Gruffudd Owen explores the fascinating history of tennis, from its role in 15th century royal assassinations to exciting contemporary adaptations of the sport
A deadly serve
An early form of tennis played its part in the assassination of a Scottish king in the 15th century. King James I was fond of playing with his racquet in the courtyard of Blackfriars monastery, but grew tired of losing balls in the sewage drain at the side of the court. His decision to block the drain proved fatal. On 20 February 1437, conspirators broke into the monastery with the intention of killing the king. James was alerted to the intrusion and fled through the sewer tunnel, forgetting he had ordered the exit to be shut. The monarch was trapped and subsequently killed, meaning his love of tennis ultimately proved to be his downfall.
The reluctant Olympian
Many leading tennis players decided against participating in the first modern Summer Olympic Games in 1896. To bolster numbers, the IOC drafted in competitors from other disciplines including weightlifting and hammer throwing. They were joined by John Pius Boland, an Irish Nationalist politician who was on holiday in Athens at the time. Despite having little experience in the sport, Boland accepted the request of his friend Thrasyvoulos Manos – an IOC member – to compete. Not only did he go on to win singles gold, he also triumphed in the doubles alongside German 800-metre runner Friedrich Traun in a mixed team.
Pineapples and cream?
Strawberries and cream is a ubiquitous summer snack at Wimbledon – the oldest tennis championship in the world – with spectators consuming the much-loved combination by the tonne-load each year. However, there is in fact another fruit on offer at the All England Club that is even more coveted than the strawberry. Atop the men’s singles trophy sits a golden pineapple – a nod to an old British maritime tradition of sailors placing the tropical fruit on the gateposts of their homes after returning from sea.
A patriotic act
What is now known as the US Open – one of the four major tennis championships – was renamed the National Patriotic Tournament for one year in 1917 in support of American efforts in the First World War. The global conflict caused major disruptions in the tennis calendar, making the tournament the only Grand Slam event of the year. There were no trophies on offer for the winners, while entrance fees were paid to the American Red Cross.
A French ace
Roland Garros – otherwise known as the French Open – is not named after a tennis player, but rather a French aviation hero who became the first man to fly over the Mediterranean Sea. Garros was gunned down and killed in combat on the eve of his 30th birthday towards the end of the First World War; to commemorate his death, the tennis centre that Garros used to attend during his student days in Paris was renamed in his honour.
The evergreen champion
Tennis is a sport with a storied list of young prodigies who tasted glory at the very beginning of their careers. Ken Rosewall of Australia is no exception; in 1953, the Sydneysider ironically nicknamed ‘Muscles’ by his peers became the youngest ever winner of the men’s Australian Championships at the age of just 18, a record that stands to this day. However, what makes Rosewall special is that he is also the oldest man to have won the Grand Slam event, lifting the trophy for the fourth time in 1972 at the ripe old age of 37.
Historically regarded as a conservative game proud of its long-standing traditions, tennis has strived to embrace innovative ideas in recent years, with the Arabian Gulf very much in the vanguard of these efforts. Dubai’s Burj Al Arab hotel gained worldwide attention in 2005 when Roger Federer and Andre Agassi played a match on the world’s highest tennis court – located on the venue’s helipad – while in 2011 Federer faced Rafael Nadal on water ahead of the Qatar Open in Doha, with the match taking place on a floating platform in the middle of a lagoon.