Asked if his new book will upset people, Richard A. Hillway answered immediately in the affirmative.
“Yes, oh yes,” he said. His co-author, Robert T. Everitt, nodded.
Their book is not about any of the typical inflammatory topics in sports: no cheating, no greed, no steroids. Instead, it’s about in what order which people started playing tennis in the 1870s.
The topic, however esoteric, has been a point of contention for those who think they have a claim to having been first, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Leaving no stone unturned in the search for answers and verifications of those answers, Hillway and Everitt’s book, “The Birth of Lawn Tennis,” weighs in at around seven pounds, replete with lush archival images from the earliest days of the sport, and the many similar games that preceded it.
“It’s a search for what the real story is, the true story,” Hillway said. “And we have evidence to back it up. Now it’s possible that some family will say, well, since 110 years ago, it’s been passed on that this happened. Well, it’s possible that it happened, but there’s no verification.”
The tome — of which only 500 limited-edition copies, leather-bound, were printed — does not use the word “invented” lightly. The authors confirm the prevailing theory that lawn tennis was invented in 1874 by Maj. Walter Clopton Wingfield, who published his first rule book for the sport in February of that year. He received patents for the game in Britain and in the United States later that year.
“There’s no dispute as to people experimenting with a game outside, perhaps many years before lawn tennis was invented by Wingfield,” Everitt said. “According to the patent offices, we’ve included nine reasons why his idea can be termed as an invention. The others can’t provide anything that backs that up.”
Hillway and Everitt relied solely on contemporary accounts of the earliest days of the sport. The only origin story fully documented at the time, they concluded, was Wingfield’s. Various plaques and signs around England contend otherwise, claiming to be the birthplace of lawn tennis.
“We must have heard 10 different stories of people who had invented it before Wingfield,” Hillway said. “If you believed every one of those? Each one we followed, and there was nothing there.”
“One story is that Harry Gem and his friend, Augurio Perera, in 1859, had a game that was the same as Wingfield’s, that they played it but didn’t tell too many people about it, and they’re the real inventors,” Hillway added. “But we looked for primary evidence and written evidence, not a story that comes out 100 years later about a great-uncle of somebody. We found nothing that could back that up.”
Hillway, 75, is a former tennis coach from Colorado who once competed against Arthur Ashe and others of that era around the American West. Everitt, 62, is an illustrator from Wolverhampton, England. Both share a keen interest in tennis history and collecting. When they realized they were working on books on similar topics — Hillway on Wingfield, Everitt on the first Wimbledon championships in 1877 — they decided to join forces.
The book, published this year with help and funding from the All England Lawn Tennis Club, took seven years to complete.
Once they got started on the book, it became a catchall repository for the fonts of knowledge the historians had acquired on the earliest days of lawn tennis, including the debate over who brought the game to the United States.
“I’ve been working for 20 years” on that issue, Hillway said. “So, I thought, I’ll put that in this book, too.”
The authors challenged the popular claim, recently detailed in a New York Times obituary series, that Mary Ewing Outerbridge brought a lawn tennis set home to Staten Island after spending the winter in Bermuda in 1874.
Examining the manifests of ships between the United States and Bermuda from that period, they found that Outerbridge made only a short trip in January 1874, before Wingfield codified the sport. They believe a second, longer trip Outerbridge took to Bermuda in 1877 is the one from which she returned with tennis equipment, as there is no contemporary evidence of lawn tennis being played on Staten Island before 1877, nor any evidence of women being at the Staten Island Cricket and Base-ball Club before that year.
The initial Outerbridge claim, the authors said, comes from a letter written by her youngest brother, Eugenius, in 1923, decades after his sister’s death. The authors said that more specifics about what the still-evolving rules of lawn tennis looked like when the sport arrived in the United States with Outerbridge could have been telling.
“It is disturbing that Eugenius gave no detailed description of the game Mary had played in his letter,” they write in the book. “What was the shape or size of her court, the height of the net, the scoring system or the location of the service line? These details would have helped us to date her court.”
Hillway says he hopes that their book will endure as an authority on the sport’s origins.
“One hundred years from now, they’ll have this book which shows how it started,” he said. “It’s going to last. But we’re encouraging other people to come along, add further. And they could find some other views.”
Hillway said Wingfield deserved to be as well known for tennis as James Naismith is for inventing basketball.
“You should be telling people what these older people did,” Hillway said, “because it won’t be long until Nadal and Federer will be the old-timers. And then it will be, ‘Oh, who wants to know about them?’ ”
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