A good racket: Tennis in Sheffield is 125-years-old

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Sheffield’s main tennis body celebrates a landmark anniversary this summer. Colin Drury looks back at a smashing past...

It is, you might say, a smashing anniversary.

Sheffield may be well known across the planet for having the world’s oldest football club but soccer isn’t the only sport this city was a trendsetter in.

For what few people realise today is that it is also home to what is widely thought to be the world’s oldest regional tennis body.

That’s the Sheffield and District Lawn Tennis Association, and this summer it celebrates its 125th birthday.

When it was founded in 1889 nothing like it had been tried before. While amateur clubs were forming in great numbers across the country, none had ever collected themselves into a city-wide body to oversee organised competitions.

“This was absolutely a first,” says John Andrews, past president and current committee member of the association. “The national governing body, the Lawn Tennis Association, had been formed a year earlier in 1888 but the belief is that Sheffield was the first place anywhere to have a local association - and that’s something we should shout about.

“Sheffield’s sporting heritage is unrivalled and this is another example of the innovation that was here.”

Today, of course, the game is considered as much a part of the English summer as washed out barbecues. In our region, some 32 clubs are home to more than 200 teams and 3,000 players who compete in seven different leagues. The south west of the city has a greater concentration of clubs than anywhere in the UK - 14 exist within three square miles. Trophies worth £40,000 are competed for each summer.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Back in the 1880s, the game was still in its relative infancy; and in Sheffield there were just nine or 10 largely exclusive clubs - including Abbeydale and Rustlings which are both still running, and Pitsmoor and Brincliife which aren’t. The oldest of these was the Botanical Gardens Tennis Club, founded in 1878 (and closed in 1898).

“The initial thinking behind forming an association was to promote the game here,” explains 74-year-old John, who plays in the over 65s league for Hallamshire Tennis and Squash Club, in Ecclesall Road. “To start with there was no intention of inter-club competitions - the fact the game was so vulnerable to poor weather made it difficult to organise - but it was felt it would prove a popular idea.”

It did.

Rustlings suggested a league and, in 1891, six male teams and four female took part in the first ever season. Competitive amateur tennis in some shape or form has been played almost every year since.

“Why is it so popular?” ponders John, who himself was national over-70s champion in 2010. “How long have you got? It’s great fun. You need skill but it’s not rough. It’s open to both men and women. It’s good for you, gets you outdoors and you only need two people to play. Plus, you don’t need much room for a court - just somewhere to string a net.”

It hasn’t always been plain playing, of course.

Competitions had to cease during the early 1900s as hundreds of Sheffielders deserted tennis temporarily to take up competitive cycling.

And in the Thirties there was much debate about the outfits women wore while playing. Those who chose to go on court without dresses covering their ankles were condemned. The Sheffield Morning Telegraph went even further and questioned the demeanour of some. “Why do such charming ladies off court adopt such strained expressions during play?” a report wondered.

Competitive games had to be abandoned during World War Two, meanwhile; and the sport has never reached its Thirties peak of popularity again. Back then there were more than 1,000 courts in the city.

“There are other forms of entertainment these days which is perhaps one reason it’s declined slightly,” says John, of Carterknowle.

Yet, tennis remains very much a game which Sheffield is in ‘love’ with.

It is now played all year round with the creation of all-weather pitches and, at three clubs, indoor courts. Today, the association’s geographical area stretches from North Derbyshire in the south up to Barnsley, and from Buxton in the west to Doncaster in the east.

“I’ve been playing since I first hit a ball against a wall when I was nine-years-old, and I’ve loved it ever since,” says John, as he prepares to leave for a coaching session. “It’s a lovely thing to be involved in. The S&D is 125-years-old now. Long may it continue to thrive.”

* Celebrations for the 125th anniversary are being planned for this summer. Visit sdlta.org.uk as details are announced.

THE GREAT AND GOOD

Several players of note have come through the Sheffield and District Lawn Tennis Association leagues but three of the most famous are:

n Edmond Black: a 19th century giant of the sport, Black, who was a member of the Hallamshire Tennis and Squash Club won the Yorkshire Mens Singles on nine occasions, once defeating four time Wimbledon champion Reggie Doherty. He also appeared in Great Britain’s first Davis Cup team in 1900.

n Roger Taylor: Britain’s great tennis hope in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Taylor reached two Wimbledon semi-finals, in 1967, 1970 and 1973. On the latter occasion, he had knocked out reigning champion Rod Laver and was widely tipped for success before being defeated by Australian Ken Rosewall. He won the US open doubles in 1971. Also noted for his dark good looks, he was one of a group players labelled the Handsome Eight.

n Jonny Marry: Andy Murray took all the plaudits when he won Wimbledon in 2013 but, in actual fact, the first British male to win a tournament at the All England Tennis Club since 1936, was Jonny Marry, of Ecclesall, a year earlier.

He became doubles champion with Danish partner Frederik Nielsen in 2012.

FOUNDING CLUBS

Seven clubs are thought to have been founding members of the Sheffield and District Lawn Tennis Association, which was inaugurated in 1889 at the Clarence Hotel in High Street. They were:

* Rustlings (who played at Collegiate Crescent).

* Audrey (Cherry Tree Road).

* Brincliffe (Grange Crescent).

* Pitsmoor (Norwood Road).

* Nether Hallam (Hillsborough).

* Abbeydale (Abbeydale Road).

* Sheffield and Hallamshire (Ecclesall Road).