There will be no tennis tourists on the grass during this summer’s Olympic Games. For the tale of John Boland, the Irish student who had travelled without flannel trousers or rackets, who had originally had no intention of competing, and who ended up winning the Olympic tennis event, you must spool back into sepia. All the way back to the 1896 Games in Athens.
Any visitor to the new Olympic tennis exhibition in the Wimbledon Museum will be struck by Boland’s tale and other human interest stories. You learn that Boland, once he had been persuaded to play, somehow found some trousers, “a tennis bat of sorts”, and a pair of leather-soled and heeled shoes. Boland won both the singles and the doubles, but did not perform so well on the podium: “On mounting the platform, King George I of Greece shook me by the hand, and said in English: ‘I congratulate you’. He handed me two diplomas, two medals and two olive wreaths. So full were my hands that I forgot to descend the steps backwards. I made up for the omission by bowing when I got to the bottom.”
There is a board on the wall for every year that tennis was played at the Olympics. Each Olympic tennis event is remembered with various photographs and little pieces of information.
Stand in front of the panel for the 1900 Games in Paris and you will discover that the winners received prize-money vouchers rather than medals – Laurie Doherty, the men’s champion, was awarded a coffee and liqueur serving table worth 1,500 French Francs.
The exhibit for the 1904 Games in St Louis teaches us that spectators were not the only ones who were confused as to whether the matches were part of the Olympics or the World’s Fair – many of the competitors were not sure either.
There are more quirks from yesteryear. The only previous occasion that tennis was played at a London Games was in 1908, and there were two Olympic tennis events that year. The first was played indoors at Queen’s Club, and the second outside on the Wimbledon grass, though at the original grounds on Worple Road. Displayed in glass cases are medals from the tennis competitions at that Games.
Visitors will read that the mixed doubles title at the 1924 Games in Paris was won by a Titanic survivor, Richard Williams, who was partnered by Hazel Wightman (that was the last time that mixed doubles was played at the Olympics, though the discipline will return this summer). Everything was a bit last-minute – the female competitors showered in a shed, and the men had to walk for half a mile to reach their changing-rooms.
That was the last time for 64 years that tennis players could call themselves Olympians. Though the Games came to London in 1948 for what have become known as the Austerity Olympics, tennis was no longer in the programme.
It was only in 1988 that tennis was brought back into the Olympic tent, with Miloslav Mecir taking the men’s gold, and Steffi Graf winning the women’s title as part of her golden Grand Slam that year. The exhibition moves all the way through to the Beijing Olympics when Rafael Nadal, who shocked a few people by staying in the Athletes’ Village, and by doing his laundry there, won the gold medal.
There is a quote from Nadal on the wall, a modern tennis player’s thoughts on the Olympics: “You cannot put a price on Olympic gold. To me, it’s special, it’s different. It’s true we have a fantastic tour, with all the facilities, all the money, but the Olympics is the real spirit of sport.”
You’ve completed a circuit of the room, and learnt that the Olympic leap from John Boland to Rafael Nadal, two players separated by more than 100 years, isn’t such a leap after all.