While tennis itself is perhaps not the most English of all sports, the oldest tennis tournament in the world, Wimbeldon, is iconic, again bringing a large number of players, tennis enthusiasts and spectators from all around the world to England. This year is, in fact, the 125th time that the All England Lawn Tennis Club hosts the championships, the first having been held in 1877. It was in the late 19th century that tennis emerged as a more professionalised sport, with its popularity growing steadily in England and abroad.
Lawn tennis was first commercialised in England in 1873 by British Army Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, and other Army personnel then spread the game further afield, including to Bermuda. It was from there that lawn tennis found its way to the United States in 1874, when Mary Outerbridge brought the game with her to Staten Island. Outerbridge was also the organiser of the first national tennis tournament on Staten Island in 1880: tennis had become popular in the United States quickly. As reported in the New York Times for instance, ‘the growing popularity … is indicated by the fact that since the present season opened more than 10,000 tennis sets have been sold in this City.’
The first national American tournament in 1880 took place on a somewhat makeshift tennis court at Camp Washington, Staten Island Cricket Club. ‘The greensward’, described a New York Times reporter, ‘was covered with diagrams … for the games of lawn-tennis. Long nets, looking like seines, were stretched between posts at different points in the field. the boundary fences had received fresh coats of white-wash, and camp-stools for spectators were placed in rows on either side of the several tennis courts.’ It was perceived, by some, as a bit of disgrace that the American players did not perform too well at the tournament. Eventually, ‘the handsome silver cup presented for competition by the Staten Island Cricket Club was awarded to O.E. Woodhouse, of the West Middlesex Lawn-tennis Club, of London, England.’ Luck was not on the side of the American players on English turf in 1905 either, when, at the Davis Cup match at Wimbledon, the American team was beaten by the English—though a New York Times correspondent did not fail to note that ‘although the American representatives … were beaten in the singles, they succeeded in making English hearts quake in the earlier rounds of both games.’ Whoever wins Wimbledon this year, there clearly is a strong ‘tennis connection’ between England and North America. Let’s see if Tesco’s special Wimbledon strawberry and clotted cream sandwich also makes its way overseas …
What the tennis story highlights in any case is that sport is an important carrier of culture, and, therefore, an aspect of English Diaspora history that our project will explore further to demonstrate connections between the sporting pursuits of Americans, Canadians and the English.