Surbiton | Looking back at a long-standing event

Andy Murray may not have been able to try and defend the title which he won last year at the Surbiton Racket & Fitness Club, but otherwise the Surbiton Trophy provided an excellent opening week to this year’s lawn tennis season.

It is hard not to feel a great deal of fondness for the tournament, which has a long and illustrious history under its former name of the Surrey Grass Court Championships, and should be cherished just for surviving and thriving in spite of almost having been lost more than once.

The host club is presently working on a new book which is intended to chronicle the venue’s origins during the initial tennis boom in the Victorian era. And the editor of ‘The Tennis Historian’ is researching the archives of the Surrey Grass Court Championships for a future feature in the magazine.

In tandem they hope to clarify some of the uncertainty surrounding the early years of the event. The venue was founded in 1881 and it was first known as the Berrylands Lawn Tennis Club. From 1882 it is understood to have staged a competition called the Berrylands Tournament.

There are records of a Surrey Championships taking place from 1890. It was apparently played at different locations before becoming established at the Surbiton site from 1904 onwards. By 1914 it had its first overseas winner in Norman Brookes of Australia.

Surbiton shares that distinction with Wimbledon, as Brookes was the first foreign men’s singles champion, as well as the first left-hander to triumph at the All England Club, in 1907. The men’s singles trophy at the Australian Open is named the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in his honour.

Helen Wills iin action circa 1925.

(Photo by Stanley Weston/Getty Images)

However, Helen Wills Moody was the best-known victor prior to the Second World War, drawing a huge crowd and the Pathé News cameras to Surbiton in 1938, just before securing the last of her 8 Wimbledon ladies’ singles titles that summer.

Inevitably, the military action took a toll on the club, with a wartime shelter being constructed on its land, and a section of the grass courts having to be dug up for allotments. Thankfully, it rebounded with such a golden period in the fifties that permanent stands had to be constructed.

Maureen Connolly and Althea Gibson were among those who added their names to the honours boards, both emulating Wills Moody by completing a Surbiton and Wimbledon double in the same year. Then in the sixties that great British trio of Angela Mortimer, Christine Truman and Ann Jones all notched wins in turn.

Despite the subsequent decade bringing successes for Sue Barker and Evonne Goolagong Cawley, the setting was becoming too cramped for the demands of modern elite sport, lacking the space to renovate and develop the facilities to the standards increasingly required by players and spectators.

In 1981, the Surbiton Lawn Tennis and Squash Rackets Club celebrated its centenary with a ladies-only tournament, but thereafter the tennis authorities ended the long tradition of holding one of the pre-Wimbledon events on its grass courts.

Even then, the club innovatively responded by filling the void with a Junior International Tennis Championships, which drew players such as Stefan Edberg, Pat Cash and Jim Courier when they were still young and relatively unknown before going on to greater things.

Once more rebranded, becoming the Surbiton Tennis, Squash & Fitness Club, its continuing efforts were eventually rewarded with the return of the Surrey Grass Court Championships in 1997, since when the naming of the event and venue has evolved into the Surbiton Trophy at the Surbiton Racket & Fitness Club.

This year brought the 25th anniversary of the removal of the word “Tennis” from the club’s official title, but the Lawn Tennis Association understandably preferred to focus on celebrating another notable silver jubilee, that of the visit to Surbiton of the greatest-ever player on grass, Roger Federer.

More than that, it was here where the 8-times Wimbledon champion contested his first-ever professional lawn tennis match, in 1999, immediately demonstrating his skill and grace on the surface, as he reached the semi-finals of the Surbiton Trophy on his debut.

Now part of the ATP Challenger Tour and the ITF Women’s circuit, the tournament still provides a fine beginning to the build-up to Wimbledon, with the 2024 winners being Lloyd Harris of South Africa and Alison Van Uytvanck of Belgium, the latter with a second success in 3 years.

But there is much more to like about the annual 8-day week at Surbiton than just the proximity to high-level on-court action. The club organises a full range of social events during the tournament – which older visitors recall is a throwback to the way the tennis circuit used to be prior to the onset of the Open era in 1968.

There is a Strictly Come Salsa Party, and a Champagne & Oysters evening, among the distractions from the tennis. Plus another unique feature is the Surbiton Trophy Jigsaw, free to use in the clubhouse during rain delays, signed by the players, and then raffled off to raise money for the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.

Although there is only one jigsaw, anyone can take home a commemorative Surbiton Trophy Gin, encouraged by clubhouse G&T tastings. In addition, The Tennis Gallery has a stall beside the tournament’s Centre Court, sensibly, in case of inclement weather, with more souvenir towels than books or prints.

The Surbiton Trophy even boasts the most prestigious sponsor of any of the present pre-Wimbledon events, in Lexus, a far more recognisable partner than those of the better-known tournaments at The Queen’s Club or Eastbourne. That too helps significantly in keeping alive this old competition.

It in turn drives the club to maintain the grass courts, which have been lost in too many places elsewhere. There were originally 11, and 10 still remain, despite the encroachment of padel facilities in a corner of the Surbiton complex. And even in unreliable climatic conditions, the lawns are always superbly prepared.

Among the black and white photographs of tennis players from yesteryear adorning the Surbiton clubhouse walls, there is one of Frankie Howerd presenting the prizes at the tournament. With famous figures like the former Chelsea goalkeeper, Petr Čech, still seen in the stands, there is cause for optimism about the future.

Lloyd Harris of South Africa in action during the 2024 final

(Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images for LTA)



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