Years: 1896 - 1908
Tennis spent 64 years outside the Olympic family and because of this it is easily forgotten that it was one of the original sports when the first modern Olympiad was staged in 1896. Since then the map of the world has frequently been re-drawn, all the more so in sporting terms and not least the way in which the great distinction between amateurs and professionals has virtually been eliminated.
A whole way of life has been transformed. Yet if there is one thing which has remained constant, it is surely the Olympic ideal, allowing the cherished Olympic flame, that inspiring emblem of fellowship and international friendship, to burn more brightly than ever.
John Boland of Ireland, later to become a British Member of Parliament from 1900-1918 and one of the founders of the National University of Ireland in Dublin, was the first Olympic tennis winner. The competition took place in a tent, with some matches being played outside in the centre of the Velodrome. Boland, who beat Dionysios Kasdaglis 63 61 in the singles final, then teamed with Friedrich Traun of Germany to win the men's doubles. Olympic tennis was on its way.
No women's events in any sport were held that first year, but four years later the women were admitted as the Games moved to Paris, the city that was hosting the world exposition at the start of the new century. Great Britain made a clean sweep of the gold medals for the four tennis events that were played. Charlotte Cooper (later to become Mrs Sterry), the Wimbledon champion of 1895, 1896 and 1898, beat Helene Prevost in the women’s singles final to claim the distinction of being the first woman in any sport to win an Olympic gold medal.
The 1904 Games in St Louis were not the most memorable. They took part against the background of much wrangling between the eventual host city and Chicago, which had originally won the nomination from the International Olympic Committee. The programme of events started in May and ran, almost without interruption, to November! Many of the competitions held no obvious Olympic significance even though they came under the Olympic banner. The competition ran alongside the World's Fair that commemorated the Louisiana Purchase.
Because of the travelling difficulties that were commonplace with such long distances to be covered in those days, the European challenge was small compared with the 1896 and 1900 Games. Nevertheless, there were 45 competitors for the two tennis events that were staged, the men's singles and men's doubles. Americans struck tennis gold for the first time, with Beals Wright winning the singles, and then partnering Edgar Leonard to success in the doubles.
It was when the Olympic Games moved to London for the first time in 1908 that some discipline and planning at last came into the general organisation. Many of the regulations and principles laid down then are still in Olympic use today, or at least form the basis of present day Olympic rules.
In 1908, the format for Olympic tennis was changed again. Not only were the women's singles reinstated but, on this occasion, two separate tennis events were held. The first, on covered courts in May, was staged at The Queen's Club in London, and the second on the grass courts of The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, in July, after The Championships. In those days, The All England Club was based on Worple Road in Wimbledon, only switching to the current Church Road site in 1922 when popularity demanded a larger venue.
For the indoor event, Sweden and Great Britain were the only countries represented, with Britain's Arthur Gore who was to go on to win Wimbledon a few weeks later, defeating his teammate George Caridia 63 75 64 to take the gold medal. There was also an all-British final in the women's singles in which Gladys Eastlake-Smith finally overcame Alice Greene 62 46 60. To complete a successful week, two days after winning the gold medal, Gladys Eastlake-Smith got married.
The event after Wimbledon, however, generated far more interest. In fact, with contingents from Austria and Bohemia adding fresh interest to the young and exciting teams from Germany and South Africa, in addition to those from nations where tennis was already firmly established. The number of countries represented was larger than at Wimbledon itself.
Indeed it was the unexpected success of the frail-looking German, Otto Froitzheim, in reaching the final that was the feature of the meeting. Playing at Wimbledon for the first time, Froitzheim calmly overcame the slippery conditions and the exclusive atmosphere of the old Worple Road centre court to win four rounds with much baseline versatility before losing to the stolid Englishman, Josiah Ritchie.
Sadly the women's singles degenerated into farce. Of the original 13 entries, only seven (all from Great Britain) turned up, with two of the best-known withdrawing: Blanche Hillyard, six times the Wimbledon champion, and Charlotte Sterry, who had just won Wimbledon for a fifth time. As a result, only four matches were required to win the gold medal, which went to another of the legendary tennis players of the day, Dorothea Lambert Chambers.
- Continue reading... second chapter in the History section: Take-off