Journey to the Tennis World Cup

The Tennis World Cup is the first ever mixed tennis event and it is a true landmark in the sport of tennis and gender relations as a whole. Here we look at how tennis finally arrived at true equality..

Early Lawn Tennis

Lawn tennis got going in the mid-19th century after a British major and a Spanish merchant combined aspects of the British game rackets and the Spanish game pelota. The two opened the first tennis club in 1874. The above drawing comes from the same year, demonstrating the layout of the court — which looks pretty familiar for anyone who’s seen a modern tennis court. Also familiar: The fact that women are on the court, even back in 1874 – though playing in a bustle skirt isn’t something that survived the nineteenth century.

Wimbledon

Wimbledon began in 1877 as a fundraiser — not exactly the most auspicious beginning for what would become one of the biggest tournaments in tennis. The first Ladies’ Championship at the tournament was held in 1884. Maud Watson was the first victor and earned a prize of 20 guineas. Not much compared to the 1.8 million British pounds that winners earn today.

The tournament was also notable in that, in the extreme heat, one of the women fainted during the second set, probably due to the fact that the competitors were expected to wear long skirts and corsets. The incident was used as evidence for women being too weak and fragile to play five set matches, but it doesn’t seem to have made much impact on what women were allowed to wear.

Introduction to the United States

Not only has tennis been popular with women in the United States since its introduction — tennis was actually introduced to the United States by a woman, namely Mary Ewing Outerbridge. She was introduced to the game in Bermuda and brought it back with her to her home country. The first ever game played in America was between Mary Ewing Outerbridge and her sister Laura on Staten Island in 1874. And as seen in the picture above, painted in 1887, women in America enjoyed a good game of mixed doubles — and a good bustle skirt — just as much as their British counterparts.

1980s

Tennis continued to thrive on both sides of the Atlantic as the nineteenth century progressed — and in Australia, too, where women, of course, played the game along with men, as seen above.

The Olympics

Tennis became an Olympic sport in 1896, but the first women’s tournament wasn’t held until the next summer Olympics in 1900. (Though it was dropped as a sport in 1924 and didn’t return until 1988, due to conflicts between the International Lawn Tennis Association and the Olympic Committee.) In 1900, women from four nations competed in tennis; the first female gold medalist for tennis was Charlotte Cooper of Great Britain, who was also a former Wimbledon champion.

Early 20th Century

Tennis continued to grow in popularity among both men and women in the early 20th century. New tournaments were organized, including the rest of what would become the four Grand Slams. The International Lawn Tennis Federation was formed with 12 participating nations, making tennis a truly international sport. And before long, professional players — both men and women — were going on international tours, too. And tennis also began to look very different, at least in terms of what women wore. From the long skirts seen above at Wimbledon in 1901, women eventually began wearing much less restrictive clothing, such as these Australian players in 1922:

By the time stars like American Helen Wills Moody — who won a total of 30 Grand Slam tournaments over the course of her career — emerged in the 1930s, women were wearing something that looks a lot more like modern tennis clothes.

The Open Era

In 1968, tennis’s Open Era began, which opened the Grand Slam tournaments up to both professionals and amateurs. It was a major change for the sport, and it brought new opportunities for women — although there existed a major gap between how much men and women earned in prize money.

Stars of the early days of the Open Era include women like Margaret Court, pictured above, who holds the record for the most Grand Slam victories. Another star, Billie Jean King, helped found the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which still exists today and which hosts the US Open every year, to advocate for gender equality in the sport. Naturally, the US Open became the first Grand Slam to give male and female winners equal prize money, starting in 1973. Wimbledon took a while to close the gap – waiting until 2007.

And now comes the Tennis World Cup with total equality between the sexes – and no one wearing corsets.