The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum

Richard Cavendish sniffs hallowed turf and delves into real tennis history at Wimbledon's Museum.

This is not just a museum, but a shrine. Every year it draws some 55,000 visitors. and of every ten of them eight to nine come from abroad. They come on pilgrimage to the All England Club, the hub and magic centre of the tennis world, and the experience they treasure above all is the chance to use the museum's special viewing platform and survey the holy of holies itself – the Centre Court. And awe-inspiring it is, too.

The museum's story begins with the late Tom Todd (1911-84), who started picking up stray tennis objects, prints and illustrations in antique shops and junk and bric-a-brac places. In 1972 he organised a small exhibition in Leamington Spa for the centenary of the founding of the world's first lawn tennis club at the town's Manor House Hotel The club's founders were a Birmingham solicitor named Harry Gem and a Spanish businessman, Augurio Perera, real tennis players who had been experimenting to devise an open-air adaptation of the game. Real tennis, of course, goes back for centuries – Henry VIII was good at it – but it needs a special building.

The exhibition in Leamington aroused unexpected interest; people began saying there ought to be a permanent museum of the game and Tom Todd approached the Wimbledon authorities. They were receptive, the needful was supplied and in 1977, to mark the centenary of the first Wimbledon championships, the museum was formally opened by the Duke of Kent. Tom Todd's own collection is on permanent loan and the All England Club contributed its own substantial array of books, programmes and press cuttings, but it also sent messages subtly through the ether to its unrivalled contacts among local clubs. The word was passed to the far reaches of tennisdom and all sorts of fascinating and weird objects began arriving out of the blue. These were gifts or loans, there being no money to buy anything at that stage, and the first curator, Tony Cooper (1907-85), had to organise the museum without knowing exactly what would be in it.

Since those days the collection has grown substantially and there is now a fund for new purchases, but Valerie Warren, the present curator, says it is fortunate the museum started when it did. Collecting in this field has become far more common and tennis memorabilia far more expensive. Recent acquisitions she particularly likes include an eighteenth century French painting of Louis XV's real tennis professional and a vigorous 1890s bronze figure of a woman serving (underarm in those days) by François Caro. It is an indication of the breadth of the collection that another recent acquisition is a Stevens machine for testing the deformation of tennis balls, one of the rare original 1924 models.

Miss Warren started work at the museum just after it opened in 1977, hired for six months to catalogue the collection. – a task which, she says with a cheerful giggle, has still not been completed. By 1985 she was the natural successor to Mr Cooper, presiding over a museum which likes everything to do with tennis, from the history and technology of rackets and balls to costumes and changes in fashion, courts and nets and equipment, lawn mowers, ornaments, figurines, souvenirs, ashtrays, teasets – featuring teaspoons with racket-shaped handles – books, postcards and cigarette cards, posters, photographs, cups and trophies – including the stately Wimbledon championship trophies themselves. There are mementoes of great players, with autographed rackets and shoes from the likes of Borg, McEnroe, Connors, Wilander and Edberg. As you go round you can hear excitingly in the background the roar of crowds and the voices of commentators until you reach the video screens area where great matches of the past and star players from Suzanne Lenglen onwards can be seen in action.

One of the items dug out from the bowels of the All England Club originally, and now in a place of honour, was a great rarity – a complete Sphairistiké set in its original box. Although Leamington Spa had the first lawn tennis club, the man who really created the game was Major Walter Clopton Wingfield (1833-1912), an ex-cavalryman who wrote a book on bicycle gymkhanas and in 1874 launched his lawn version of real tennis under the clumsy name of Sphairistike – Greek for 'ball game' and usually shortened to 'Sticky'.

The game was sold by Wingfield's London dealers packed in a box costing five guineas (getting on for £200 today) and containing four rackets with long handles and pear-shaped heads, a bag of balls, a net, poles and pegs for constructing a court shaped like an hour glass, a mallet, a brush for painting lines on the grass, and an instruction book. Despite all the paraphernalia, the game sold like wildfire but Wingfield was unable to patent it and established firms like Slazengers moved in and started selling their own sets. The All England Club held its first lawn tennis championships in 1877 and the rules it adopted swiftly became the accepted code.

The history and development of the game from that point on can be enjoyably followed in the museum, from the champions of the Edwardian era like the Doherty twins to the between-the-wars period of Lenglen and Wills, Tilden and Perry and the Four Musketeers, and on to the post-war champions and the impact of new technology since the 1970s. The museum is run as a business, ultimately responsible to the Lawn Tennis Association and the All England Club, and is expected to cover its costs from entry fees and the profits from its attractive tearoom and its admirable shop – which does well because the pilgrims want souvenirs to take home. It runs many special exhibitions and has built up the best lawn tennis collection in the world in its library, which is open to research students.

The museum has recently completed an overhaul of its displays on the most recent period, from 1968 to today, and is hoping that at some stage in the future it may get more space. As it stands, it is not only thoroughly engaging and informative, but has an additional quality, hard to identify at first, which resolves itself into good-temperedness, wholesomeness and friendly, old-fashioned niceness – qualities once deeply embedded in Wimbledon tennis itself.

Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum,
The All England Club
Church Road
London SW19 5AE
020 8946 6131