British Origins. Tennis was one of the sports enjoyed mainly by the social elite and to a lesser degree by the middle class in late-nineteenth-century America. Although the origins of tennis can be traced to fourteenth-century France, the game, as was played in the nineteenth-century United States, developed in England during the 1870s. Maj. Walter Clopton Wingfield, a retired British army officer, developed the game, which was played on an hourglass-shaped grass court, and copyrighted the rules in 1873. Members of the All-England Croquet Club began playing tennis in 1874 on the croquet lawns, calling the game “lawn tennis.” That year the club became known as the All-England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club and one of its members, Julian Marshall, revised the rules of the game and had them published by the ? G. Heathcote publishing company. Marshall also promoted the new rules through The Field, the leading sports journal in Britain. John Moyer Heathcote developed a new ball for the game made of vulcanized rubber covered with white flannel. In 1877 the All-England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club sponsored its first national tennis tournament.
American Beginnings. Although the first recorded tennis game in the United States occurred on 8 October 1874 at Camp Apache, near Tucson, Arizona, Mary Ewing Outerbridge, a New York socialite, is generally credited with introducing the game to the United States. In 1874, during her annual winter vacation in Bermuda, she observed British army officers hitting a rubber ball over a net stretched across a freshly mowed lawn with catgut-strung rackets. She purchased a box of tennis equipment and brought it back to the United States. Eugenius Outerbridge, brother of Mary and director of the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club, set up a tennis court in the corner of a cricket field. For nearly a year the Outerbridge family played tennis before other club members became interested in the game. As more members of the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club began playing tennis, the club devoted one day a week to the game.
Early Tournament Play. The first tennis tournament in the United States had fifteen players and was played at Nahant, Massachusetts, in 1876. William Appleton, James Dwight, and Fred R. Sears organized the event. Dwight and Sears met in the finals, with Dwight winning three sets to none. In 1880 the Outerbridge family held a tournament at Staten Island, which featured American and British players. The singles match was won by O. E. Woodson of Great Britain. The Americans and the English disagreed over the size of the ball used by the Staten Island Club. Dwight and Sears, who lost in second round of the doubles, disliked the ball as it differed from that used in New England. Disagreement over the ball led Dwight, a wealthy Bostonian, to organize a meeting of the leaders of tennis clubs from Philadelphia and New York to standardise tennis play in the United States. This meeting, held 21 May 1881 in New York, led to the formation of the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA). The USLTA, an amateur organization, adopted the rules developed by the All-England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club. The first president of the organization was Robert Oliver of the Albany Tennis Club. In late 1881 the USLTA held its first men’s singles and doubles national championship at Newport, Rhode Island. Richard D. Sears won the first of seven consecutive men’s singles titles that year.
Influence of Dwight. Dwight, who served as president of the USLTA from 1882 to 1884 and 1893 to 1911, is recognized as the “father of American tennis” for his efforts to standardize the game’s rules and equipment. Dwight also promoted competition between the United States and Great Britain. Younger players dominated tennis in the United States, while older players dominated the game in Britain. In the early years of Anglo-American competition, the aggressive play of the Americans was blunted by the skill and cunning of the older British players. In 1883 Dwight and Sears played the Clark brothers of Philadelphia for the right to play the Renshaw brothers, the top doubles team of Britain. After defeating Dwight and Sears, the Clarks were defeated by the Renshaws in England. In that same year Dwight, the second-best singles player in the United States, went overseas to play the best English singles players. Although he was beaten by Willie Renshaw, Dwight remained in England to hone his skills. Dwight’s promotion of international play, especially between the United States and Britain, set the stage for the Davis Cup tournaments that would start in 1900.
Popularization of the Game. Tennis became very popular in the United States during the 1880s, but declined during the 1890s. Beginning with thirty-four clubs in 1881, the USLTA increased to seventy-five in 1890. Clubs in specific geographical regions formed separate tennis associations, and the USLTA granted these entire associations membership rather than run the risk of the organization of a separate association that would challenge the USLTA for supremacy in the sport. In 1895, 106 clubs and 10 associations belonged to the USLTA. However, a drop in membership occurred in the late 1890s, and by 1902 the total number of clubs and associations affiliated with the USLTA totaled forty-four. One reason for the decline in tennis clubs was the rise of golf during the 1890s; however, once interest in golf settled down, the USLTA realized that the two sports were compatible, especially in the country club setting, where the upper and upper middle classes enjoyed both activities. Many new golf clubs added tennis courts to their facilities and then became members of the USLTA. The middle and lower classes enjoyed the game. Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, New York, had more than one hundred clubs using its facilities by the turn of the century.
Women. Tennis was a popular game for women during the late nineteenth century, and the USLTA held the first women’s singles championship in 1887, with Ellen F. Hansell claiming the title. Bertha L. Townsend became the first two-time singles champion in 1888 and 1889. Juliette P. Atkinson ranked as the top woman of the 1890s, winning the singles title in 1895, 1897, and 1898. An outstanding doubles player as well, Atkinson combined for the doubles championship with Helen R. Helwig (1894-1895), Elisabeth H. Moore (1896), Kathleen Atkinson (1897-1898), Myrtle McAteer (1901), and Marion Jones (1902). The USLTA introduced mixed doubles competition, teams of men and women, in 1892. The first champions were Mabel E. Cahill and Clarence Hobart. From 1894 to 1896 Juliette P. Atkinson, the top female player of the 1890s, teamed with Edwin P. Fischer for the doubles title.
E. Digby Baltzeil, Sporting Gentlemen: Mens Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar (New York: Free Press, 1995);
Allison Danzig and Peter Schwed, eds., The Fireside Book of Tennis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972);
Will Grimsley, Tennis: Its History, People and Events (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971).
J. A. Cannon