaments a silver challenge cup is presented to the winners.

2016 will be the ninth year that men and women receive exactly the same amount of prize money, although the other three grand slams all had this in place before.

Wimbledon traditions

The accepted outfit of choice for Wimbledon competitors in the nineteenth century was plain white long-sleeved shirts and trousers for men and full-length white dresses and hats for women. It was not until the 1920s and 1930s that the players, and particularly the female players, began to experiment with their clothing. Shorter skirts, shorts and sleeveless tops were all introduced to provide ease of movement and a sense of individuality to each player. 

Although much has changed since the Wimbledon Championships were first introduced in 1887, today when we think of Wimbledon there are a number of traditional images that still spring to mind. The well-renowned food choice for spectators, strawberries and cream, the white dress code which is still a requirement, or the strong ties with the Royal family to name but a few. All of which combined continue to preserve Wimbledon’s place both in British heritage and at the forefront of the tennis world.