Wimbledon is the most prestigious Grand Slam tennis tournament, and has become a cultural phenomenon over the years.

The 2021 tournament comes after a cancelled 2020 event due to the pandemic, so it's a widely anticipated event this year.

What was once just a grass court tournament that posed interesting challenges for the players transformed into a significant worldwide event comparable to the World Cup and the Superbowl.

These days, it isn’t uncommon to see top celebrities attending the tennis tournament, alongside members of the British royal family.

But it wasn’t always that way, and if you’re new to the biggest of the tennis tournaments in England, you might not know that the Centre Court and No.1 Court didn’t always have a roof.

For more trivia like that and plenty of interesting tidbits about the biggest annual tennis tournament in the world, read on to discover the storied history of the Wimbledon Championships.

Wimbledon courts
Grass courts are what makes Wimbledon unique. Source: Unsplash
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Grass Roots

The roots of the British tennis tournament can be traced back more than a hundred years ago, so as you can imagine a lot has changed over the years.

The very first Wimbledon tournament was played in 1877 on its now-iconic outdoor grass courts. The tournament takes place in a small town called Wimbledon, with a population of just 68,000 in current times, in the southwest of London.

The idea of playing a tournament on a natural grass court first came to be after the invention of lawn tennis, a year prior to the first Wimbledon competition.

Lawn tennis was a version of indoor tennis - which back then was considered the only real type of tennis - that took place outdoors on grass courts.

The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club that was situated in Wimbledon decided to add this lawn tennis idea into its regular activities, and kicked off proceedings with the tournament that would go on to become a major Grand Slam.

Traditionally, it would be a tournament that was played over the course of two weeks between June and July. Though these days it tends to kick off with the official matches in the first week of July, with late June being reserved for qualifying matches.

It’s played around the same time as other British tournaments now, so you can also tune in for the Battle of the Brits 2021 and the Roehampton tennis tournament 2021 to get your tennis fix this year. It’s the next Grand Slam after the French Open 2021 takes place in late May and early June.

When was the First Tournament?

black and white tennis
Wimbledon has a storied history dating back many years. Source: Unsplash

As you can imagine, in 1877 society was very different, and this was reflected in the exclusionary nature of the Wimbledon tournament brackets in the beginning.

The very first version of the London tennis tournament featured just one bracket, and that was of course the Gentlemen’s Singles. Competitors had to pay one guinea to enter the tournament, and the whole competition was to last five days in total.

The British weather had other ideas though so this inaugural tournament was delayed for four days. It only took a hundred-plus years for organisers of the tournament to build a retractable roof for Centre Court and No 1 Court, but we’ll get into that later.

Spencer Gore was the victor of the very first tournament, beating William Marshal by 6-1, 6-2, and 6-4 in under an hour. The dominant victory earned Gore a share of the proceedings garnered by the event and sparked the beginning of the tournament’s history.

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How Did the Competition Evolve?

It took a while, but eventually, the organizers of the tournament saw sense and decided to include more brackets in the competition to make the event more inclusive.

It wasn’t until 1884, seven years after the inception of the tournament that the Ladies’ Singles competition was introduced alongside the Gentlemen’s Doubles.

It then took another 29 years before Ladies’ Doubles and Mixed Doubles competitions were finally added.

As for the format of the Championship, it used to be much different.

Believe it or not, for the longest time (up until 1922) the champion would basically secure their position in the final of the next Wimbledon Championship.

That means the tournament adopted a sort of king-of-the-hill dynamic whereby it was the job of the finalist to knock the previous champion off the pedestal. This hardly seems fair in retrospect, since one player had to battle their way to the final while the previous champion got a quick pass and could rest until the big day.

Another oddity about the tournament was that it was only the top-ranked amateur players that were allowed to compete. It wasn’t until 1968 that Wimbledon opened its doors to professional players through what became known as the ‘open era’.

The very first time Wimbledon appeared on TV screens was in 1937, which means the event has been televised now for more than 80 years.

The Modern Era

As we’ve already established, Wimbledon today is more of a cultural event than it is a sporting one. Yes, tennis is at the core of the competition, but the popular draw of Wimbledon is wide-reaching and often seeps into mainstream news dominating headlines in early July.

There are many stereotypes and iconic images now associated with the competition, many of which have nothing to do with tennis.

Here are some examples:

  • Strawberries and cream
strawberries
Millions of strawberries are eaten during Wimbledon. Source: Unsplash

Strawberries and cream is the most popular snack at Wimbledon by a landslide. It’s estimated that throughout the course of the tournament, spectators consume roughly 1.5 million strawberries.

You read that right, in the span of just two weeks spectators get more than their fix of the delicious red fruit.

If you’re wondering what the connection is between strawberries and cream and tennis, there is none, but the very first Wimbledon tournament was the cause for the snack’s popularity.

Back then, it was common to associate strawberries with the start of the warm weather, which for British nationals is a big deal. As such, it only makes sense that spectators would enjoy the symbolic strawberries with the start of the summer and Wimbledon, too.

  • Celebrity guests

When a sporting competition like Wimbledon transcends the sport and becomes a cultural event, it makes sense that the rich and famous would want to attend.

The presence of celebrity guests these days at Wimbledon is inevitable, and a lot of people enjoy scanning the crowd at Centre Court to see who has graced the court with their presence.

Everyone from Hollywood stars Bradley Cooper and Jude Law to British royalty Kate Middleton and Prince William has attended the prestigious tennis competition over the years.

From Beyonce to Keira Knightley, and Kate Winslet to Ben Stiller, it can seem like a who’s who of the celebrity world at Wimbledon.

The Introduction of the Retractable Roof

Another big talking point of the modern era when it comes to Wimbledon is the introduction of the retractable roof to Centre Court.

The retractable roof was first installed in 2009 on Centre Court, while it took until 2019 to have a roof built for No.1 court.

The introduction of these roofs changed the way the tournament could be played in some regards, allowing much more flexibility in the face of bad weather.

Considering that Britain is notorious for its unpredictable weather and rain showers, these roofs were met with universal approval. The one downside being that it can be difficult for the organizers to know when to close the roof and when to leave it open so it can be a true outdoor tournament with the sun shining down on the spectators.

This might not be an issue if it was a simple matter of closing the roof and playing, but the reality is that it takes up to 45 minutes for the air-conditioning system inside to kick in.

The main change was that the retractable roof over the Centre Cout allowed play to continue up until 11 pm, so matches wouldn’t have to be delayed until the next day if they went late.

Notable Winners

There have been many notable Wimbledon winners over the years, as well as many reigning champions that dominated the grass courts for several years.

In recent memory, it’s Andy Murray's 2013 run that is fresh in the mind, as one of Britain's best players took home the prize.

Why?

Well because it marked the first time a British man had won the Grand Slam on home soil since 1936, 77 years prior.

It was also a very emotional occasion, with the Scot breaking with his on-court persona and shedding a few tears after his monumental win.

Aside from this recent win from a British player, you have to look at Roger Federer as one of the most notable winners of Wimbledon as he won every title from 2003-2007.

Pete Sampras showed a similar level of dominance when he went on to win every Wimbledon title from 1993-1999 aside from 1996.

As for notable female champions, it’s hard to look any further than Martina Navratilova.

Navratilova is the all-time Wimbledon champion, acquiring more singles titles than any other man or woman in the history of the competition.

She managed a staggering nine Wimbledon titles in total, with a streak of six in a row from 1982-1987.

Other champions of note over the years include Serena Williams with her five titles, Bjorn Borg also with five, and the passionate John McEnroe who managed three titles in his career.

 

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Samuel

Sam is an English teaching assistant and freelance writer based in southern Spain. He enjoys exploring new places and cultures, and picking up languages along the way.