Match Point: the International Tennis Hall of Fame

4 minutes read

Game on nine centuries of tennis with the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. From its beginning in Europe to its widespread popularity in our culture and society, jump into centuries of tennis history. Grab your racquet and let’s play!

 


A pinch of History

  • Tennis is an evolution of games played in European medieval monasteries in the 12th century.
  • Wimbledon (UK) hosted the 1st championship in 1877.
  • In 1881, Newport hosted the 1stS. National Lawn Tennis Championship (now US Open).
  • Tennis was an inaugural sport during the 1896 Olympics Games in Athens, Greece.
  • Jimmy Connors (USA) won the most title in Tennis’ history: 109 titles between 1972 and 1989. Followed by Roger Federer 95 titles from 2001 to 2017.

 

Built in 1880, the Newport casino originally housed a social club, car and horse racing (never a gambling area) for Newport’s Gilded Age elite. In 1954, James Henry Van Alen saved and redeveloped the damaged structure founding the International Tennis Hall of Fame. This museum, the largest in the US, displays 25,000 artifacts: trophies, pictures, outfits, etc. for Tennis Professionals, amateurs or novices, this experience is astonishing!

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James Henry Van Alen
  1. Tennis Early Stage

Even if tennis’s origins are uncertain, this game is probably an evolution of the “Jeu de Paume” [Game of the Palm], a paddle game played in France before the 12th century.

By the 16th century, the royal tennis (real or court tennis) extended and developed in Royal courts and monasteries in France and England. This racquet game is still played today. Contrary to the lawn tennis, royal tennis includes bound walls. Today, only a few courts remain active in Europe and America, including the one in Newport (built in 1880, this is the second oldest in the US).

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“Tennis Court in Leiden” by Crispijn van de Passe, 1612.
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Royal Tennis Court

By the 19th century, the earliest form of lawn tennis appeared when Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, British army officer, patented the Sphairistikè game in 1874. Quickly, this new sport expanded as the Major set up boxed sets including equipment and instructions and sold it worldwide (Canada, India, China, etc.).

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Lawn tennis set

Also, at the time, this game fits the Victorian society and its social rules: no physical contact and both men and women could play together.

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Summer 1890, Execution Hollow, West Point, New York.

Innovation and technology developed and improved lawn tennis. For example,  racquets‘ shape evolved through the 20th century not only for design but also for capabilities.IMG_2697

 

 

  1. Let’s the game begins – Tournaments and Open Tennis

Early Tournaments

As its popularity grew, Tennis competitions and tournaments multiplied worldwide. Lawn tennis tournaments started early 1876 in Bermuda, followed by the 1st Wimbledon Championship in 1877 at the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club.

The 1st tournament in the US, the men’s U.S. National Lawn Tennis Championship, was played in Newport on August, 31st, 1881. At the time 25 players competed. Relocated to New York in 1914 due to its outgrowth, it’s now called the US Open. As a tribute of this beginning, the museum displays each year the actual US Open Champion trophy before sending it to New York.

The 1st women’s U.S. National Lawn Tennis Championship was contested in 1887 at the Philadelphia Cricket Club and welcomed seven players. As with men, the popularity of this tournament led to its relocation to New York in 1920.

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National Men’s Singles Championship (US Open) in Newport, RI, 1885.

 

From Shamateurism to Open Tennis

The Open Tennis area started in 1968 thanks to Herman David, Derek Harwick, and Bob Kelleher. Previously, considered as separated sports, amateur and professional tennis co-existed. Open tennis allows them to compete together during competitions. Some major tournaments, forbidden to professionals started to welcome them.

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Did you know? Arthur Ashe, an amateur tennis player, was the 1st African-American to win a major title. In 1968, he defeated Tom Okker, professional, in the US Open (14-12, 5-7, 6-3,3-6,6-3). On September 10th, Jackie Robinson, an African-American baseball player, sent him the Telegraph below.

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  1. Hall of Fame, the legend of Tennis

The 1st room of the museum is dedicated to the legends of Tennis. Wall of fame highlights over 250 iconic players and major contributors over the years like Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer, Martina Hingis, Venus, and Serena Williams to name a few of them.

 

 

  1. Tennis in the Pop Culture

The early 20th century was the beginning of Tennis’ Golden Age in the pop culture. Broadcasted on radios and covered by televisions, Tennis spread worldwide and tennis professionals became celebrities, coaches, consultants, and even actors.

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Wheaties cereal box featuring Arthur Ashe on the left (1997) and Althea Gibson (2001).
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Mickey Mouse magazine, August 1934.

 

Their influence extended into several aspects of our society like fashion. Many players founded successful sportswear lines like Stan Smith and Rene Lacoste. More recently, people were talking about Serena Williams‘s tutu outfit at 2018 US open or her gold sneakers during the 2002 French Open Women’s Single Championship.

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Stan Smith Supreme Tennis Shoes, 1974.
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Tennis’ outfits including Rene Lacoste “crocodile” blazer (the 1920s).

 

To conclude entering this museum was a unique and full tennis experience. I really enjoyed the variety of artifacts, detailed and clear explanations, and digital interactions like the Roger Federer Hologram and the tennis culture touch table (I almost won my 1ST tennis game ;-). The ultimate excitement is to be in this historic place and be able to play on the courts. I LOVED it!

 

“We knew Open Tennis was going to be a success but we didn’t know it was going to be a bonanza” Derek Hardwick, 1968.

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 Sounds like a must play?

 

If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment and share with a traveler visiting Newport, RI.

 


Tips:

  • Location: 194 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, Rhode Island.
  • Hours: 10am-5pm. Closed Tuesdays.
  • Admission: $15 (audio guide not included)
  • Duration: I spent 2 hours to discover it.
  • More information available at https://www.tennisfame.com/

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