Tennis – one of the greatest spectator sports of all time: A review essay

Johnny Wijk
Department of History, Stockholm University

Greg Ruth
Tennis: A History from American Amateurs to Global Professionals
317 pages, paperback, ill
Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press 2021 (Sport and Society)
ISBN 978-0-252-08588-8

The game of tennis emerged in England during the 1870s. Various forms of sport and games with a racket and balls had existed since the Middle Ages, but when the rules of ‘lawn tennis’ regarding the size of the court, the height of the net, the appearance of the rackets and the size and weight of the balls were established by the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon just outside London, a new sport had been born. Tennis quickly gained traction; new clubs were formed all over England and the game spread to British colonies around the world. Hotel and resort complexes built their own tennis courts to attract guests with the new popular sport. Early on, tennis became a spectator sport of rank and tournaments were created that attracted large crowds of spectators. In 1877, the first championship was played at Wimbledon and already ten years later it was noted that around 20,000 spectators followed the tournament, and a special women’s competition was opened in 1884. In his book Tennis: A History from American Amateurs to Global Professionals, Greg Ruth gives a committed and detailed account of the history of tennis from the late 1800s to well into the 2000s. For the inveterate tennis lover, the book is a goldmine with an abundance of detailed information of individual tennis clubs and some interesting players, coaches, and managers. 

At the heart of Ruth’s rich book is the struggle between amateur tennis with its major championship competitions worldwide and professional tennis, both for men and women, with showcase games for prize money. In the late 1960s, the tennis world was united and the boundary between amateurs and professionals disappeared. A strong commercial development took off with ever increasing prize money, sponsor commitments and advertising around the sport. In the second half of the 20th century and up to the present day there has been a steadily growing public interest in tennis and an increased mass media focus on individual male and female stars.

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JOHNNY WIJK, b. 1955 and professor of history at Stockholm University, defended his dissertation in 1992 on the rationing system on food and the black market during the Second World War entitled Svarta börsen – samhällslojalitet i kris: Livsmedelsransoneringarna och den illegala handeln i Sverige 1940-1949 [The Black Market – Social Loyalty in Crisis: Food Rationing and Illegal Trade in Sweden 1940-1949]. The studies of the war years led to an examination of the active role of the sports movement in civilian physical preparedness through various broad mass events, which included studies of the Swedish war time track and field achievements, and resulted in the book Idrott, krig och nationell gemenskap: Om fältsport, riksmarscher och Gunder Hägg-feber [Sports, War and National Community: On Field Sports, National Marches and Gunder Hägg-fever] (2005). At present, Wijk focuses on the development of Swedish tennis and golf from the 1950s to today, with a side glance at the new racket sport padel.

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