London | Pioneers of progress

Looking back at the humble beginnings of the world’s greatest tennis tournament and its growth to its status today.

It is hard to imagine how a tournament that debuted 137 years ago as a men’s only event, with 22 entrants, and whose final was observed by just 200 spectators, could have grown into such a global phenomenon. But it has.

The times they are a changing. And if any major sporting event can claim to have kept up with them, it’s surely Wimbledon. Bob Dylan would approve, I am sure.


Spencer Gore, from 1877

(Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images)

Think Worple Road. 1877, if you can. Local favourite, 27-year -old Spencer Gore walks on to court with his opponent, William Marshall, an architect by profession. Forty-six minutes later, Gore, who went to Harrow School and also played first class cricket for Surrey, had written himself into the history books following his 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Marshall.

How could they, or indeed, the 200 folk in attendance that day, have possibly known what they were birthing that day? Perhaps Marshall’s friend, Charles Darwin, an expert on biological evolution, saw it coming, if indeed he was in the crowd. We will never know.

What we do know is that, since that summer’s day in 1877, much has changed. Take prize money.

The winners of this year’s singles title, whether male or female, will pocket £2.7 million. For his efforts, Gore received the princely sum of twelve guineas.


Fans waiting in The Queue, .

(Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

What about attendance?

More than half a million tennis fans are expected to head down Church Road this year to enter the main gates of the estate.

Half a million sounds a lot. Certainly, to Gore and his generation, it would be unthinkable. But even that number is a fraction of those who this year will watch online, on television, or listen in on radio, around the globe.

“What on earth is television?” I hear Mr Marshall ask.

“Ah. Wait and see,” responds Mr Darwin.

Last year, the BBC reported that at its peak, 11.3 million viewers tuned in to watch Carlos Alcaraz defeat Novak Djokovic in their five sets final.

The Ladies’ Singles Final, where Czech qualifier Marketa Vondrousova triumphed over the Tunisian, Ons Jabeur, was (at its peak) watched live by 4.5 million fans.

How could Gore, Marshall or even Darwin have possibly anticipated such a national reach, let alone a global one?

Radio and television were for the future and beyond. It is Wimbledon’s alertness to change that has seen it stay up to speed, and even sprint ahead of its rivals in the global race for Grand Slam supremacy.


Staff clean the seating in the outside courts on the eve of the 2024 Wimbledon Championships

(Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

So let’s fast forward a century to the 21s where we currently sit. It has certainly been one that has seen Wimbledon’s most momentous changes.

Perhaps the most notable was the erection of a retractable roof on Cnetre Court in 2006. This was followed up in 2019 with a similar structure on Court No 1.

Spencer Gore would be turning in his grave – in admiration, I am sure.

Then there are the other major adjustments to the game that would surely have raised a bushy 19th century eyebrow.

Tie breaks? “No such thing,” suggests Spencer. Graphite rackets? “Ridiculous.” Hawk-Eye? “You cannot be serious.” Equal prize money for women? “You’re having a laugh.”

There wasn’t even a lady’s singles tournament in my day, Spencer Gore reminds us.

That would take seven more years to come to fruition. 1884.

The debut victor in that year was Harrow born Maud Watson, who defeated her sister, Lilian, in the final, 6-8, 6-3, 6-3.

Maud was to defend her title a year later. Quite a feat, but made easier by the fact that Wimbledon in those days was a British only event with less than 20 competitors!

Today, the men’s and women’s draw welcomes players from over 55 countries!


Novak Djokovic (R) greets Andy Murray following a practice session at the Club.

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

What a difference a century or more makes. So much change.

I wonder, with all of the glitz and glamour, how many of today’s champions look over their shoulders to acknowledge their predecessors, and the back story, that is Wimbledon?


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