A People's History of Tennis reveals the sport's unlikely quest for equality

Perhaps precisely because of its elitist reputation, tennis has consistently attracted mavericks and radicals. 

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Tennis, for all its traditions and propensity to be played in the gardens of mansions, is not often identified as “a site of struggle for freedom, fairness and equality”. Yet this is exactly how David Berry describes it in his new book A People’s History of Tennis, which traces the history of the sport from its inception in 1874 to the present day, exploring its role in the lives of women, racial minorities, LGBTQ people and the working class.

Lawn tennis – tennis as we now know it – differed from earlier versions, which had been played in the royal French courts since the 12th century. Though lawn tennis was first played behind closed doors (its inventor Walter Wingfield originally introduced it at garden parties) it soon caught on more widely. In the early 20th century it became primarily a club sport, with some public courts available, too.

The sport’s relationship with the boundaries of public and private space is crucial when considering its socialist credentials. The Covid-19 lockdown in the UK has caused something of a resurgence of park tennis, through a combination of boredom, people spending more time in their local park and tennis lending itself to social distancing. Park tennis can be traced back to the 1880s – but Berry notes that it was the Workmen’s Act of 1905, which allowed local authorities to hire the unemployed for parks improvement, that was the catalyst. Thousands of public courts were built across the UK and the sport took off outside the club.

In the 1920s and 30s there remained a divide between the two versions of the sport. Tennis clubs became social gathering grounds, part of the identity of white-collar workers. It was not just that working-class applicants were often refused, argues Berry (he writes that many narratives portraying the elitism of club tennis “ignore other aspects of the sport at this time which were more egalitarian, even progressive”), but that middle-class ones were actively expected. “It wasn’t simply that tennis at this time expressed middle-class identity. It forged it.”

There is a sense throughout the book that, rather than tennis leaning towards socialism over elitism, its “people’s history” was written through resistance. It is precisely because lawn tennis is elite that, as Berry puts it, it has “always attracted individuals who were mavericks in their thinking and oppositional in their behaviour.”

Though the Wimbledon Championships did not become officially professional until 1968, as they grew in popularity over the preceding decades the standards became impossibly high. “Workers Wimbledon”, an annual socialist tennis tournament, had sprung up in 1932 – but that Wimbledon was now for players who were professional in “all but name” is what sustained the socialist version for 20 years. In the 1930s it became “the centrepiece of an alternative tennis culture”. Not long after the Second World War it dissolved: “private tennis clubs in Britain started accepting talented players from working-class backgrounds as long as they knew – or could be taught – how to behave”.

Berry describes a similar phenomenon of outsiderdom for budding players othered due to their race. He tells the story of Althea Gibson, a prodigiously talented black player from Harlem, who lobbied against the segregation rules that prohibited her from entering the US Open and was disliked by spectators who approved of neither her competitiveness nor her blackness. Berry notes that black tennis players in the UK are still “noticeable by their absence” and acknowledges the differences in professional commentary that unconsciously undermine black players (who are “natural” and “athletic” while their white counterparts are “genius”).

Women’s role in the history of tennis is different by virtue of their consistent inclusion, a fact hailed by Berry. One of Wingfield’s main selling points for lawn tennis in its original form was that it could be played “by both sexes”. Berry recounts inspiring women players and colourful tales of their corsets. But it seems that what made the game accessible to women – its requirement not just for physical stamina but for “pluck” and intellect – is what makes it appear inaccessible to others. If tennis requires a mysterious, somewhat effeminate wit and charm, as we so often hear in descriptions of the modern greats, it risks excluding those unfamiliar with the world that teaches those attributes.

With park courts full of enthusiasts, and no Wimbledon to lounge in front of, Berry’s potted history makes for a lively, informative read in the summer of 2020. As well as explaining tennis’s hidden communal history it exposes issues of sporting diversity and public space – and, above all, makes you want to pick up a racquet.

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.

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