Plenty of socio-political topics for a debate in the tennis club bar


It’s reassuring to know people are still publishing books on tennis despite the lack of any tournaments at which to promote them. In general, the run-up to a Grand Slam or Christmas are the best times for tennis books, as interest is always greatest as a major tournament draws near, and any time people are looking for presents is a good time to be selling books.

Which is why we should welcome Pluto Press’s decision to go ahead with the launch this week of ‘A People’s History of Tennis’ by the documentary maker David Berry. Originally timed to coincide with Roland Garros and Wimbledon, it hits the market amid a vacuum of activity, with tennis wondering when the next tournament is going to take place, and the official tours marooned for at least another two months.

Then again, this book’s biggest problem is probably its title. A more accurate title would be ‘A Social History of Tennis’, but the Canada-based British academic Robert J Lake snapped that up a few years ago. Berry could have called his book ‘A Socio-Political History of Tennis’ which would be even more accurate but probably a turn-off.

And that would be a shame, because while this book is no connoisseur’s tract, it does pose some questions that provide great material for discussion in the tennis club bar, or even tennis media debates. He starts by describing what’s known of the plot by the suffragette movement to blow up Wimbledon’s old Centre Court in 1913, and goes on to trace the socio-political status of tennis from its beginnings in the 1870s. At risk of sounding like an exam paper, here are some questions Berry’s book invites:

  • By advertising lawn tennis as being for men and women on his 1874 boxes, Walter Wingfield established modern-day tennis as the perfect sport to promote equality of the sexes. Discuss.

  • Was Fred Perry really tennis’s working class hero of the 1930s or just a little less middle class than his rivals?

  • The 1950s and 60s were the golden era of club tennis, because the courts existed, people had time to run members’ clubs, and money didn’t play a divisive role. Discuss.

  • How much would tennis be seen as a sport for the affluent classes if it wasn’t for the upper-crust image of Wimbledon and, until 1978, Forest Hills?

In keeping with Pluto’s reputation for publishing socially challenging books, Berry shines a light on many social and political aspects of tennis that have tended to get overlooked. It was news to me that, for 12 years between 1932 and 1951, there was a ‘Workers Wimbledon’ tournament. It was originally organised by a group of socialists, but by 1947 its value in spreading tennis competition to areas that wouldn’t otherwise have seen the sport meant Wimbledon provided space for it, and the Wimbledon chairman even handed out the prizes.

Berry admits in his introduction that he’s no tennis academic. He’s a club player who was a promising junior but, coming from a not particularly monied background, he never had much chance to see if he might be any good, so he tells the story of tennis’s socio-political background with a passion that comes from personal experience.

Those who know tennis will spot plenty of minor errors and misunderstandings in his book, and at times he pushes the actual truth to the point where it gives a misleading impression (for example saying Wimbledon flew the Nazi swastika above Centre Court in 1937 – well yes, but by then it was part of the German flag and Wimbledon was hosting a Great Britain v Germany Davis Cup tie, so it would have caused a diplomatic incident if the visitors’ flag wasn’t flown!). And it has an inevitable bias towards British events, though not exclusively, and I’d be surprised if there was a tennis aficionado who didn’t learn something new from this book.

Its primary value lies in it shining a light from outside the ranks of those with detailed knowledge of tennis on the social background to tennis, and throwing up all sorts of questions that those of us immersed in the sport can often miss. To that extent, ‘A People’s History of Tennis’ is a welcome addition to the tennis library.

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Header photograph John Robert Young (c) 2016

Chris Bowers (c)  2019