Wimbledon is upon us again and kids can be seen with tennis rackets playing in the streets. That’s how I started playing the game myself with a wooden racket and a well-worn tennis ball battered to death over the imaginary net of the tarline of the road. When I was a little older I played in Bushy Park where I got an hour’s play for threepence on a public tarmac court. Sometimes the games there were frustrating as the clock dictated the end of play indifferent to whether or not you could be engrossed in an exciting tie breaker. Later I graduated to the grass courts of Rathmines and Mount Pleasant and, despite a recent knee replacement operation, I still play and enjoy League tennis.
The first Wimbledon final took place in 1877. It is perhaps comforting to know for those of us who struggle to score aces and avoid double faults as power serves are such an important part of the modern game, that the first championships were served underarm. The first Irishman to make it to the finals at Wimbledon was Vere Thomas St Leger Goold who blamed a massive hangover for his loss to the Reverend John Hartley in 1879. Goold went on later to achieve infamy as the only Wimbledon finalist to be convicted of murder.
Wimbledon is the only grand slam tournament still held on grass and every September nine tons of grass seed are used to renovate the courts. The club which is situated on forty four acres in leafy south west London is only a short walk from the Wimbledon tube station. The traditional green and purple colours beckon you to partake in and enjoy the originally themed summer ‘tennis in an English garden’ with barley water and strawberry and cream.
Wimbledon tennis has come a long way from that English garden atmosphere with its present huge seating capacity for over 14000 people at Centre court. This court even has a retractable roof now, rendering redundant the former exasperating and frequent announcements of ‘play delayed due to rain’.
Wimbledon, like a lot of other places in England, suffered during the war. In 1940 five 900 pound German bombs destroyed most of the seating at Centre court
In modern times you do not see many Irish players qualifying. Sean Sorensen was the first Irishman to appear in the main draw in the open era in 1977, but he was beaten in the first round by Rod Laver. His doubles partner Matt Doyle got as far as the second round in 1983 but, as he did not become a naturalised Irish citizen until 1985, for much of his career he was deemed to be a representative of the United States where he was born. Our most recent qualifier was Connor Niland in 2011.
There is still high-profile Irish involvement in Wimbledon, however, through its umpires. Dubliner Fergus Murphy umpired the men’s quarter final in 2016 between Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
But such a paucity of Irish participants at Wimbledon was not always the case. In 1890 both the men’s and ladies’ singles and also the men’s doubles titles were won by Irish players. Willoughby Hamilton from Monasterevin in County Kildare won the men’s singles at the age of twenty six, and Lena Rice from New Inn in County Tipperary won the ladies singles; she was twenty four years old at the time. The men’s doubles title was won by Joshua Pim and Frank Owen Stoker who was a cousin of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula.
Hamilton, who became known as the Ghost partly because of his pale appearance, disappeared from the sporting limelight after his victory, it was thought due to poor health, and died in 1943 in Dundrum. And sadly Lena Rice died at the young age of forty one from tuberculosis in 1907. To this day the New Inn tennis club holds the Lena Rice commemorative tournament every September.
The gold trophy which is awarded to the men’s single champion is inscribed with words reminiscent of a gladiator performance and seems to take no account of the ubiquity of the double handed modern player in its declaration: ‘The All England Lawn Tennis Club Single Handed Champion of The World’.
Above the the entrance however for the players on Centre court there is another inscription which perhaps puts tennis and indeed all sport into its proper perspective. It is from the poem If by Rudyard Kipling:
‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same…’