What happened to the "Lawn"?
But first, what happened to the "National"?
By Warren Kimball
We all vaguely recall that the Association dropped “Lawn” from its official name some time ago. That was, in fact, done in 1975, and then only after a number of tries. But few recall that, from the USTA’s founding in 1881 until 1920, its official name was the United States National Lawn Tennis Association. The Association was adamant about maintaining recognition as the “national” arbiter of tennis, for that was the very reason behind its formation – to establish standardized, national rules. Eventually the Association managed to obtain Congressional designation as the “national governing body of American tennis.”
Cutting the “Lawn” (out) was done as a conscious effort to get away from the elitist, country club image that reflected the Association’s original makeup. But dropping “National” came for more mundane reasons. The United States National Lawn Tennis Association was simply too long and cumbersome. Even the abbreviation, USNLTA, was a letter-too-far.
At the 1920 Annual Meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, a committee engaged in a major revision of the constitution, proposed eliminating “National,” leaving the United States Lawn Tennis Association. Others took the opposite tack, arguing that “National” was a key aspect of the Association. Some delegates even suggested dropping “United States,” but that proposal gained no traction. (Perhaps they wondered if calling it The National Lawn Tennis Association would have prompted an arched eyebrow from the English who assumed exclusive rights to be such imperiousness. Everyone who mattered knew that “The” in front of almost any organization’s name meant it was British. The words British or English were redundant.)
S. Wallis Merrihew, editor of the Association’s then official “organ,” American Lawn Tennis, brought both grammar and history into play. He had written in his magazine that United States and National meant the same thing. Speaking to the 1920 Annual Meeting, he predicted that taking “lawn” out of the title would probably happen, but the time was not right. He warned that “the game we play is not tennis at all.” Lawn tennis was “a much younger game,” one that is “entirely separate and distinct” (thanks to the rules drawn up by Major Wingfield) from older games – alluding to “court” and “real” tennis. But it was time to remove National from the title page. The delegates agreed and the word was taken out, though it remained in the “official” short name for the Association, as in National Association, until replaced by USLTA.
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.