New balls please: The history of Wimbledon

Tennis ball in grass sporting the Wimbledon logo
Over 54,000 tennis balls are used during each tournament. The balls are kept under refrigerated conditions to ensure they're in optimal condition | Image: Jiri Vondrous/Shutterstock.com

Wimbledon, or ‘The Championships, Wimbledon’ to give its proper title, is the world’s oldest tennis tournament and arguably the most famous as well. Since the first-ever competition in 1877, the Championships have been held almost every year at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, London. It takes place at the end of June over a two-week period.

Wimbledon is one of the tennis world’s four major ‘Grand Slam’ tournaments and the only one still played on grass. It has come a long way since the first competition and remains one of the most popular events on the entire international sporting calendar. Let’s look back at where it all began.

The first Wimbledon Championships

The inaugural Wimbledon tournament took place with very little fanfare. Lawn tennis was a relatively new concept and an offshoot of the game traditionalists called ‘real tennis’ which took place on an indoor court. However, lawn tennis was growing in popularity and the first Championships took place on 14th April 1877.

This tournament had only a Gentleman’s Singles contest, no women were allowed to compete and there were also no doubles matches. The first Wimbledon champion was Spencer William Gore who beat his opponent 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 in just 48 minutes. As has become a tradition for many following years, the final was postponed due to rain. This is an occurrence that only stopped with the installation of the retractable roof over Centre Court in 2009.

The evolution of the tournament

No tournaments took place during either of the World Wars, but the game continued to grow in popularity on either side of the conflicts and more participants joined every single year. In 1884, the Ladies Singles and Men’s Doubles competitions were introduced, marking the first time that women were allowed to compete.

The Club moved in 1922 as it needed more space for extra courts and remains at the same Church Road site today. The competition also made history in 1967 as it became the first broadcast to be televised in colour.

Wimbledon etiquette and traditions

Modern players at Wimbledon must wear white. Only a thin single strip of colour under 10mm is allowed on the neckline, sleeves, trousers, or skirt. In the 19th century, Wimbledon players opted for long-sleeved white shirts and trousers with full-length white dresses for female players. In the 1920s and 1930s fashions began to change but the white has always remained.

Strawberries and cream have become synonymous with the tournament, with approximately 28,000kg of strawberries eaten each year. It also has close ties to the Royal family and has a firm place in British heritage, as well as recognised importance in the world of tennis.

Five Fascinating Facts about Wimbledon

1. An obscene amount of balls

It’s estimated that over 54,000 tennis balls are used in each Wimbledon tournament. All balls have to be professionally inspected and replaced every seven to nine games to ensure they are always in prime condition. Balls not in use are even kept in a refrigerated container to ensure their condition is not impacted in any way.

2. The serious work of ball boys and girls

Being selected as a Wimbledon ball boy or girl is not an easy job. They are coached meticulously and selected from local schools. Around 250 ball boys and girls are required each year and they work tirelessly tracking and collecting balls and ensuring the flow of the game is not disrupted.

3. Europe’s largest sports catering event

Wimbledon holds the record for the single largest annual sporting catering event in Europe. Over 234,000 meals are served, guests enjoy over 330,000 cups of tea and coffee and there are over 29,000 bottles of champagne shared too. And that’s not even including the strawberries and cream!

4. Lightning-fast serves stack up

In 2010, Taylor Dent recorded the fastest serve of all time at 148mph. In the women’s game legendary player Venus Williams tops the bill. In 2008 her serve shot past at 129 mph.

5. Wimbledon makes Tennis Legends

Swiss tennis player and all-round great of the game Roger Federer holds the record for most Wimbledon titles won by a professional male in the modern game. Federer has won the Championships eight times. The most successful woman at Wimbledon is Czech superstar Martina Navratilova. Her career saw her bag a total of nine Wimbledon Championships!