Winning Wimbledon

The first Wimbledon tennis tournament began on this day in 1877, with twenty-one entrants in Gentlemen’s Singles play, the only category, competing for the silver cup and twelve guineas in prize money (about $1,200 today). The class-conscious All England Tennis Club required that all competitors be amateurs, as the term was then socially defined:

Its semantic opposite was professional.… Craftsmen, petty shopkeepers, workers and servants went by the name of professional. They were normally excluded from membership in amateur clubs. Those, however, who, in the eyes of society, had acquired the status of a gentleman amateur, could earn as much money as they wanted to, and even by practicing a sport. (From Heiner GillMeister’s Tennis: A Cultural History)

The first Wimbledon was gentlemanly in all respects, given the underhand serves, undercut returns, and finesse game tactics. But in the 1880s the Renshaw brothers perfected, at their private court on the French Riviera, overhead serves and square-on forehands. Decried by opponents as “nothing but brute force and ignorance,” the “Renshaw Smash” took the kid gloves off the men’s game; the ladies suffered through their constraints — long dresses and tight corsets, the imposed decorum of “pat-ball” — for years longer.

Turning to High Strung (2011), Stephen Tignor’s account of the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe rivalry, can feel as if lobbed not just a century ahead but to a planet apart. Tignor’s book begins in 1980 with the first Wimbledon meeting between “Teen Angel” and “McNasty,” the five-set match regarded as one of the greatest in the history of the sport and a mirror to its time:

In the minds of most tennis fans, when Bjorn Borg took his first rolling, measured strides onto Centre Court for the 1980 Wimbledon final, he might have been stepping down from the clouds. The myth of the divine Swede had been growing in London since 1973, when he’d made his debut as a 17-year-old. That year, Borg’s wavy blond hair and shy, smooth-cheeked smile earned him the nickname Teen Angel. They also earned him the attention of hordes of shrieking, hopping, giggling, weeping, and uncontrollably aggressive English schoolgirls. After his first match, 300 of them attacked Borg and dragged him to the ground. Thus began a phenomenon previously unseen on the lawns of the All England Club, one that would take a variety of forms over the ensuing years: the “Borgasm.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.