February 21, 2014
Grand Slam History: Wonderful Wimbledon Aces Them All
All the Grand Slams have their history – but nowhere has quite as much as Wimbledon. You can feel it when you walk in. That magic took many years to create. You can’t feel it anywhere else, for all the qualities and diversity of the world’s other venues.
Who would have thought, when the newly-named All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club held its inaugural Wimbledon Championship in 1877, that it would be the start of such an incredible journey?
Spencer Gore was the first winner, though Britain’s William Renshaw was the first 19th-Century tennis star, with his seven Wimbledon wins in the 1880s.
Pete Sampras and Roger Federer repeated the feat in the Open era and their task was somewhat harder. Once he became champion, all Renshaw had to do was to turn up for the next final to see off his latest challenger. How times have changed!
The “Other” Opens
It might surprise some to know that the USA started its own national championships as early as 1881, at the Newport Casino, Rhode Island.
The French weren’t far behind in setting up their own national tournament in 1891. And the dawn of the 20th century saw one of their greatest stars – Max Decugis – dominate the scene. Between 1903 and 1914 he won the French title eight times and might have continued his amazing run were it not for the outbreak of the First World War.
By then the Australians were up and running too, their first tournament having taken place in 1905.
The Tournaments Find Their Home Grounds
So which was the first championships to move to its current home? Wimbledon of course, in 1922. The French followed six years later when Roland Garros was established. The US Open didn’t move to Flushing Meadows until 1978, while the Aussie Open only found its current home in 1988.
But the French can boast the first true superstar of the game – Suzanne Lenglen. The world marveled at her grace and talent. She took six top titles in France or Belgium and six more at Wimbledon to capture the hearts of just about every sports fan around.
Then the Brits came up with a superstar of their own. Fred Perry won Wimbledon three times in the 1930s. As we all know, it took until last year for a Brit to win it again. But Perry did something Andy Murray can still only dream about. He became the first player to win the French, Australian and US titles too, all in that same decade.
Amazingly, an American called Maureen Connolly Baker achieved the same feat while she was still a teenager, between 1951 and 1953.
Each country or tournament has its giants. Home-grown Roy Emerson won the Australian six times in the 1960s, while in the Open era Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic managed such glory four times Down Under.
The Tennis Giants
Wimbledon’s true giants of the Open era haven’t been British. Pete Sampras has won it seven times, along with Federer. Martina Navratilova won Wimbledon an extraordinary nine times. Each champion has been hailed by an adoring British public, which became very used to putting nationality aside during the many years when a Brit couldn’t quite cut it.
US champions William Larned, Richard Sears and Bill Tilden may not be mentioned very often these days; but they took seven singles titles apiece on that side of the Atlantic. Jimmy Connors, Sampras and Federer managed five in the Open era.
It was in 1968 that professionals were finally allowed to join amateurs and do battle at the “Majors.” That’s when the Grand Slam era really began. Few who were already alive will ever forget Arthur Ashe taking the US title and striking a fresh blow for racial equality.
The increased intensity of competition can’t diminish the achievements of someone like Margaret Court, whose career saw out the old and welcomed in the new. She won 24 Slams including eleven Australian, five French, three Wimbledon and five US Open titles. Yet perhaps Steffi Graf’s 22 titles, all won in the Open era, are even more admirable, given the new physical demands of the game.
And Rafael Nadal’s eight Roland Garros titles between 2005 and 2013 had everyone shaking their heads in awe, and wondering how many more he could win.
We know how wonderful the modern era is. We know we are currently watching giants who can be compared favourably against champions of any era. Wimbledon has welcomed these giants down the years, and been enriched by their magnificence. That’s what makes Wimbledon so very special.
You step back in time when you walk through those gates, you can almost touch the all-time greats; yet you are always invited to embrace the present and future too.
The new Number One Court arrived in 1997, the retractable roof on Centre Court is even more recent and spectacular. Beautiful modern architecture somehow blends perfectly with the traditional feel to the venue. How has Wimbledon moved so stylishly with the times? Either there are some very special people behind the scenes, or it’s magic!
The other Grand Slam venues are great in their own way, of course. But history tells us Wimbledon is the home of competitive tennis. Always was, always will be. In fact we don’t need to be told, because we can feel it.