The oldest and most famous tennis tournament in the world has been held at the All England Club in London for over 130 years. The Wimbledon Championships, regarded by many fans and players as the most prestigious event on the tennis calendar, takes place from late June to early July, and is the only Grand Slam to be played on grass.
Much of what makes Wimbledon so special is its sense of tradition. Unlike the French, Australian and US Opens, which have changed cities and surfaces over the years, Wimbledon remains very similar today to when it began in 1877. The grounds may have been extended and modified, but the tournament’s origins are still visible to every player and fan who makes the trip to London SW19.
The All England Croquet Club, established in 1868, decided to add lawn tennis as an activity in 1876, and one year later the first Gentleman’s Singles championship was introduced. Over the next few decades, the Ladies’ Singles, Gentlemen’s Doubles, Ladies’ Doubles and Mixed Doubles events were added. Like the other Grand Slams, Wimbledon was contested only by amateur players until 1968, when the All England Club opened its doors to professionals.
Wimbledon is recognised as one of the most efficiently run events in the tennis calendar, and every year meticulous attention to detail ensures that the grass courts are in optimal condition. Centre Court, probably the most famous arena in the sport, is the main focal point of the tournament, and has undergone some major enhancements in recent years. Its West Stand was expanded, making room for an extra 728 spectators, and a retractable roof was installed in 2009. Courts 1, 2 and 3 have been rebuilt entirely, allowing more fans to get close to the action and making Wimbledon’s facilities among the very best in the world.
What does it take to win?
These days, the grass court season is the shortest on tour. While most tournaments are played on hard courts, and the clay court season extends to several weeks, players have to find their range very quickly on the turf if they are to have any chance of becoming Wimbledon champion.
Rallies on grass courts tend to be shorter than those on other surfaces, and the pace of play is much faster. As a result, players’ reaction times have to be quicker, and the serve, already one of the most important shots in the game, becomes paramount. Aggressive players tend to prosper at Wimbledon, as well as those who hit flat, powerful groundstrokes. Although playing on grass is usually less gruelling than on clay or cement, players need to move well, as the courts can become slippery and yield the occasional bad bounce.
Just as there are many tennis greats who failed to win at Roland Garros, so there are several legendary players who never triumphed at the All England Club. Australia’s Ken Rosewall was runner-up four times at Wimbledon, while Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander - two of the greatest players of the Open Era - never managed to get their hands on the Gentlemen’s Singles trophy. On the women’s side, Monica Seles’ haul of nine Grand Slam titles didn’t include Wimbledon, and seven-time major winner Justine Henin was also left to rue the one that got away.
Three men are tied at the top of the list of multiple Wimbledon champions. Britain’s William Renshaw dominated the event as an amateur in the 1880s, and over the course of the next century it looked as though his total of seven titles might never be matched. But in 2000 Pete Sampras equalled Renshaw’s feat, and 12 years later, Roger Federer also had his name engraved on the trophy for a seventh time.
Bjorn Borg’s name became synonymous with Wimbledon when the “Ice Man” won five consecutive titles from 1976 - 1980. Incredibly, he managed the Roland Garros-Wimbledon double in three of these years, showing a remarkable ability to dominate on two very different surfaces. Following Borg’s retirement, John McEnroe and Boris Becker ruled Centre Court, winning three titles apiece in the 1980s.
But the most successful grass court player of all time is Martina Navratilova. The American serve-volleyed her way to nine Wimbledon titles, including six in a row from 1982 - 1987. Her game was tailor-made for grass, and not even arch-rival Chris Evert could stop her at SW19. In the modern era, Steffi Graf is the only woman who comes close to matching Navratilova’s accomplishments: the German won seven titles from 1988 - 1996.
Since the turn of the century, the name “Williams” has been engraved on the Venus Rosewater Dish no fewer than 10 times. Incredibly, only three women besides Venus and Serena have triumphed at Wimbledon in the 21st century, and the sisters, both five-time winners, have faced each other in the showpiece match on four occasions.
As befits the most legendary tennis tournament in the world, Wimbledon has been the setting of some of the most memorable moments in the history of the sport. From astounding upsets, such as Rafael Nadal’s shock loss to Lukas Rosol in 2012, to sublime displays of grass court mastery - witness Pete Sampras’ perfect performance against Andre Agassi in 1999 - the All England Club has staged countless moments of tennis drama. But two men’s finals are widely considered to be the greatest tennis matches ever played.
Borg def. McEnroe, 1980 final:
The 1980 showpiece between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg was an epic battle between the top two players in the world at the time. Borg was gunning for his fifth successive title, and McEnroe his first. The American got off to a flying start, taking the first set 6-1, before Borg recovered to take the next two. But it was the fourth set tie-break that ensured the contest would forever live in Wimbledon memory. With both men playing at the very height of their powers - pinpoint serving and exquisite volleys from McEnroe; Borg threading the needle with elegant and seemingly impossible passing shots - the match vacillated with each and every point. The American survived an astonishing five match points, and finally clinched his eighth set point to win the tie-break 18-16. In the decider, however, it was Borg who had more left in the tank, and the Swede dominated on serve to eke out the fifth set 8-6.
Video: Borg v McEnroe, 1980
Nadal def. Federer, 2008 final:
In 2008, Roger Federer was bidding for an unprecedented sixth consecutive title, while Rafael Nadal, who had thrashed the Swiss in the French Open final four weeks earlier, was aiming for his first Grand Slam victory on a surface other than clay. The Spaniard began the match in ominous form, winning the first two sets by ripping a series of off-balance winners and hitting his heavy topspin groundstrokes to perfection. Federer proved his mettle by serving brilliantly to take the third set, but the match reached a dramatic pinnacle in the fourth set tie-break when he saved two match points, including one with a stunning backhand from well behind the baseline, to force a decider. The defending champion was within two points of the championship, at 5-4, 30-all in the fifth set, but Nadal’s legendary fighting spirit kept him in contention, and when Federer’s final forehand clipped the net as darkness descended on London, the Matador had ended the great man’s reign.
Video: Nadal v Federer, 2008
Graf def. Navratilova, 1988 final:
Something of a precursor to Nadal’s dethroning of Federer was Steffi Graf’s victory over Martina Navratilova in the 1988 final. Navratilova had a chance to win her seventh title in a row at Wimbledon, but she faced a 19-year-old Graf who was becoming more confident, more powerful and more determined with every tournament she played. Although Navratilova, probably the greatest serve-volleyer in history, was favoured to win, Graf was more than just a baseline basher, and rushed to the net when she had the opportunity. After losing the first set, the German used her backhand slice to devastating effect in the next two sets, and whipped countless winners with her formidable forehand. Graf’s 5-7, 6-2, 6-1 victory was the third leg of her 1988 Grand Slam, and signalled a changing of the guard at Wimbledon.
Venus def. Davenport, 2005 final:
The Williamses had won all but one Wimbledon from 2000 - 2004, and big sister Venus had a chance to scoop her third title when she took on Lindsay Davenport in the 2005 final. Although not as good a mover as Williams, Davenport served superbly to take the opening set 6-4, and had victory within her grasp when she served for the match at 6-5 in the second. But Venus, powered by her fabled will to win, broke back and took the tie-break. The third set was full of tension, and saw some incredible rallies between two of the most powerful players on tour. When Venus double-faulted to give her compatriot a match point at 5-4, it looked as though Davenport would win her first Grand Slam title in five years. Showing extraordinary courage and presence of mind, however, Venus saved it with a stunning backhand down the line. She broke serve at 7-all, then held convincingly to seal her third Wimbledon crown. The two hour, 45 minute classic is the longest ever women’s final at Wimbledon.
Video: Williams v Davenport, 2005
- Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam not to have play on the middle Sunday. However, heavy rain throughout the 1991, 1997 and 2004 tournaments forced organisers to stage a “People’s Sunday” with less expensive tickets on sale for the show courts.
- Ball girls made their debut at Wimbledon in 1977.
- Chris Evert lost seven Wimbledon finals.
- The youngest ever men’s champion is Boris Becker, who won in 1985 age 17.
- John Isner and Nicolas Mahut contested the longest match in tennis history at Wimbledon in 2010. The 11 hour, 5 minute encounter was played over three days, and was eventually won by Isner 70-68 in the deciding set.
- Court 2 is also referred to as the “Graveyard of Champions” as it has been the setting for many notable upsets over the years. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Martina Hingis and Serena Williams have each suffered surprising losses there.
- On average, spectators consume 28,000kg of strawberries and 7,000l of fresh cream per day during the Wimbledon Championships!