By Hollis Smith

The modern game of tennis as we know it was initially pioneered by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield who filed a patent with the British Patent Office on February 23, 1874. The game was an immediate success and spread within a matter of weeks throughout Great Britain and Ireland and around the English-speaking world soon thereafter. Wingfield attributed the widespread success of the new game to the vigorous exercise afforded for both sexes and ages.

The necessary equipment to play tennis was sold by Wingfield's agents, Messrs. French and Company at 46 Churton Street, London, S.W. The game itself contained poles, pegs, netting for the court, 4 tennis bats, a bag of balls, a mallet and brush and an instruction booklet for tennis.

The initial layout for Wingfield's tennis court was an hourglass shape. The service lines were 26 feet from the net and the 33 feet wide net extended 3 feet on each side and was 5 feet high on each side. The net was 5 feet at the post and 3-1/2 feet at the center. Shortly after the game was presented, there were many criticisms and suggestions offered on how to improve it. These debates led to adding many more rules and eventually to making the tennis court rectangular with the dimension and shape that we have today.

Some claim Englishman David Jones-- called “the Godfather of Lawn Tennis”-- was “the most important figure of all” in tennis history. Yes, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield introduced modern tennis. But it was Jones who refined and popularized it. A full time writer about games, Jones penned a series of letters to The Field, The Country Gentlemen’s Newspaper, beginning in 1874. Through them and his role as a driving force at Wimbledon, he made sense of Wingfield’s odd game, replacing its nonsensical rules with protocol which exist to this day.  He pushed to change the size and shape of the court, the height of the net, the location of the service line, and got the All-England Croquet Club to accept tennis, to start the Wimbledon championship, and to include a women’s tournament. Plus, according to the eminent historian Richard Hillway, he continued writing  letters to the Field in 1878 advocating the scoring system  we now know so well, which “made the sport more exciting  with a series of separate battles instead of one continuous war”. The game needed guidance, and Jones guided Wingfield’s lawn tennis through one change after another until it had become, essentially, our modern game.


Tennis came to America in the summer of 1874. Some say that a young woman named Mary Outerbridge purchased her tennis set while visiting Bermuda. She introduced the game of tennis to the United States on Staten Island. Others claimed, just as stoutly, that the game of tennis was first introduced in Nahant, a summer resort Northeast of Boston. It was then, many claimed, that 22-year-old James Dwight of Boston and Harvard, had laid out a court on the front lawn of the Nahant house of his uncle William Appleton. James Dwight and his cousin, Fred Sears, wanted to try out the game that had been purchased for the Appletons by their son-in-law in London.

The four families whose sons developed American tennis—the Sears and Dwights, Boston Brahmins, and the Clarks and Taylors from Philadelphia-- had aristocratic lineages. Their upper –class codes were passed on from generation to generation through institutions such as the church, country clubs, exclusive preparatory schools, and colleges, most typically the Big Three: Harvard, Yale and Princeton.


James E. Sullivan was Secretary of the Amateur Athletic Union, probably the first organization to become interested in developing outdoor recreation programs. Included among other interested groups were the Outdoor Recreation League; the National Conference of Good City Government and the Cities of New York and Boston. In larger cities, because of the increasing number of foreign born, congested inner-city housing and high unemployment many leaders felt that supervised facilities and safe places to play would help to develop more productive and more responsible Americans.


Dwight Filley Davis, the organizer of public parks sports, was born in St .Louis, Missouri, 5 July, 1879, and attended Smith Academy and Harvard University. It was at the Davis summer home in Magnolia, Massachusetts, just North of Manchester-By-The-Sea, that Dwight was introduced to the game of tennis in 1894. As a left-hander, he learned the sport quickly while playing tennis in an area called Boston’s Gold Coast.

Later, while attending Harvard University, Dwight played on the tennis team and in his senior year, he established the Davis Cup as a trophy for excellence in international tennis competition.

After graduating from Harvard University, he returned home to St. Louis and became active in civic affairs. It was during this period that he recognized the need for organized competition beyond the private schools and country clubs. Dwight was a great organizer and he took leadership roles in several associations to promote this effort, including the National Municipal League, the Playground and Recreation Association of America, the United States National Tennis Association and others. He was appointed St. Louis City Park Commissioner in 1911 and immediately began to develop municipal facilities for golf, baseball and tennis courts, some of the first in the United States. Later, he invited representatives of park departments from 52 American cities to St. Louis, to organize the National Municipal Recreation Federation and to arrange inter-city contest in all major sports played in city parks. It was decided the first of these tournaments in golf and tennis would be held in St. Louis in September 1916. An announcement was also made that a St. Louis insurance executive with an interest in athletics was donating the perpetual trophy for the winning golf team. In addition, the United States National Lawn Tennis Association was donating the perpetual trophy for the winning tennis team. Dwight was elected president of the new federation. Before adjourning, the delegates decided that play was open to all competitors whose city was a member of the new federation.

Following World War I, it was business as usual. Because of the success of tennis at the public park level that developed Davis Cup star, Maurice McLoughlin a player from the public parks of Northern California and Nevada. There was developing within the United States National Lawn Tennis Association the realization that one way to encourage and help popularize the game to support tennis beyond the private schools and country clubs.

In 1922 Dwight Filley Davis was elected Vice President of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (USNLTA). A year later Dwight was elected President of the USNLTA and announced immediately that the USNLTA would arrange a tournament for a national championship in municipal tennis. As the new president of the USNLTA, he continued to spread his message on the value of athletics and exercise. Previously during his involvement in the recent war it was as an Army Captain, he became aware that a large number of American men were unfit physically. Dwight announced to the press that he wanted to use the tennis associations and other institutions to do everything possible to correct these conditions for the future.

Later, the National Public Parks Tennis Association was formed and a standing committee for the Public Parks was made a part of the USNLTA By-Laws and remained so until the mid-seventies. The first National Public Parks Tournament (men only) was hosted by the city of St. Louis, Missouri in 1923 and established the United States Municipal Championships. Men’s champion was Cranston W. Holman of San Francisco, California and the doubles champions were Elmer Schwarts and Ted Heuerman. The women’s first championships were held in 1930 in Washington, D.C. at the White House during President Hoover administration, Virginia B. Dueker of St. Louis, Missouri was the champion. In the early days the USNLTA both men’s and women’s champions were invited to play in the United States National Open Championships until open tennis debuted in 1968.

The National Junior Public Parks Tennis Championships were initiated in 1948 by the Los Angeles County Park and Recreation Department. Its first champion was Oscar Johnson of Los Angeles. Later, Oscar was one of the first African American male to play in the United States Open Championships. Currently, Oscar is the second African American male to receive a certificate of recognition from The International Tennis Hall of Fame. Since 1923 the results of each the National Public Park Tennis Association Championships have been printed in USNLTA/USTA Annual Yearbook.

Senior men’s singles (45) were added in 1959 and men’s doubles were added in 1961. Senior women’s (40) events were added in 1964. Other events were added throughout the 80’s and 90’s.


In the beginning, public park tennis experienced tremendous growth, in the number of tennis players and tennis facilities, on the national level. During the thirties, due to the National Recovery Act, the Civilian Conservation Corp and the Work Project Administration more tennis courts were added to playgrounds and public schools.

Most of the larger metropolitan cities joined the National Public Parks Tennis Association and participated in the annual championships. There was also tremendous support, because of Dwight's reputation, influence and prestige, many volunteers were attracted to these public park tennis programs. Many of these capable volunteers took active leadership roles in the organization across the country. They included people from media (the newspapers), playground developers, recreation department heads and private citizens. We don’t know if this solved the fitness problem that concerned Dwight Davis, but it helped to improve the quality of life for those who became involved in local tennis programs. Today, the parks continue to be where many people play and learn to play.

However, after the Human Rights Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in the late sixties, most of the members in the Southern states discontinued their participation in public parks tennis programs and their involvement in the National Public Parks Tennis Association. Some of our former large city hosts have no local tennis programs, except those provided through contracted services.


Also, we have come back to another one of Dwight's concerns, funding park development. The legislators in city government have been challenged to encourage the local public to support special bond issues to support recreation projects. In fact, today, most all of the recent and current tennis developments have come from private donations .Tennis programs were important then and they are important now, because tennis is one of the remaining sports activities that help to get municipal facilities developed and refurbished, while demonstrating the overall success of the local participants.

The National Public Parks Tennis Association is funded in part by an annual grant from the USTA.