By Robert J. Lake
Anyone for tennis? It’s that time of year again when our favourite racket sport suddenly re-emerges as a fashionable and engaging spectacle. While other sports, notably the popular North American team-games of football, basketball, hockey, and baseball, alongside their equivalents in Britain, notably soccer, rugby union, rugby league, and county cricket, have entire seasons that typically reach their climax in exciting post-season playoffs, championships and cups, tennis rather oddly seems to peak mid-way through its season and, again rather oddly, at a tournament played on an out-dated surface, and in a nation with very little elite-level success to speak of over the last eighty or so years. Naturally, of course, I am speaking about Wimbledon and about England, not Britain. “British” fans happily cling to whatever successes they can muster. Before the First World War, the British used to claim Australia’s or indeed any of our extended (crucially, white) colonial “partners’” victories as their own, while now they can more conveniently include Andy Murray’s recent successes. However, the fact remains that Wimbledon is very English and Andy Murray is very Scottish, and in the light of the recent referendum on British membership of the European Union and the subsequent likelihood of a second, but this time successful, referendum on Scottish independence, Murray’s British identity will come under intense scrutiny, and not for the first time. As of right now, however, very few people in the British tennis scene, at Wimbledon or inside the headquarters of the Lawn Tennis Association in leafy west-London will mention his Scottish identity, particularly when he is winning. Consider also the fact that this very English tournament gives its entire annual profits – typically between £25 and 30 million – to the LTA for the development of tennis across Britain, and therein lays an interesting dichotomy. This English-British distinction is just one of the key confusions, or indeed contradictions, that makes Wimbledon so fascinating for sports fans and historians alike. There are others.
In his published autobiography, Chris Gorringe, Wimbledon’s previous chief executive who stepped down in 2005 after 26 years in office, referred to the Championships’ marketing strategy as: “tennis in an English garden.” And when walking the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which has hosted the Wimbledon Championships since 1877, the nostalgia for the past – past English successes most pertinently – and the celebration of “Englishness” is everywhere in abundance, both on and off the court.
In Timeout magazine’s “Full Guide to the Wimbledon 2016 Tennis Championships,” the Things To Do Editors list eating strawberries and drinking Pimms as essential activities. Strawberries have long been a popular summer-time accompaniment to afternoon tea, but were actually only introduced at Wimbledon in 1953, with cream added more recently, in 1970. Naturally, only the finest Kent-Grade 1 strawberries are brought in for Wimbledon, but the American tennis pundit Dave Whitehead, in a scathing but fairly tongue-in-cheek article from The Telegraph (3 July 2015) entitled “10 things no one tells you before you go to Wimbledon,” considers this in essence an “invented tradition” – to steal Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase. Claiming the strawberries a “rip-off,” he adds: “You know that lovely olde Englande tradition of eating scrumptious strawberries and cream at ‘Wimblers’? Well, it’s not that olde at all – and the strawberries aren’t that scrumptious. Still, it’s all part of the experience.” Indeed, on average, 140,000 portions of strawberries are consumed at Wimbledon, alongside 320,000 glasses of Pimm’s. According to a recent Adweek poll, Pimm’s was considered the number one most recognized brand at Wimbledon, but its apparently “deep-rooted” history there can only be traced as far back as 1957. The drink itself was first produced in London in 1823, but it is clear that Wimbledon’s increasingly marketable post-war image suited the company’s new branding; the recent advertising slogan “Pimm’s O-clock” has become well known alongside the products’ connections with English summer garden-parties.
Everything from the on-sale refreshments to the type of ivy clinging to the Centre-Court building (called “Virginia Creeper”), and the colours and types of flowers arranged around the grounds, have been carefully selected to fit the Club’s preferred public image. Some of these features invoke a somewhat manufactured sense of Englishness and nostalgia for the sport’s exalted amateur past. The most prestigious catering establishment on the AELTC grounds – reserved during the Championships for Centre Court and Court One debenture ticket holders only – is “The Renshaw” restaurant, named after twin brothers Ernest and William Renshaw, born in Leamington (interestingly, just a few miles from the oldest tennis club in the world) and educated at the prestigious Cheltenham College, who dominated the sport in the 1880s, winning 18 All England singles, doubles and mixed-doubles Championships between them. Often considered the finest gentlemen to ever play the sport – in reference to their behaviour and class rather than their masculinity – the Renshaws are now honoured as quintessential amateur sportsmen who exhibited exemplary sportsmanship alongside their impressive on-court achievements. Their continued celebration at Wimbledon enhances the sport’s prestige and provides the Club a sense of historical connection to these ideals that, one could argue, have as much commodity-value as the tennis itself.
In the spirit of celebrating all things (and people) proudly English, around the outside of the Centre Court building are busts of all three of the British Ladies Singles Champions from the post-war period (Angela Mortimer, 1961; Ann Jones, 1969; Virginia Wade, 1977). The most famous statue of all is of Fred Perry, Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Singles Champion 1934-36, and the last British male to win the event until Andy Murray in 2013. Of course, it is somewhat ironic that Perry was not a welcome figure in the British tennis establishment of the 1930s, a point not missed on the man himself, when he reflected in his autobiography about the AELTC’s decision to erect a ¾-size full statue of him in 1984:
There will be a few former members of the All England Club and the LTA revolving in their graves at the thought of such a tribute paid to the man they regarded as a rebel from the wrong side of the tennis tramlines.
Of course, it is likely because of Britain’s poor post-war performances that Perry was afforded hero status; this trumped his lower-middle-class background and the fact he eventually relocated to America and adopted U.S. citizenship.
Another more recent example of celebrating “Englishness” within a player can be found if one ventures up to Aorangi Park to sample some tennis action on the big screen, which was first erected in 1997 to allow the thousands of fans without show-court (Centre-Court or Court One) tickets to watch the action. Around this time, the upright, Oxfordshire-born, grammar-school-educated Tim Henman was emerging as the best-performing Brit, and more than his Canadian-born compatriot Greg Rusedski, galvanized the British faithful to such an extent that the Wimbledon executives felt compelled to capitalize on his incredible popularity. It wasn’t long before this grassy knoll was nicknamed “Henman Hill”, a moniker that has remained unofficially still ten years after his retirement. Arguably Henman’s quintessential Englishness was as much celebrated as his tennis success, and despite incredible consistency, reaching the Wimbledon quarter-finals eight times from 1994-2007 (including 4 semi-finals appearances), Henman almost became a martyr among Wimbledon’s British fans. Through his respectable behaviour, conservative, and very English middle-class appearance, and even in his modest chip-and-charge playing style that appeared almost outdated against the hard-hitting of Andre Agassi and “Pistol” Pete Sampras, Henman reflected the nation’s hopes and desires in a broader sense. But of course, unlike those guys, Henman never won the thing, and thus he was constructed in the media as this kind of plucky Englishman capable of occasional but often fleeting greatness, but clinging to the vestiges of former glories, much like the nation he was seen to represent. Again, not necessarily Britain, but England. At this time, Scotland and Wales were striving for political independence, and Henman was a true and relatable sporting hero for “middle England”. Even today, some slightly intoxicated British tennis fan will undoubtedly shout “Come on, Tim” while watching Andy Murray play, a small bit of childish banter that never fails to get a laugh, but speaks to Henman’s almost cult status at Wimbledon.
In addition to the refreshments, facilities, grounds, and the celebration of certain players’ characters that collectively help to enhance the tournament’s prestige by invoking nostalgia for the Victorian England, it almost goes without saying that Wimbledon’s tennis is best known for its grass courts. These are produced and harvested from the finest southern-English sod, and cultivated and cut to absolute perfection by the dozens of ground staff that are employed at the club year-round. While two of the other three major championships, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, swapped out their grass for hard courts in 1976 and 1980 respectively, Wimbledon has stubbornly retained it. Despite grass courts being unplayable outside of May-September, the AELTC have shown little concern for functionality or pragmatics. Meanwhile the grass-court season was shrinking – it is now just 4 or 5 weeks – which has made grass-court tennis less relevant to players. Indeed, clay-court specialists can make a very decent living, but no one ever hears of a grass-court specialist despite the surface demanded the same dedicated training. Here, it is clear the grass courts represent nostalgia for the AELTC: a way to celebrate the sport’s and the club’s own history. It is perhaps just as well that other tournaments have dropped their grass courts, as this just adds to Wimbledon’s mystique, as Alan Mills, Wimbledon’s previous tournament referee of 22 years, reflected in his autobiography:
It is the grass that makes Wimbledon unique and distinctive. When people turn on their television at the start of that last week in June and see the lush green, perfectly manicured courts, they experience not just a thrill of anticipation bit a reassuring sense of continuity as well. Wimbledon has become part of our culture, a national institution, even for those who do not ordinarily show an interest in tennis, and this is because it has preserved its most important traditions.
Another one of these traditions, which has helped retain a link to the past despite connotations of being old-fashioned and even, perhaps, elitist, is its mandatory all-whites clothing policy. The U.S. Open, when it moved from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadows for 1978, dropped its all-whites clothing rule, as a way of projecting a more modern, youthful, and perhaps edgier image. The French and Australians did the same a few years earlier; both were forced, for financial reasons, to rebrand themselves to attract new sponsors. And this is perhaps where we come to understand how, rather than why, Wimbledon has been able to retain some of these seemingly outdated traditions. It is because they can afford to.
Since the 1980s when the Wimbledon committee brought in the American sports agent and lawyer Mark McCormack to help them secure more lucrative TV-rights deals, the tournament’s profits have mushroomed. In 1981, the club made £1 million; in 1991, just shy of £12 million, and in 1997, over £31 million. And this is pure profit, after they have sunk millions into whatever ground maintenance projects they are saving for. A look at the Club’s accounts since 1877 shows just one year when the Championships failed to turn a profit, which was in 1895. Even throughout the worst years of the Great Depression, the club, somewhat embarrassingly, admitted to averaging profits of over £20,000, and in the 1960s and 70s during the turmoil of competition from professional tours, open-tennis debates and mass player boycotts, the Club profited. In 1973, when 13 of the top 16 players boycotted Wimbledon because of a disagreement between the Association of Tennis Professionals and the International Tennis Federation, the tournament still made £58,000, only $7,000 less than the previous year and still more than in 1970. As a business model, this makes for truly incredibly reading.
What is of equal interest is the sense that Wimbledon have managed to do all of this without, for want of a better phrase, “selling out” to commercialism, as the other three major championships have arguably done, and this speaks to the cultural power and hegemony that the Championships seems to hold over British society. Indeed Flushing Meadows, which became the site for the U.S. Open in 1978, was heavily and immediately criticized for its apparent vulgarity, unattractiveness and crass materialism, while in the 1970s and 80s, both the French Open (from 1971-72) and Australian Open (from 1974-98) were forced, reluctantly and embarrassingly, to accept a title sponsor.
Wimbledon’s commercialisation over this same period was much more subtle and, arguably, far less extreme and comprehensive. Not only did they maintain their less profitable relationship with the BBC for broadcasting rights at home because they wanted to ensure the best possible coverage, despite lucrative offers from cable television corporations, they also established very tight rules in terms of sponsorship. The Club does not permit anything larger than patch logos on outfits, and only allow subtle “product placement” advertising for a small number of partners, rather than logos on the backstops, court sidings/surface and net, as is customary at Flushing Meadows. Slazenger and Robinson’s (drink company) are two of the most recognizable brands associated with Wimbledon, and both have been involved since before the Second World War (Slazenger, since 1902; Robinson’s, since 1935). Because visual displays are not cluttered with logos, the primary positions of the small number of on-court products – e.g. Slazenger on the balls, Robinson’s drinks coolers by the umpire’s chair, and Rolex clocks by the electronic scoreboard – come at a premium. While some have criticized the Club for not capitalizing enough on their brand – one estimate from 1988 suggested they could make an additional £5 million per year – others appreciated their efforts to retain the club’s charm over the pursuit of profits. Indeed, this seemed to enhance rather than detract from the tournament’s reputation among players, as two-time Wimbledon and US-Open champion Stefan Edberg eluded: “For me, and most of the other players too, if you had to pick one of the four Grand Slams, you would pick Wimbledon. It’s got tradition, it’s got atmosphere, and it’s got mystique.” But again, the AELTC are only positioned to refuse such sponsorship because Wimbledon manages to be consistently profitable without it.
In 2011, ESPN beat NBC to sign a 12-year Wimbledon broadcasting-rights deal worth an estimated $480 million. This huge amount – the most of any broadcaster – is sufficient to suggest the tournament’s huge appeal in America, but what is it that keeps the turnstiles clicking, the TV viewers tuning in, and overseas corporations fighting for its broadcasting rights? For the AELTC executive committee, the tournament’s high value and prestige comes from treading a very fine line between being modern and old-fashioned. And this is another interesting dichotomy. While the Club seeks to project itself as traditional, with its somewhat antiquated regulations, its preference for discreet corporate sponsorship, its grass courts and all-whites clothing regulations, and its garden-party charm, beneath the surface the Club is a clever, cutting-edge, highly sophisticated and well-oiled machine. Everything behind the scenes, from its media boxes, corporate suites, catering facilities, player lounges, changing rooms, and under-ground facilities is tightly monitored and expertly arranged to ensure maximum comfort and efficiency. This has meant that the club’s projected image of being old-fashioned does not come at the cost of actually being old-fashioned. And this also means that the Club and its tournament can come across as “amateur” in the conventional sporting sense of the word – giving primacy to traditional sporting values like fair play, honesty, and respect for opponents – without being “amateurish” in its organization and management.
In the past, when such accusations have been levelled, Wimbledon made concerted efforts to remedy the situation. Reflecting on Wimbledon of the late-1970s in his autobiography, John McEnroe recalled poor refereeing alongside “dozing linesmen”; he described the Club as “totally set in its ways and self-important beyond belief,” and resented “how badly the organizers treated the lesser players.” To their credit, and despite McEnroe’s own misconduct at times, the AELTC saw fit to initiate several alterations with a broad change of culture in mind. In 1983, they brought in as Chairman the progressive and broad-minded former Slazenger boss, R.E.H. “Buzzer” Hadingham, and Alan Mills as Wimbledon referee. Both instituted an “open door policy,” making it their personal missions to improve access to and relations with the players. The Club also supported the professionalization of refereeing and umpiring to ensure higher standards, which made headway in the 1970s and 80s, and the AELTC have made concerted efforts, especially of late, to ensure it reflected more modern tennis by inviting younger members onto its Executive Committee, Tim Henman being a good example. While the Executive Committee could continue to improve its representation by adding more females, it is still fair to say that the modifications made over the last few decades have certainly had the overall effect of enhancing Wimbledon’s brand, partly by keeping players on their side. In addition, by strengthening its relationship with media personnel and continuing to demonstrate a strong commitment to improve its facilities – in 2009, for example, a retractable roof was installed on Centre Court – this has meant that Wimbledon’s public image has tended to remain fairly positive, particularly abroad. Given that the largest share of Wimbledon’s income is derived from international television rights, particularly in America, the preservation of this broader public image is of upmost importance.
Alongside these clear modifications that Wimbledon have made for the benefit of the sport or their club and their tournament, it is still the case that simply “being” at Wimbledon has retained just as much excitement and prestige for tennis fans as it always had. This is perhaps the Club’s crucial selling point, and so long as they continue to provide a high-quality product, in its tennis, catering, comfort and facilities, their quaint traditions will retain their value.
Robert J. Lake is an instructor in the Department of Sports Science at Douglas College, Canada. His main research interests are in the sport of tennis, and involve historically-rooted social issues related to: social class, social exclusion and behavioural etiquette; gender and sexuality; race, nationalism and English/British national identity; and, coaching, talent development and policy. He is the author of A Social History of Tennis in Britain, which won the 2015 Lord Aberdare Literary Prize awarded by the British Society of Sports History, for the best book in sports history on a British topic or by a British author. He has also written over a dozen academic journal articles in some of sport history and sociology’s leading journals: Journal of Sport History, Sport in History, International Journal of the History of Sport, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, and Sport in Society. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gorringe, Chris. Holding Court: Inside the Gates of the Wimbledon Championships. London: Arrow Books, 2009.
McEnroe, John. Serious. London: Time Warner Paperbacks, 2002.
Mills, Alan. Lifting the Covers: Alan Mills, the Autobiography. London: Headline, 2005.
Perry, Fred. Fred Perry: An Autobiography. London: Arrow Books, 1984.