What Happened in Tennis 100 Years AND 50 Years Ago?
Photographs of the era show how starkly different the game of tennis was a hundred years ago. Rickety wooden racquets, long trousers and long shirts for men, long dresses for women and the ubiquity of grass courts, were all features of the game in 1911.
Even fifty years ago, the game was a very different animal. It was the era of the amateur game when professionals were not permitted to play in the same tournaments alongside amateurs, depriving the fans at Wimbledon, Roland Garros, Forest Hills and Kooyong of some of the best talent in the world. Professionals (seen by the tennis establishment as pariahs) instead went on exhibition match tours rather like travelling circus animals. It is hard to imagine that Open Tennis only began in 1968. In 1961, wooden racquets were still in vogue, there were no chairs to sit on at change of ends, an innovation like ‘Hawkeye’ would have been seen as science fiction and players very rarely questioned the decisions of umpires. Both 1911 and 1961 were hugely different worlds from today. From the vantage point of 2011, it’s interesting to look back at what was going on in those eras, both in tennis and in the wider world.
The year 1911 has been overshadowed somewhat by what happened three years later with the outbreak of the First World War. However, the year did see the Antarctic expedition of Roald Amundsen reach the South Pole. The Mexican Revolution began in 1911 and Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. It was the year that the Official Secrets Act was introduced out of fear that naval secrets would fall into the hands of the burgeoning German Navy. Ronald Reagan, actor and politician, was also born in 1911.
As far as tennis is concerned, it was the year in which two of the greatest players of the 1930’s were born, the Americans, Ellsworth Vines and Sidney Wood.
Vines, one of the great players of his era, won Wimbledon in 1931 and the US Championships of 1931 and 1932. He turned pro in 1934 and retained the title of world’s top professional until 1939 when the great Donald Budge asserted his dominance.
Wood held the distinction of having been the youngest competitor to play at Wimbledon up until that time, when in 1927, he played in the Championships at the tender age at 15 years and 231 days. He was also the only Singles’ champion to have won the Final uncontested when in 1931, his opponent in the Final, Frank Shields, could not play due to an ankle injury.
1911 also saw Australia beat the USA in the Challenge Round of the Davis Cup (in those days the previous year’s winner automatically qualified for the final or ‘Challenge Round’).
It was an era in which British players (men and women) dominated the Championships at Wimbledon, although the USA, Australia and France were becoming major tennis powers on the world stage. In that year, in the Wimbledon Men’s and Ladies Singles, Britain had three of the four finalists. In the Men’s, Anthony Wilding of Australia beat Herbert Roper-Barrett 6-4; 2-6;4-6; 6-2 (ret). In the Ladies’, Dorothea Lambert-Chambers beat Dora Boothby 6-0; 6-0. Many of those whose careers were just getting into gear in 1911 sadly had them cut short by the First World War, something that also affected players around the time of the Second World War.
Fast forward now to 1961. This was the year when a dynamic John F. Kennedy entered office as President of the United States, following the more relaxed Eisenhower Presidency. Also in that year, Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, was the first man in space, Britain made an application (unsuccessfully) to join the European Economic Community and construction of the Berlin Wall began. It was the year when the ‘Beatles’ first performed at the famous ‘Cavern Club’ and when Barack Obama was born. Elsewhere in sport, Tottenham Hotspur became the first team in the twentieth century to win the League and Cup ‘double’ in one season and Arnold Palmer registered another of his popular Open Championships successes, winning by one shot over Dai Rees at Royal Birkdale.
On the tennis front, there was much of interest going on in 1961. Rod Laver was beginning to consolidate his position as one of the greatest champions ever, by beating the American, Chuck McKinley 6-3;6-1;6-4 in the Wimbledon Men’s Final of that year. In both the Australian and US Finals of that year, however, he lost to that other great Australian and his doubles partner, Roy Emerson.
The Wimbledon Ladies’ Final of that year was the last all-British encounter with Angela Mortimer-Barrett beating Christine Truman 4-6; 6-4; 7-5. The next time a British woman was to take the title was Virginia Wade in that emotional final of 1977, watched by the Queen from the Royal Box during her Silver Jubilee Year. 1961 was not a bad year for British women’s tennis elsewhere with Ann Haydon-Jones reaching the US Final, only to be beaten by the American, Darlene Hard. 1961 was also the 50th anniversary of the first Davis Cup in which an Australian team comprising Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Neale Fraser beat Italy 5-0 in the Challenge Round. The 1960’s was a decade in which British tennis went into relative decline, the Australians dominated the Men’s game and the Americans held their own. European tennis generally was in the second division, behind the Americans and the Australians, a complete opposite of the situation in the 2010’s.
The big changes over the period have been in the area of technology and communications. Modern-day racquet technology allows for a much faster, more powerful game. Court surfaces are much more varied and of course, grass has gone into decline, with the exception of a few marquee events like Wimbledon. Tennis attire is also noticeably different, particularly compared with 1911! In those years, ‘tout en blanc’ was mandatory everywhere and people would get exercised over the display of women’s knickers on court, as shown by Gussie Moran’s appearances at Wimbledon in the 1950’s. Access to tennis is probably more democratic and less class-bound than it used to be and communications technology has extended the range of potential audiences, as it has for other sports. All in all, tennis over the years seems to have balanced well the need for evolution with a respect for traditions and standards.
Date published :
02 Aug 2011 - 17:11:06