The Art of Women’s Tennis

Sport says a lot about how far society has come. Leading social historian Harold Perkins once put it this way,

The history of societies is reflected more vividly in the way they spend their leisure than in their politics or their work. Sport in particular is much more than a pastime or recreation. It is an integral part of a society’s culture (and) gives a unique insight into the way a society changes and impacts on other societies.

When you watch Wimbledon this year, you will be watching a sport that is probably the closest there is to gender equality. Wimbledon gives male and female tennis players equal screen time and equal pay.

According to this article in the Atlantic, only three women appear on Forbes’ list of the 100 highest-paid athletes—all of them are tennis players.

It was the Victorians who first recognized the importance of women’s tennis. The world’s oldest tennis tournament, the Wimbledon Championships, added Ladies Singles to the roster in 1884.

In 2007, Wimbledon and the French Open joined other Grand Slam tournaments in giving equal prize money to men and women—tennis has broken down the gender pay gap.

But it wasn’t always that way.

In 1973, Billie Jean King had the weight of the world on her shoulders as she played against former number-one-ranked Bobby Riggs in a US-televised tournament dubbed “Battle of the Sexes”.

In 1973, a woman could not get a credit card without her husband or father or a male signing off on it. —Billie Jean King.

Billie Jean King triumphed that day and said it wasn’t about winning at tennis, but about showing that women were confident, strong and equal.

89 years before Billie Jean King’s historic win, there was another historic moment taking place at Wimbledon, as Maud Watson faced Lillian Watson (her sister) to become the first female Wimbledon Champion.

Imagine Maud facing one of today’s players, such as Maria Sharapova, and it becomes abundantly clear that Victorian women played with a significant handicap—their clothing!

Maria Sharapova and Maud Watson dressed for tennis.
Maria Sharapova and Maud Watson dressed for tennis

Victorian Society dictated that arms had to be covered and ankles hidden by gowns that almost touched the ground. Furthermore, women had to endure three starched petticoats under the dress to make it blossom out. Think how hot it must have been!

Naturally, the infamous Victorian corset was also a requirement to maintain an hourglass figure at all times. Not to mention the expense of the entire ensemble.

Heeled boots, a rigid whalebone collar, and a wide-brimmed hat rounded out the sporting attire.

Now imagine trying to run to the net for the drop shots … and dash back to the baseline to return a lob.

Anyone for tennis?
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Enjoy a trip down the tennis memory lane with these images of a bygone time.

A Game of Tennis by George Goodwin Kilburne (English, 1839 - 1924)
A Game of Tennis by George Goodwin Kilburne (English, 1839 – 1924)
A Rally by Sir John Lavery, 1885
A Rally by Sir John Lavery, 1885
Tennis by James Guthrie - 1890
Tennis by James Guthrie – 1890
The Tennis Racket by James Guthrie - 1890
The Tennis Racket by James Guthrie – 1890
Tennis Players by Horace Henry Cauty, 1885
Tennis Players by Horace Henry Cauty, 1885
The Ring by Robert Vonnoh, 1892
The Ring by Robert Vonnoh, 1892
A Game of Tennis by John Strickland Goodall
A Game of Tennis by John Strickland Goodall
A Game of Tennis by John Strickland Goodall
A Game of Tennis by John Strickland Goodall
The Tennis Party by Charles March Gere - 1900
The Tennis Party by Charles March Gere – 1900
Tennis Game by the Sea by Max Liebermann - 1901
Tennis Game by the Sea by Max Liebermann – 1901
Tennis Game by the Sea by Max Liebermann - 1901
Tennis Game by the Sea by Max Liebermann – 1901
The Tennis Party by Sir John Lavery, R.A. - 1885
The Tennis Party by Sir John Lavery, R.A. – 1885
The Tennis Match by Sir John Lavery, R.A. (1856 - 1941)
The Tennis Match by Sir John Lavery, R.A. (1856 – 1941)
Portrait of His Sister in Law by Arthur Hacker (English, 1858–1919)
Portrait of His Sister in Law by Arthur Hacker (English, 1858–1919)
Tennis Players by the Sea by Max Liebermann - circa 1901
Tennis Players by the Sea by Max Liebermann – circa 1901
Tennis Anyone by Emile Vernon (French, 1872 - 1919)
Tennis Anyone by Emile Vernon (French, 1872 – 1919)
The Tennis Player by Percy Shakespeare (English, 1906 - 1943)
The Tennis Player by Percy Shakespeare (English, 1906 – 1943)
A Rest after the Match by Jose Villegas y Cordero, c. 1915
A Rest after the Match by Jose Villegas y Cordero, c. 1915

David James

David James

I'm an Englishman in Boston. History is a joy—it binds us, it connects us, it guides us. I'm interested in making history more accessible and more fun. Join me on this fantastic voyage through time.