David Berry: There's more to tennis than strawberries and cream and middle-class privilege

Yesterday should have been 'middle Sunday' at Wimbledon. The 134th Championships will now be held June 28-July 11, 2021. But a new book about the social history of tennis suggests the game has done more for equality than its elitist image suggests.
David Berry: There's more to tennis than strawberries and cream and middle-class privilege
All England Tennis and Croquet Club members play on an astro court at Wimbledon home of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, which were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)
All England Tennis and Croquet Club members play on an astro court at Wimbledon home of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, which were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

While a producer at the BBC David Berry wondered about a film on the history of his favourite sport.

Tennis was his passion (“I’ve played tennis all my life, with a little gap between the age of 18-19 and 41”) and some preliminary research was promising: in its infancy tennis was a good deal more radical than he’d anticipated.

The BBC didn’t go for the idea and when he left the Corporation Berry revisited the idea and felt it might be better served by a book.

The result is A People’s History of Tennis.

“I’ve always been interested in socialism and radical politics,” says Berry.

“I thought that my interest in tennis was quite contradictory, because I saw tennis as quite exclusive.

“But with the book I wanted to see if you could make a case for tennis being very different from the image we have — of strawberries and cream, and middle-class privilege — and I found a lot of examples from its history which could certainly make that case.

“That isn’t to say there aren’t examples of the opposite — snobbery and exclusion exist as well. But early in its history tennis was quite different.”

What set tennis apart from its earliest days was an unexpected gender balance, particularly for the Victorian era. Women have found a welcome in the sport for a century and a half.

“That’s really crucial, even today. The other night I played mixed doubles and it struck me again that though tennis is a physical game women can play it just as strongly as men and that’s always been the case.

“And it remains the case across most levels of tennis until you get to the very very top, where the men are a lot better.

“But even today in my own club the singles league has as many women and men, and in mixed doubles the women play as well or better than the men."

That equality runs deep in the sport.

“It’s been true for 150 years — when the big explosion in sports came in the Victorian era, tennis was the game which men and women could both play.

“Because of that, the etiquette and culture and style of the sport was always one shared by men and women, and it had an effect on the men playing, for instance.

“The sense in the Victorian era, the time of Baden-Powell and so on, was that cricket was the man’s game and tennis was a more effeminate game.

“So the men who played tennis were always different insofar as they were men who didn’t mind sharing their sport with women.

“And it worked the other way also in that it toughened up the women who played tennis because they had to keep up with the men.

“That has kept up to the present day, with mixed doubles, and it’s pretty unusual. You have women playing football and rugby and other sports, obviously, but you don't have men playing with them and against them in those sports.

“I think it’s always been a radical feature of tennis, that even now on the professional circuit there are men’s and women’s circuits but there’s also a mixed element.”

As tennis became more popular it became a “vehicle for advancement”, however.

“I don’t know if there was a particular turning point when the sport became more exclusive,” says Berry.

“I haven’t found one but it’s fair to say that tennis clubs in the 30s and 40s could be seen as vehicles of advancement for the middle classes.

That meant it could be very difficult for people who weren’t in the middle class to take up the game, but there were also exceptions. In the fifties and sixties it did become more democratic.

And Wimbledon itself? Berry acknowledges the shadow it casts — and the nuances to be found there.

“It gives you a false impression of the sport, I think. There’s a sense of tradition with Wimbledon but a lot of that, even, is just window dressing — one of the few things the British still do well, perhaps, to bring a sense of decorum and style to an occasion.

“And I suppose if I had to choose between the Wimbledon style, that ersatz upper-middle class presentation, and the New York style, then I’d probably go for Wimbledon.

“To be fair, when I went to Wimbledon last year I was surprised at how easy-going it was. I visited what used to be Henman Hill and it was very diverse, a lot of different languages being spoken, which I didn’t expect.”

*A People’s History of Tennis by David Berry (Pluto Press, £14.99/€16.60 approx)

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