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Forget Wimbledon - it’s game, set and match to Brum as home of tennis

By dan shaw  |  Posted: June 27, 2013

Major Harry Gem who hit upon a new summer pastime of lawn tennis

Major Harry Gem who hit upon a new summer pastime of lawn tennis

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WITH Wimbledon underway this week , you’d be forgiven for thinking that SW19 is the home of British tennis.

But, think again, as the origins of lawn tennis are found in B15 – the Edgbaston postcode, where the game began.

It all started in the suburban back garden of 8 Ampton Road, in the leafy surrounds of Edgbaston.

Back in 1859, this was the home of Jean Batista Augurio Perera, a trader in Spanish merchandise.

And, it was here that Perera and his friend, Major Harry Gem, hit upon a new summer pastime that would take the world by storm.

However, the official line is quite different, with London claiming to be the birthplace of lawn tennis. So what really happened? Major Harry Gem was Clerk to the Birmingham Magistrates and a keen racquets player.

Related to the ancient game of Real Tennis, racquets is an indoor game. And, both Perera and Gem were members of Brum’s Bath Street Racquet Club.

The two friends loved the game so much they wanted to develop an outdoor version that could be played by both sexes. Their novel idea led to them experimenting on the croquet lawn in Perera’s garden.

Victorian skirts The pair came up with a game they called “pelota”, meaning “ball” in Spanish. Not to be confused with the fast and furious ball game played in the Basque region and in Mexico, the Edgbaston version was somewhat less violent, thus allowing ladies in voluminous Victorian skirts to participate.

The court dimensions were dictated by the size of Perera’s garden, and are still the same today, although the net height has changed. Sadly, number 8 Ampton Road no longer has a tennis court.

But, there is a blue plaque commemorating its role as the birth-place of lawn tennis. In the summer of 1872, Perera and Gem moved to Leamington Spa, where, along with local doctors, Frederic Haynes and Arthur Thompkins, they formed the first club, specifically for playing lawn tennis.

Play took place on the lawns of the Manor House Hotel, opposite Perera’s new home in Avenue Road, Leamington.

The friends’ club was short lived, but it’s at this point that the story returns to Brum. This time, to the Edgbaston Archery Society, known informally as The Archery.

The society was established in 1860, to accommodate affluent ladies and gentlemen who enjoyed the sport of archery.

It proved very popular, and by 1867 the club moved to its current premises next to Birmingham’s Botanical Gardens. And, in 1870 croquet was introduced there.

The club’s records show that Harry Gem was certainly a member between 1864 and 1869.

Sadly, there is no hard evidence to prove he introduced the game of lawn tennis to the club, directly.

Whatever the case, the Archery Society’s fixture card for 1875 does show tennis was well established at the Edgbaston club by then.

Meanwhile, the story moves to London, where a retired Indian Army Major, Walter Clopton Wingfield, was amusing himself, knocking a ball around on his lawn. Like Gem and Perera before him, Wingfield mixed elements of Real Tennis and racquets, coming up with a new game he called, Sphairistike.

Despite its exotic look, the name simply meant “ball game” in Greek. Wingfield’s court was a rather strange, hour-glass shape, with a net across the middle. And, his rules were confusing, to say the least.

Patent So confident was he that his new game would catch on, Wingfield took a bold step. On February 23, 1874, he went to London’s Trade Hall to patent his version of the game that would eventually become Lawn Tennis, thus ensuring that his name went down in history as its official inventor.

At first, Wingfield sold his Sphairistike game as a neatly packaged boxed set, containing: Four light Real Tennis racquets, a net with pegs, and ribbons to draw the court.

Potential customers were advised they “must already have a grass surface on which to install the court that should be in the shape of an hourglass.” Originally, Wingfield had merely intended his new game to be a more popular form of Real Tennis.

So, his court was designed to be portable, for indoor and outdoor use. But, by the time he’d finished tweaking the rules, the game bore little resemblance to Real Tennis.

The fact that Wingfield had taken out a patent on his invention was very unusual at the time, but it made all the difference.

That, and a few strokes of luck, ensured his game became wildly successful, whereas the game devised by Gem and Perera had remained very much a hobby for family and friends.

Wingfield’s major stroke of luck came in the shape of the All England Croquet Club in Wimbledon.

In 1874, the year Wingfield acquired his patent, the illustrious club found itself short of cash.

To boost its finances, the club decided to take a chance and add some new Sphairistike courts.

Bold move Three years later, the club needed to raise more cash to buy a new roller and pay rising rents.

Which is how, in 1877, the very first lawn tennis championship tournament, for men’s singles only, came about.

It was a bold move, and guaranteed the Wimbledon club was linked forever to the birth of lawn tennis.

By a strange twist of fate, the first ever Wimbledon champion hailed from Warwickshire, the very county where Gem and Perera had invented their game of lawn tennis. Back in 1877, the prize money won by 27-year-old champion W. Spencer Gore was 12 guineas.

Very firmly, Major Wingfield had seized the initiative, ensuring his version of outdoor tennis came to prevail.

Before long, the manicured croquet lawns of the well to do were being replaced with Sphairistike courts. Wingfield’s success gained further momentum when he joined forces with the MCC – or Marylebone Cricket Club, the authority then responsible for all racquet sports, to define much simpler rules for his game.

The unwieldy name also had to go, as no one could pronounce it properly, let alone spell it. Before long, people started shortening the name to “sticke” or even “sticky”. Eventually, it became known as Lawn Tennis. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Except that Wingfield and Wimbledon didn’t quite have it all their own way. Brummie pioneers, Gem and Perera may have lost out to Wingfield and his patent.

But, their influence was very definitely felt at Edgbaston Archery and Lawn Tennis Society, the oldest surviving tennis club in the world – beating Wimbledon’s All England Club by three weeks.

For that contest, it’s game, set and match to Brum! As a footnote, the prestigious Edgbaston Priory tennis club which hosts the pre-Wimbledon Aegon Classic ladies tournament, was recently upgraded to a World Tennis Association (WTA) Premier 600 event.

This means that from next year it can offer more prize money and ranking points to players. Tournament chiefs hope to attract more top world players such as Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka.

Newly-developed club facilities also include a state of the art, sunken centre court, named after former Wimbledon champion and world number one, Kings Heath born, Ann Jones.

At the official opening, on Sunday, June 9, fans were treated to a special doubles display involving Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski.

It’s great to see lawn tennis really coming home!

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