The Pioneers of Wimbledon: Tales from the First Tournament

Wimbledon kicked off in 1877, and Spencer Gore claimed the first title

by Jovica Ilic
The Pioneers of Wimbledon: Tales from the First Tournament

The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon, London, staged the first Major tournament in 1877, in the first notable step in the creation of modern tennis. Everything was still brand new, and the organizers had to start with the fundamental things.

They arranged a meeting between Messrs Julian Marshall, Charles G. Heathcote and Henry Jones to determine the basic rules and presentation, preparing everything for the second week of July. The Jefferies & Co company manufacturers from Woolwich were in charge of producing "nets of the right size and texture; posts of the right height and stoutness, and fifteen dozen balls, without a bad one amongst them." The scoring system was the same as today, with deuces and advantages that led to the sudden death at five games, excluding the final set.

The points were alive and kickin' if the ball touched the net and landed in the service field. The net itself was slightly higher than today. At the same time, the court dimensions were identical, with the only difference in the length of the service field, which is five feet shorter today in comparison to 1877 (they had shortened it to today's measure in 1880).

The first-ever Wimbledon draw occurred at Pavilion at the All England Club Ground on Saturday, July 7, at 3:30 pm. Twenty-two players signed to play (they did not consider the players who had tried to make the draw later), and the action started at the same time two days after, on July 9.

Charles Buller failed to show up, so there were ten first-round encounters, including the first Wimbledon five-setter between Julian Marshall and Captain Grimston. Players completed five second-round clashes on Tuesday. Charles Gilbert Heathcote did not have to compete, moving into the quarter-final after receiving a bye at the bottom of the draw.

The first Wimbledon took place in July 1877!

We should remember J. Lambert as the first player who retired at Wimbledon, leaving Spencer Gore, Francis Langham, Lestocq Robert Erskine, William Marshall, Julian Marshall and Charles Heathcote as the remaining title chasers.

Three of Wednesday's quarter-final matches were to determine the semi-finalists. Gore defeated Langham 6-3, 6-2, 5-6, 6-1, while Heathcote toppled Julian Marshall 6-3, 6-3, 6-5. The architect William Marshall ousted Erskine 6-5, 5-6, 6-4, 6-1 and had a clear path toward the final, while Gore and Heathcote had to battle for the remaining spot in the title clash.

On Thursday, Gore overpowered Heathcote 6-2, 6-5, 6-2, and everything was set for the first Wimbledon final on Monday, July 16, after the Eton vs. Harrow cricket match on Friday and Saturday. Instead of Monday, the final was postponed for further three days due to rain, kicking off on July 19.

Gore and Marshall appeared on the slippery court around 4:30 pm, and it took Spencer under 50 minutes to secure a 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 triumph and become the first Wimbledon champion, earning the twelve guinea gold prize and holding the twenty-five guinea silver Challenge cup.

Marshall won the toss and served first, getting broken immediately for the worst start. Gore delivered an excellent hold in game two to cement the break and another after deuce for a 3-1 lead. William was 40-15 up in game five before Spencer found a way to break him again, forging a 4-1 advantage and sealing the deal with another break in game seven to wrap up the opener in 15 minutes!

The rain halted the action for another 15 minutes before Marshall opened the second set with a break, hoping for a better run in comparison to the first set. His lead was short-lived, though, with Gore erasing the deficit and moving 4-2 ahead with another break in game six.

He was the leading figure on the court, taking the next two games to cement the set 6-2 after 13 minutes and move closer to the finish line. Spencer held at the beginning of the third set and stole Marshall's serve following William's double faults.

Nonetheless, Marshall bounced back to win the next couple of games and level the score at 2-2 before finding himself 4-2 down again, unable to control his initial shot or do more on the return. The battle was right on when William claimed games seven and eight, staying in touch with Gore.

Spencer stayed focused and produced the crucial hold for 5-4. He delivered a clinical break in game ten to clinch the title and write history. To offer the crowd more tennis, Marshall and Heathcote played a playoff match to determine the second and third prize winners, with Marshall prevailing 6-4, 6-4.

Spencer Gore was 27 when he became the first Wimbledon champion, returning to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club only once after that and losing to Frank Hadow in the Challenge match a year later.