Credit: UA Archives – Upper Arlington Public Library (Repository: UA Historical Society)
I have never considered myself a “sports person”.
In my salad days, I hardly brimmed with natural athleticism. To me, school sport was at best an irritant and at worst an exercise in humiliation–I faked injuries in order to do my homework in the library (I know, I know) and declared my retirement from all sport as soon as I could, at the age of 16. I could never understand the appeal of playing it, let alone watching it. A profound waste of time, I thought with the pomposity of youth, while War and Peace or Les Miserables were as yet unread.
What I can remember, however, is watching Wimbledon. A childhood home defined by its apathy towards team sports was one thing, but the first two weeks of July always meant SW19. Whether that was a simple reflection of how completely it swallows the BBC schedule during this time, or any particular interest on the behalf of my parents, is beyond me–but we did always end up watching Today at Wimbledon.
Pundits who I was vaguely aware had been famous in the 80s (the mouthy American man, the woman with the funky glasses) and Sue Barker, sat around a table, talking about lobs and backhands. Jokes about strawberries. Complaining about the weather. Watching the only sportsman I have ever obsessed over, Roger Federer, arguably the greatest male tennis player ever, win and lose, feeling every point like a World Cup final penalty shootout. Last year’s Men’s Singles Final actually led me to scream out loud, driven to hysteria by the agony of Federer losing his Championship point and the promise of his ninth Wimbledon title.
I’ve never sat down to watch the whole of the French Open, or dipped my toe into the Davis Cup, in the way I have sat for hours and watched Wimbledon. It holds a unique appeal to me, an appeal that I can’t seriously explain, and about which I was always vaguely embarrassed–Wimbledon seems like the height of middle-class culture, Pimms and well-manicured lawns. It hardly screams praxis.
David Berry’s new book for Pluto Press, A People’s History of Tennis, seeks to burst this bubble. He argues that modern tennis has been unquestionably shaped by radical forces as well as conservative ones. A wider audience might not be unaware of some of these activists. The woman with the funky glasses, Billie Jean King, who I had watched on a cosy teatime television show, is arguably one of the great activists of twentieth and twenty-first century sport. A tireless campaigner for women in sport, she founded the Women’s Tennis Association, beating Bobby Riggs in the infamous “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973, and was one of the first openly gay female sports players on the elite stage. Today, Venus and Serena Williams’s careers are defined by their unapologetic domination of the game–but Serena is also a vocal advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement, and has written movingly about her experience with racist healthcare whilst giving birth to her daughter in 2018.
Berry’s book, however, draws the focus to figures of whom you probably won’t have heard. The start of the modern game as we understand it today came with Walter Wingfield’s match against his friend and Daily Telegraph theatre critic, Clement Scott, on Wednesday 6th May 1874, in Knightsbridge. Hardly the most radical sounding beginning, but its popularity took it out of the rarefied greenery of Knightsbridge quickly. It was a sport that Victorian women could also take part in, perceived not to be incompatible with women’s ‘delicate sensibilities’. This allowed women like May ‘Toupie’ Lawther, a lesbian fencer, jujitsu fighter and later ambulance driver, to dominate the women’s game. Lottie Dodd won Wimbledon five times, the first of these when she was only 15; as well as playing hockey, golf, and almost winning the Grand National, she still found the time to volunteer for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.
For Lawther and Dodd, Tennis was accessible due to their comfortable upbringings–the lack of parity for men and women in prize money was less of an immediate barrier to their entry into the sport. Tennis was not, however, a uniquely bourgeois pastime. While the All England Club itself created class barriers by its insistence until 1968 that tennis was an amateur game (thus, for hobbyists rather than careerists–it was gauche and unsportsmanlike to ask for bigger prize money and to have corporate sponsorship, not that it stopped many from trying, or moving to America with the promise of both), alternative forums sprung up. The Worker’s Wimbledon started in 1932 in Reading, with the sponsorship of the Labour Party, part of a long history of worker’s sports groups organised by Trade Unions and the British Workers’ Sports Federation. It ran for twenty years and was part of a network of working people’s sports clubs. Berry also documents the history of Jewish and LGBTQ+ Tennis clubs, and the American Tennis Association that promotes tennis to the African American community.
Berry’s A People’s History of Tennis tries to, as the title sets out, write a history of tennis that might drag the sport away from stereotypes of the English ruling class (which my beloved Federer, I can admit, embodies, for his much vaunted ‘gentlemanly conduct’ that makes him a home favourite, opposed to the much cooler reception of Novak Djokovic and often racialised coverage of Serena Williams) and explore, through personality-focused analysis, the diverse range of characters that shaped the modern game as we understand it. It does brush over the issue surrounding the treatment of trans people in tennis, following high profile transphobic comments in recent years from Martina Navratilova and Margaret Court; although a discussion of the career of trans player Renée Richards was diverting, he did not explore transmisogyny in any great detail. This does not detract from the sensitive and nuanced analysis of intersectional figures in tennis.
All you need to play football is a ball. Tennis is inconceivable without maintained nets, courts and lines, by clubs or local authorities. Expanding and maintaining accessibility to the grass-roots game would not just be a good for developing home-grown talent and for keeping the country active, but could also lead to a new Workers’ Wimbledon, or new events to celebrate a diversity in tennis. A People’s History of Tennis reminds us this would not be expanding tennis from middle-class roots, but instead honouring its rich history of struggle, triumph and challenge. Our interaction with sporting events, such as Wimbledon, leads us to see the sport in a certain light, but it is always important to remember that we have manufactured this light ourselves; and that sport is and can be, whatever we want it to be, for better or for worse.
This summer I will not spend the first two weeks of July enjoying Wimbledon, biting my nails over whether this will be Federer or Serena Williams’s ninth or eighth wins, respectively. I will enjoy watching the proposed classic repeats but with over fifty hours to fill in the schedule, nothing will quite hit the spot this year. I may, however, think about tennis beyond the rarefied lawns of SW19, and Berry’s book is an enlightening read to fill the extra hours.