Class of 1997
Contributions to Tennis
Off the Court
Major Walter Clopton Wingfield was a Welsh Renaissance Man remembered as a creator and promoter of modern lawn tennis. Wingfield patented the game in Great Britain in 1874 after others had previously combined sports like court tennis and rackets to play a game similar to what Wingfield called Sphairistiké– or Greek for "ball games." Wingfield’s patent expired in 1877, allowing the game to further evolve. He secured the patent for the game in February 1874 and had it authoritatively signed by Queen Victoria. All indications point to Wingfield having the foresight to launch the game. He patented a New and Improved Court for Playing the Ancient Game of Tennis and began marketing his game in the spring of 1874. The earliest versions of modern lawn tennis consisted of a box set that included rubber balls, a net, poles, court markers, and an instruction manual. He authored two complimentary tennis books, The Book of the Game in 1873 and The Major's Game of Lawn Tennis in 1874.
As a founder of modern lawn tennis, Wingfield’s idea was to create a portable court for playing the “ancient game of tennis.” He envisioned the game being constructed on croquet courts, providing people with healthy exercise and social amusement. His version of the sport spread quickly, and commenced with the first official Major Championship commencing in 1877 at Wimbledon.
The Major Wingfield Historical Society, located in Houston, Texas, materialized in 1976, a century after the Major published his rules and obtained his British patent. The driving force was author George Alexander, who wrote Wingfield’s biography, published in 1986.
With any historical claim, there will be doubters and skeptics. In the foyer of England’s Lawn Tennis Association stands a tribute statue to Wingfield with the inscription, "Inventor of Lawn Tennis." That homage still provokes debate among sports historians who claim another British Major named Harry Gem, and his Spanish friend JB Perera, were developing tennis in 1872. Although these reports lack the substance and credibility of historical findings related to Wingfield, the Gem-Perera team supposedly named their version “pelota,” which they later changed to “lawn rackets.” In 1872, they set up the Leamington Lawn Tennis Club, later publishing the Rules of Tennis.
The official patent for the game is on display at the Museum at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, along with one of Wingfield’s uniforms.