How Wimbledon got its start
A look back at the early days of one of the world’s most beloved sporting affairs
Wimbledon is the oldest, most prestigious international tennis tournament in the world, with The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club hosting its first tennis tourney all the way back in 1877.
Wimbledon 1879. | (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
As the club's name suggests, it was the game of croquet that originally drew nearby suburbanites to the lush four-acre meadowland. But in the 1870s, a new sport was quickly captivating British socialites. Tennis, a game famously beloved by royals, had been around for centuries. Its origins date back to 5th century Italian hand ball. But it was typically played on an enclosed court, and now, it had moved to the grass.
In 1877, The All England Club placed an advertisement in a local magazine, declaring: "The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon, propose to hold a lawn tennis meeting open to all amateurs, on Monday, July 9, and following days. Entrance fee, one pound, one shilling."
Just 21 players — all men — showed up for that very first Wimbledon competition, which was attended by about 200 spectators.
The first Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship meeting at the Warpole Road ground in July 1877. | (Keystone/Getty Images)
Traditionally, different hosts or regions played tennis according to their own game guidelines, but the All England Club established a set of formal rules.
As tennis began to eclipse croquet in popularity, the Wimbledon event became an annual affair, and the new rules prevailed across the sport. Modern tennis as we know it was born.
Seven-time men's singles champion William Renshaw (left) plays for his first title in Wimbledon 1881. | (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Facing pressure from fans and athletes alike, the club introduced the Ladies' Championship in 1884 — though the women could only compete after the men's games had finished, and their prizes were worth just a fraction of their male counterparts' (a truth that wasn't corrected until 2007).
Despite the second-class treatment, many women — some as young as 15 — took to the court, earning reputations as skilled competitors.
A late Victorian tennis outfit, featuring a long skirt, lace collar, frilled hat, and a corset underneath. | (London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images)
British player Dorothea Lambert-Chambers, seven-time ladies' singles champion at Wimbledon, and 1908 Olympic gold medal winner in women's singles tennis, playing at Wimbledon in 1914. | (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Spanish star player Lili De Alvarez at Wimbledon in 1926. | (G. Adams/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Many trademark tennis moves used by the pros — like the overarm serve and lob shot — weren't invented until the turn of the 20th century. The equipment was still extremely basic and often handmade well into the early 1900s, and the clothes, especially for women, were a far cry from the sleek, water-wicking outfits of today. In the 1880s and 1890s, women wore their street clothes, which often included corsets, petticoats, and voluminous skirts. But at least one sartorial element is the same as today — "tennis whites" were mandated by Wimbledon in 1890.
Notably, during the first few decades of the tournament, competitions were open only to "amateur" players, referring to people who were not being paid to play. "To the elite running exclusive country clubs of the day, sport wasn't sport unless it was played purely in one's spare time," Smithsonian explains.
Fashionable spectators at Wimbledon in 1914. | (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
A woman sitting in the tea enclosure at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships in 1914. | (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Crowds line up outside the gates of Wimbledon to see the men's singles finals match between Fred Perry and Gottfried Von Cramm in 1936. Britain's Perry defeated the German player. | (Fox Photos/Getty Images)
But the classy flare and festivities associated with Wimbledon today had already begun to show themselves by the turn of the century: outdoor tea parties attended by fashionable trendsetters, long lines of people waiting outside the field entrances, and of course, visits from British royalty. Players came from overseas to compete, and thousands of visitors flocked to London to watch the tournaments.
King George V opens Wimbledon's Jubilee Tennis Championships in June 1926. French star player Suzanne Lenglen kneels before the royal consort Queen Mary. | (Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
British player Fred Perry during his winning David Cup match in 1934. | (H F Davis/Getty Images)
In 1967, Wimbledon became the first sporting event to be broadcast in color, bringing the exhilarating matches and roaring crowds to audiences all over Britain.
The following year, Wimbledon hosted its first Open tournament as part of the tennis Grand Slam matches, finally welcoming professional players alongside the seasoned "amateurs." Legendary players Rod Laver and Billie Jean King triumphed in their respective singles tournaments that year.
As competition grew among the athletes, so did Wimbledon's popularity, making it the adored sports extravaganza we know today.
Althea Gibson, the first black woman to win a Wimbledon championship, in 1957, competes at Wimbledon in 1956. | (Central Press/Getty Images)
American tennis star Billie Jean King during the women's singles championships in 1967. | (AP Photo)
Australian player John Newcombe plays against fellow Australian Rod Laver at Wimbledon 1969. | (Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)