Monday, 20 March 2017

Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum

The All England Lawn Tennis Club,
Church Road, Wimbledon,
London SW19 5AE.

Thursday March 16 2017

We had, during last week’s trip to the Merton Heritage Museum, picked up a trail/walk leaflet , called the Wimbledon Way which involved a short stroll (2km) through Wimbledon’s heritage to the Lawn Tennis Museum.

As it was a lovely spring day we decided to follow it and I shall take you through the stages very briefly before we went underground into the Museum itself.

The trail starts at the station, which is generously served  by Underground, local and Thameslink services. The Stag which stands outside the station is a reminder of Wimbledon’s woody connections rather than local pub. The roads round the station are very busy with four way traffic and the main shops and services of  Wimbledon including the pretty library, extended since 1887, and nearby Bank Buildings similarly civic and redbrick in that familiar Victorian way. Ely’s the local department store seems to survive, which is quite an achievement.

Leaving some of the bustle behind the trail leads uphill passing large and imposing villas on both sides. Inevitably there was some WW2 bombing and there are more modern infills. Wimbledon High School has been around for nearly 150 years with a range of buildings to match, but what is interesting given how sloped it is is that this was the original site of the All England Croquet & Tennis club.
At the top of the hill we were rather taken with the Toynbee Memorial, which is a water fountain erected in gratitude to Joseph Toynbee  by the working men of Wimbledon . Amongst many campaigns which he supported was to save the common as Earl Spencer was threatening to enclose it.

Wimbledon ‘village’ today is full of expensive and largely independent outlets but originally, judging by the small size of the shops and little cottages, must have been where the working men lived and presumably where the women also went ‘into service’ in the nearby large houses which would have needed plenty of servants to keep them going. You can spot these cottages as you peer down the sides of Church Road which we followed to our destination. Also on the crown of the hill are the now expanded Dog & Fox pub and the very splendid old Fire Station with its very visible clock tower.

Church Road dips and twists downhill affording a good view of the All England Lawn Tennis   Club, which we all know as Wimbledon.
The outside wall has wrought iron inlays depicting groups of period and more modern tennis player silhouettes, which indicates how much the establishment promotes and preserves its heritage, and to some extent its privilege.

There are two possible ways of visiting the site; either you can book a whole guided tour which presumably takes you into the dressing rooms and round the outer courts or, as we opted to do, simply visit the Museum at half the cost – but this does include the opportunity to go into the Centre Court which like Court 1 (currently having a removable roof fitted to be finished by 2019) is only used for the two weeks a year when the Championships take place. Wimbledon is of course the only one of the Grand Slam venues played on grass. The walk underneath the stands is enlivened by wall posters of past winners. Like every great sporting venue since the Colosseum in Rome (and their many other arenas) the circular build with access from below to raked seats is the standard and ideal construction. No lions here, muttered Jo as we peered down a corridor, but we were not encouraged to roam so who knows? (meet by F
red Perry to do this bit) 

Centre Court seats 15,000 people but the All England Lawn Tennis Club only has 500 members – belonging is a similar process to getting membership at Lord’s namely waiting a lifetime for a vacancy to become available unless you are Championship winner… tickets for the June/July championships  are sold via a ballot .

Jo is not a tennis fan but did agree that the Museum was beautifully laid out – it is entirely underground and artificially lit, assuredly for conservation purposes, but again this made photography tricky. It is also circular which makes keeping to a chronology and not missing stuff easy. I on the other hand admire a game which requires so much skill strength and agility (yes I know all sports do) but you are also so self-reliant – there is no-one else to blame for this the most individual and egocentric of sports, and to watch a player rebounding  from a losing position is to watch some-one with huge determination, self-belief and strength of mind. I think the Billie Jean quote, and there are many such from different players is very apt: ‘Tennis is the perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of tranquility’.

Tennis seems to have evolved out of a variety of predecessors including ‘Battledore & Shuttlecock’ real tennis and what the French called ‘Jeu de Paumewhich a bit like Pelota,  was played by hand till some-one thought about a racquet. The French, especially pre-revolution, were leaders in this and the hangover is the number of French words – including Love coming from l’oeuf (an egg). Outdoor tennis was sometimes combined with croquet –  both requiring neatly manicured lawns, and people to maintain them.  Equally equipment to play with  and the leisure to participate – all of which indicates a middle or upper class sport, which it has largely remained.

One of the other attractions for the  Victorians and Edwardians was the fact tennis parties offered opportunities for meeting  the other sex and flirting – think of  John Betjeman’s ‘Joan Hunter Dunn' which epitomises the pre-war image of tennis.
There were championships and competitions before that of course, both All England and International, and we enjoyed the posters previewing the same. Tennis has also always been subject to fashion and style, not only in the clothes but in souvenirs and artefacts and the two Art Deco models are excellent examples of tennis invading the living spaces of the well to do.

The Second World War put a longer break on tennis evolution and here at Wimbledon the car parks were ploughed up for farming, with the championships restarting in 1946. By 1967 professionals and amateurs were playing side by side and nowadays with the intensity of training and travelling it cannot be anything other than a professional sport though local ‘tennis clubs’ still exist.

The history up to this point has been largely documented through some photographs and documents and snippets of real film alongside some reconstructed scenes. The next section, which is far more interactive, looks at the developing technology of the sport – how simple handmade wooden rackets evolved into the highly technical weapons they are today – the same is true of the tennis balls .  As Wimbledon is firmly grassy you do get to play with the ‘covers’, those ground sheets which go on when ‘rain stops play’.   

There are multiple choice questions about the role of the ball boys and girls and even more key – the decisions of the umpire.
Q ‘Do you let players listen to their headphones during the break?’
A. No. They might be getting instructions from their coach.

There is also a machine for testing your reactions to balls coming over the net – we cheated by playing doubles against another visitor who then revealed he had used both hands, and of course we were way too slow..
Round the bend was the section labelled ‘Mainly Whites’ which we originally took to be statement on the (lack of) diversity in tennis but actually refers to the Wimbledon rules that what you wear must be ‘mainly white’. There is the full range of clothes from full length Victorian dresses through the frilly nylon era up to the modern more functional sportswear, and of course there are examples to try on. Note the corset - essential wear!

From here on the museum experience becomes a multi- media one with films running round the top, sound bites from famous players and many examples of signed rackets/ and garments from specific matches or wins…  all this to illustrate how tennis became a celebrity sport complete with autograph hunters in the early days and endorsements as time went on.

Most interesting to me was the hologram of John McEnroe analysing the evolution of tennis play since his day. Somehow the tennis brat of the Seventies and Eighties has become one of the game’s best and most succinct commentators who also knows when to remain silent, and he summarised the strengths and enduring talents of the game’s main players.  I found watching tennis had become a lot less attractive during the Pete Sampras era ( a one-trick gorilla was how I once described him to my children who thought I was being unfair) but has blossomed again since.

Finishing the tour you can gaze at the Championship Cup and for the Ladies – the Plate. The exhibition also includes Kipling’s ‘If’ which is all about ‘holding your nerve’ something that gets played out time and again on the green courts of Wimbledon.

As most of us are unlikely ever to get tickets to see a live match a visit to the museum and almost certainly the tour will enhance your enjoyment and is a must for any tennis fan – of which there are many given the numbers attending today. 

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