Anyone for a game of sphairistiké?

First published in Features

ARE you enjoying the “sphairistiké”?

It’s a most diverting tournament this year, don’t you think, what with a Brit in with a chance. Yes, one can’t beat a good old game of “sticky”.

Major Walter Clopton Wingfield didn’t know what he was unleashing when he devised and patented sphairistiké in 1874. Having served in the Dragoon Guards in India and China, he had retired to Wales looking to make money. He started selling five-guinea box sets of sphairistiké – his own word, cobbled from Greek, meaning “ball game”.

In the box, you got a net, two posts, four rackets and six red India rubber balls imported from Germany, plus the Major’s instructions on how to play.

The net, he said, should be 5ft high at the posts and saggy in the middle. The court, he said, should be shaped like an hourglass: seven yards wide at the net, but ten yards wide at each of the baselines.

“Hit the ball gently,” he advised, “and look well before striking so as to place it in the corner most remote from your adversary.”

Of course, the Major had based his “sticky”, as everyone called it, on real tennis, an extremely complicated racket and ball game played indoors. Sticky’s unique selling point was it was outdoor tennis (“tennis”

probably comes from the French “tenez”

which means “you take”, something the server shouted to the receiver as a warning when play was about to begin).

The invention of vulcanised rubber by Charles Goodyear in 1839 had made sphairistiké possible, along with the development in the 1860s of lawnmowers. Lawnmowers coincided with a craze for croquet – landowners everywhere were grubbing out shrubberies and creating moss-free lawns where they went at it mallet and balls.

Croquet, though, is sedate and the upper classes quickly replaced their croquet lawns with sticky courts on which they played “lawn tennis”. The All England Croquet Club, formed in Wimbledon at the height of the croquet craze in 1868, held its first tennis tournament in July 1877 to raise money to repair its broken pony lawnroller.

By then, the lawn tennis craze even reached the North-East. The Northern Echo’s first mention of it is on August 6, 1877, when the “marriage rejoicings” at a society wedding at Thirkleby Park, near Thirsk, “were enlivened by the Thirsk Brass Band and lawn tennis and other games were freely indulged in”.

The first lawn tennis tournament the Echo reported on was at Feethams cricket field in Darlington spread over four days in August 1882. “A great and fashionable assembly” witnessed Mr Hallward beat Mr Minden Fenwick in the Gentlemen’s Single Handed Final. Miss Smith beat Miss Turner to the ladies’ title, and the Gentlemen’s and Ladies’ Double Handed competition was won by Mr JW Fowler and Miss E Cheese.

By then, the region had its first Wimbledon champion: the Reverend John Thorneycroft Hartley, of Burneston, near Bedale. In 1879, he became the only clergyman to reach a Wimbledon final, pioneering the lob and beating Vere St Leger Goold – the only Wimbledon finalist to become a convicted murderer.

The Bedale vicar defended his title next year, but ran into trouble in 1881 when Willie Renshaw invented the violent smash which countered the clergyman’s delicate lob.

Suffering a touch of cholera, Hartley went down 6-1, 6-1, 6-0 in 37 minutes in the shortest ever Wimbledon final – unless Andy Murray can see off Roger Federer quicker at the end of this year’s sphairistiké tournament.

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