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The “first” lawn tennis game in American story

By Warren Kimball

The most compelling and engaging and persuasive “first” lawn tennis game in American story is that of one Martha Summerhayes. Her recollections have solid dating, whatever the other questions raised. An army officer’s young wife, Martha Summerhayes mentions tennis being played in Camp Apache in the Arizona Territory in early October 1874! Her memoir, constructed from old letters and papers, is clear, if lacking in detail:

The question of getting settled comfortably still worried me, and after a day or two, I went over to see what Mrs. Bailey had done. To my surprise, I found her out playing tennis, her little boy asleep in the baby carriage, which they had brought all the way from San Francisco, near the court. I joined the group and afterwards asked her advice about the matter. She laughed kindly and said: "Oh! you'll get used to it, and things will settle themselves. Of course it is troublesome, but you can have shelves and such things--you'll soon learn," and still smiling, she gave her ball a neat left-hander.

Mrs. Ella Bailey may well have been the game’s first possessor of “a neat left-hander,” but Martha Summerhayes reinforced two facts: first, that the game was already popular in autumn 1874, and second, that women played from the outset. The problem is, what game and where did it come from? “Lawn” tennis did not require a lawn (it is hard to imagine a finely groomed, green lawn at Camp Apache, located in the high plains of east central Arizona, despite its location on the White River). Like the “foot” in American football, lawns were part of the game’s name, not integral to the sport. Even the Major had referred to setting up a court “on a lawn, on ice [!!!], or in any suitable sized space either in or out of doors.”  “The ground need not even be turf,” he wrote, “the only condition is, it must be level.”  Ice may not have been used for tennis (at least not until 2008, when some Russian polar experts slid around in a double match on snow-covered ice), but the Wedgemere Club in Winchester, Mass., which existed only from 1886 to the early 1890s, “had two cinder and four grass courts . . . .” Californians were playing lawn tennis on dirt courts by 1881 and on “cement” and probably asphalt (“asphaltum”) by 1887. As tennis grew in popularity, cold weather clubs laid boards over their dirt (“clay”) courts to allow winter play.  Since Summerhayes later wrote of playing tennis in San Francisco and Nebraska, as well as Camp Apache, one assumes she referred throughout to the same game – the Major’s game – as that was the only one we know of that “traveled” to the United States. But how did it get to that isolated army camp on the high plains of east central Arizona?

The answer would seem to be England via San Francisco. The Summerhayes had been there, presumably at Camp Reynolds on Angel Island in San Francisco, which served “as a staging area for troops serving in campaigns against the Apache, Sioux, Modoc [all mentioned in Summerhayes’ memoir], and other Indian tribes. By 1876, this was a busy camp with over 200 soldiers and a complete village, including a church, bakery, blacksmith, shoemaker, laundry, barber, trading store and photographer.”  The description left out only one thing – tennis courts, something Martha Summerhayes mentions when she visited there in 1880. But how on earth could the Major’s game have gotten to San Francisco in time for Mrs. Bailey to bring it to Arizona and crank “a neat left-hander” in October 1874? The answer is most likely from England by sea, brought either by someone in the British consulate or a London merchant. The game had achieved speedy popularity in England early that year and could well have arrived in San Francisco by August 1874, when the Summerhayes and the Baileys were there.

So let me offer a new entry into the list of contenders for “first” lawn tennis player in the United States, either Ella Bailey and her partners on the court, or the English diplomat or trader who brought the game to San Francisco – before it arrived in New England and New York.

Whatever the truth of the Major, Martha and Mary, the reality is that lawn tennis arrived in the United States in the mid-1870s separately and independently in at least six different places. The first formal lawn tennis club in the Americas seems to have been formed in 1876 in New Orleans, after English merchants in the city on business brought the game over with them. But whether the first lawn tennis court in the Americas was set up in San Francisco (my best guess), in Nahant, Mass. (north of Boston), or Staten Island (New York), in Canada, or even at Camp Apache in the Arizona Territory, or elsewhere – all possibilities – the game quickly became popular with the leisure class, on Army posts, and wherever British merchants and diplomats traveled, which in the 19th century was everywhere.

Warren Kimball, a long-time USTA volunteer who served four years on the USTA Board of Directors, has been working on an institutional history of the USTA since he retired from teaching history at Rutgers University. This is a “short subject” taken from his research.

 
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