The Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon have developed from the garden party atmosphere of the first meeting in 1877, witnessed by a few hundred spectators, to a highly professional tournament attracting an attendance of over 450,000 people and through the press, radio, Internet and television a following of millions throughout the world.
The All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club (the AELTC) has overseen the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, the world's oldest tennis tournament, since its inception in 1877, and is responsible for the operation and upkeep of the Wimbledon grounds, as well as exploiting the Wimbledon brand through product licensing and television broadcasting rights. The AELTC is a private club, with 350 full members and 100 elected temporary members; the club also has a number of honorary members, including former tournament winners, who receive lifetime memberships. The Wimbledon grounds consists of 20 grass courts--including the primary championship courts Centre Court and No. 1 Court--five red shale courts, and five clay courts. Wimbledon also features five indoor courts, and a non-regulation size croquet court. In addition to its tennis courts, Wimbledon also encompasses a range of restaurant facilities, broadcast and media facilities, and players' amenities. Since 1993, the AELTC has been engaged in a Long Term Development Plan, which included the construction of a new No.1 Court, added in 1997, with a new No. 2 Court slated to be opened in the new century. While Wimbledon remains open to members throughout the year, the highlight of the AELTC's year is, of course, the July championships, at which time the AELTC plays host to up to 500,000 spectators--and many millions more via television worldwide. A system of "debentures," inaugurated in the 1920s and traded on the London Stock Exchange through the All England Lawn Tennis Grounds Plc, owner of the Wimbledon site, controls a large portion of the event's tickets; a major share of tickets are distributed through tennis clubs and corporate sponsors, while approximately 6,000 seats per day are sold at the grounds itself. Licensing of the Wimbledon brand is conducted through nearly 30 licensees in seven countries, producing clothing, shoes, tennis gear, but also luxury products such as towels, leather goods, sunglasses, jewelry, and food products. The club has also licensed Wimbledon "shop in shops" at Harrods and Lillywhite department stores, and also has concessions in Heathrow and Gatwick airports. All of the club's net profits, which reached £21 million in 2001, go to longtime partner the Lawn Tennis Association to promote lawn tennis in the United Kingdom.
Founding Tennis History in the 1870s
Before there was tennis, there was croquet. In England, the popularity of the game led to the founding of the All England Croquet Club in the Wimbledon suburb of London in 1868. Co-founders J.H. Walsh and Henry Jones, respectively owner and editor-in-chief of the popular magazine The Field, soon began organizing tournament play. In 1869, the club held its first championship game, at the Crystal Palace. The All England Croquet Club located its own playing field that same year, renting a four-acre field on Wimbledon's Worple Road for £120 per year. The club hosted the second championship on its own grounds for the first time in 1870. By mid-decade, however, the popularity of croquet had begun to fade somewhat, in part because the official playing rules had become too "scientific" for many players.
In order to boost membership, Walsh and Jones set aside a playing field for a new game: Lawn Tennis. Patented and possibly invented by Walter Wingfield in 1873, the new game was originally called "Sphairistriké," Greek for "the art of the ball," and was a simplified form of the game tennis (later known as Real Tennis) that had been played for some centuries. The game's enthusiastic reception was not reserved for its name, and Wingfield adopted the name "Lawn Tennis" (because it was meant to be played on a lawn) for the new game.
Wingfield began selling a lawn tennis kit comprised of four rackets, a net and a ball, as well as a set of rules and instructions on how to set up the then hourglass-shaped court. The game quickly became popular, despite Wingfield's somewhat confusing rules, which were published in 1874. Wingfield turned to the club that had been responsible for the oversight of Real Tennis and other games, and a new set of rules was drawn up in 1875. Lawn tennis not only swept through England--replacing croquet on many a lawn--but also reached the British colonies, and soon the United States as well.
In 1875, Walsh and Jones paid £25 to acquire the Lawn Tennis game and test the new rules. The result proved so popular that by 1877, the All England Croquet Club changed its name to the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. In that year, also, the AELTC decided to hold its first Lawn Tennis championship at the Worple Street grounds. That event attracted 22 players, but was limited to men's singles competition. From the start, the championship was a paying event, with some 200 spectators paying one shilling per head during the five-day event.
The following year, the AELTC hosted 33 players; in that year, the club instituted the Challenge Round, which enabled the winner to proceed directly to the finals in the next year's competition. That system, which remained unique among the world's tennis tournaments, was not abandoned until 1922. Meanwhile, the Lawn Tennis Championship was attracting an increasing number of spectators--more than 1,000 in 1879. Men's doubles appeared in a rival competition that year, hosted by the Oxford University Lawn Tennis Club. When that club ceased competitions in 1884, it donated its doubles trophy to the AELTC, which began its own men's doubles competitions that year. At the same time, the AELTC added women's singles competition, with a field of 13 players.
The Wimbledon-based competition quickly established itself as the preeminent competition not only in the United Kingdom, but throughout the world. Aiding the club, and the sport in general, was the phenomenal success of the Renshaw twins, who together won 13 singles and doubles championships through the 1880s. Meanwhile, the popularity of lawn tennis and the dwindling interest in croquet had led the club to change its name again, to simply the All England Tennis Club in 1892. An upsurge in interest in croquet at the end of the decade brought the word "Croquet" back into the club's name.
The Wimbledon Games in the 1920s
By the end of the century, the AELTC had begun hosting an increasing number of international competitors. Ticket sales became an important source of income for the AELTC, which had to pay for the club's lease as well as upkeep of its courts and grounds. The growing popularity of the club's yearly competition encouraged management to make steady improvements to the Worple Road site, expanding the Centre Court facility and the grounds by acquiring adjacent properties. After competition was interrupted during World War I, the AELTC was forced to rely on its members and other supporters--who by then included the British royal family--for funding.
The end of the war sparked a renewed interest in lawn tennis, and the AELTC sought to expand its playing grounds. Unable to expand the Worple Street site any further, the AELTC looked elsewhere. In 1920, the club formed a business, All England Lawn Tennis Grounds Plc, jointly owned with the Lawn Tennis Association, which acquired a 13.5-acre site at Wimbledon Park, Surrey, on Wimbledon's Church Road. In order to finance the purchase, All England Lawn Tennis Grounds announced a debenture sale worth £75,000, selling A and B series debentures at £50 each. The A series provided for an interest rate of 7.5 percent per year up until 1947, and also gave the holders the right to purchase one Centre Court seat for each day of the championship. The B series remained interest-free--but entitled its holders to one free Centre Court seat throughout the championships, until 1947 as well. The offer was oversubscribed, and was finally increased to 2,000 debentures, raising £100,000.
The club began construction of a new court, with seating for some 11,000 spectators, attesting to the competition's popularity. The large stadium in turn boosted the event's standing among the growing number of international lawn tennis competitions. The club moved to its new quarters in 1922, and in that year renamed its important July event the Wimbledon Games.
Modern Era of a Tennis Legend
While the Wimbledon park remained open during World War II--it was converted to civil defense and military needs--competition was suspended for the duration. The Centre Court was hit by a bomb in 1940, suffering extensive damage. Following the war, the AELTC extended the original debenture offer, to end in 1953. Meanwhile, competition had resumed in 1946. Yet the AELTC found itself in need of a new cash supply in order to carry out the needed repair work; the club also sought to improve its facilities, including its restaurant and catering operations.
In 1953, the AELTC launched a new debenture sale, offering its existing base of 2,000 holders the right to extend their debentures for another five years. At the same time, the AELTC expanded the offering, adding another 100 debentures. The offering was a success, and became a Wimbledon tradition--with the few debentures changing hands being treated as commodities on the London Stock Exchange. Prices for the debentures rose accordingly--from some £500 per share in the 1950s to more than £5,000 at the beginning of the 1980s, and to more than £20,000 for the 2001 offering.
In the 1960s, the AELTC spearheaded a movement to open international competition to professional players--barred from the amateur-only games under the auspices of the International Tennis Federation. The AELTC originally proposed to allow professional players in 1959, but both the Lawn Tennis Association, which governed the sport in the United Kingdom, and the ITF blocked the move. In 1967, however, Wimbledon hosted a special invitation match, with previous Wimbledon winners turned professionals. The success of that event led to the change in rules in 1968, when the games were declared open to all entrants. That year, also, the company celebrated its centenary--a croquet lawn had been added in 1960, although it was not of regulation size.
The event marked a new era for tennis and for the AELTC, creating a new generation of tennis stars, while also popularizing the game of tennis itself beyond a former elitist image. Tennis became big business in the 1970s, and the AELTC benefited from the upswing. In 1977, the club inaugurated its Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum as part of its 100th anniversary celebration. Two years later, the AELTC itself went pro, so to speak, when it launched its Wimbledon Merchandising program. Under that program, the club began licensing the Wimbledon brand for use on garments, tennis rackets, and accessories, and later a larger variety of goods, including luxury products such as leather goods, crystal, and foods.
The year 1979 also marked the beginning of a new drive to upgrade the Wimbledon grounds, which were straining to meet capacity crowds of up to 450,000 spectators per year. In 1979, the club literally raised the roof on the Centre Court structure, adding a meter of clearance and nearly 1,100 seats. The club also built a new Debenture Holders' Lounge that year, which was complemented in 1980 by a permanent Members' Enclosure building. In 1981, the AELTC built a new court complex, which was given the name of Court No. 1. Meanwhile, the club had continued to acquire surrounding properties, adding the Aorangi Park grounds in 1982.
The AELTC continued to make structural improvements during the 1980s. The Centre Court facility was upgraded in 1985 with the construction of a new East Side building, with housing for club offices, a larger museum, and better press facilities. Centre Court once again received the AELTC's attention in 1992, when its four-pillar roof was replaced by a more modern, 26-pillar roof. The operation enabled the AELTC to free up the view for more than 3,600 seats.
In 1993, the AELTC drew up its Long Term Development Plan, designed to bring the Wimbledon complex up to par with the rest of the tennis' world's major championship sites. Stage one of that plan, meant to extend over a 20-year period, began with the construction of a new No. 1 Court on the Aorangi Park grounds, which included seating for over 11,000 spectators, as well as its own range of restaurants and retail shops. The complex opened in 1997. At the same time, the AELTC built a new broadcast center and two new courts. Funding for these projects came in part through a new debenture offering, of 1,000 debentures specifically for Court No. 1. That offering was extended in 2001, with an additional 1,000 debentures offered for £9,000 each.
With the completion of stage one, the AELTC turned to the next stage, which called for the extension of the Centre Court facility, as well as a new structure, to be built on the site of the old No. 1 Court, to provide player and press accommodations and a new Members area. Paying for these improvements were a steady series of debenture offerings, which raised £11 million in 1986, and £35 million in each of 1991 and 1996.
Meanwhile, the AELTC continued to upgrade its technology as well, launching an interactive Wimbledon web site in 1995. The company's partnership with sponsor IBM, begun during the 1980s, also brought a number of technological innovations to the site, such as real-time results being made available through spectators' portable telephones.
As the AELTC prepared to begin construction on a new West Side facility for the Centre Court, the club raised its Centre Court debenture series for the first time since the 1950s. The 200 additional debentures, bringing the total to 2,300, raised £46 million for the club in 2001. The club then began construction of a new No. 2 Court facility. At the beginning of 2003, the AELTC began considering plans for a new upgrade to its main Centre Court facility in order to address continued visibility issues, with work to start as soon as July 2003--but only after the latest Wimbledon Games, of course.
Principal Subsidiaries: All England Lawn Tennis Grounds Plc.; Tennis Australia; Roland Garros.
Principal Competitors: United States Tennis Association.