Croquet in Decline / Rise of Tennis - Historical perspective

by Paul Bennett · 26 May 2019

Harper's Weekly - Roquet
5th annual National championship in Norwich, CT Photo by Paul Bennett

Major Wingfield introduced Lawn Tennis in 1884 as croquet was in a state of decline in the mid 19th century. The courts at Wimbledon, near Surbiton outside London, are the birthplace of Lawn Tennis. It started on well manicured grass; the kind now co-shared by some clubs in America playing croquet and tennis (Mission Hills, located in Rancho Mirage, California is an example).

It is interesting to read the article from Harper’s Weekly, dated September 24, 1891. Some of the reasons they believed croquet was in a decline are interesting to think over in light of the success of Egyptian Golf croquet in modern times and the rise of Pickle ball in place of lawn tennis. History is a good teacher … may I let the article speak for itself.

Harper’s Weekly, September 1891


When some seven years ago Major Wingfield introduced the game of lawn tennis, he found a jaded public hungry for a new outdoor pastime. Croquet had come and conquered, but it had not in itself the elements of permanence as a game, and it was already in its decadence. It owed much of its past success to its usefulness in bringing people together for aimless outdoor social enjoyment rather than to any intrinsic excellence as a game. Making no demand on physical strength and endurance, and as at first played calling for but little skill, it was preeminently a game for garden parties. No special costume was necessary to its perfect enjoyment. The suit, whether of masculine or feminine attire, which was best adapted for sitting on garden seats under trees, listening to music diluted with smalle-talk, and eating ice-cream, was equally well adapted to the best practice of croquet as at first understood. But croquet, recognizing the fact that it was, after all, but a vapid game, felt called upon to take thought for its development if it would hold its own. And so it grew into a game requiring a talent for grasping combinations almost as great as that required in chess, and a skillful union of hand and eye but little inferior to that demanded by billiards.

Its development was its downfall. It was no longer a game for lawn parties. Experts required a five-inch wicket, which only exceeded the diameter of the ball by half an inch. Of course croquet, as a special force, could not go to this extreme. Again, even when other things were favorable, experts were unwilling to jeopardize their reputations by playing with mallets of diverse weights and unaccustomed handles, and so they had to take their own mallets with them wherever they visited strange lawns. This was too much like business, and anything savoring of earnestness of purpose (save, perhaps, in affairs of the heart) was quite out of place at a lawn party. Hence it came about that croquet was moribund when lawn tennis started into being.

It is not proposed to set forth in this article the rules and principles of the sport, nor to teach the whole duty of the tennis player, but merely to glance at some of the aspects of the game. A recent article in and English magazine, written by one who shows a thorough familiarity with his subject, and handles it with much skill and humor, opens our eyes to the fact that the best lawns tennis players in England have arrived at a high state of excellence, so high, indeed, that it would seem that the time will come when the rules must be made narrower and more rigorous than at present, to prevent the game from degenerating into one of the exact sciences. The “service,” or first starting of the ball, was formerly – that is, tow or three years ago — what most players mainly relied upon. It is a stroke which may always e played under the same conditions, and no bothering is needed but to discover what is the best service, and when found, to practice that service assiduously until the requisite skill is acquired. But what is sauce for the server is equally sauce for the served. If the former strikes the balls with uniform precision, the latter receives them under conditions which vary only with the inability of the server to do his best. Under any circumstance the necessity for the ball, when served, to fall within a certain limited area, comprising only about one-fourth of his court obviates any real difficulty in the case of a first-rate player.

And it is right that it should be so. The service is merely the starting of a round, or “rally” and it would be absurd in the extreme if the rules were such that a served ball could be killed with certainty time and again by a player whose skill in service was not superior to that of his opponent in general play. The correctness of this principle is recognized in the rule which forbids |volleying” the service, that is, striking it before it has touched the ground — a practice which would enable an inferior player to kill even the best service, and would, in effect, reduce the game to service and nothing besides.

Among players, however, who are not first rate, the service still holds its own as an important part of the game, and one which it is well worth while to cultivate. Perhaps the most effective of the several styles is the swift overhand service, in which the ball loses none of its force by rising and then falling, but uses it all by maintaining a declining trajectory during the whole of its course. The objection to this service is that it is a great strain of the fore-arm — so great, indeed, as sometimes to incapacitate a player from using his arm for days together. Next ot the overhand comes the swift side-stroke service, where the ball starts from an elevation about equal to that of the net, and falls close up to the boundary line of the service court. The underhand series are all easy, whether they be “cut — that is, made to twist on touching the ground, by reason of the “side effect” put upon them — or merely tossed over the net. But of all kinds of service by far the most effective is that sometimes known as a “teaser” or “daisy-cutter” which refuses to rise even a hair’s breadth from the ground, and defeats the most skillful player. Whatever be the style of service in this case, the credit of the result must, four out of five, be awarded to the inequality of the ground.

From the article to which allusion has been made above we learn that the game as practiced by the best players demands excellence in volleying to the exclusion of almost everything else. After the service the crack player takes his position in the centre of his court on the service line. From this point he counts upon reaching very ball which is returned to him; and as the court is only twenty-seven feet wide, a good length of arm, aided by a quick step sideways or forward, should justify his confidence, since every ball that is beyond his reach is almost certain to fall out of court. It is unwise, however, for an indifferent volleyer to put his whole trust in this kind of play, for nothing is more uncertain than the ultimate destination of a volley when the ball has been returned so quickly as to leave the player no time to gauge either force or direction.

Though, as we have said, lawn tennis is not a social game in the sense as was croquet, it is not without the elements of a social force. In its case, however, since the aim is to bring together persons devoted to it for its own sake, and not merely to assemble … instead of encouraging lawn parties and such like desultory opportunities for practicing their favorite game, the tennis players of a neighborhood hasten to form themselves into clubs. The principal clubs to which New York city is tributary (leaving out of consideration of summer sojourners at Newport and other popular resorts) are the Staten Island, the St. George’s, whose ground is at Hoboken, the Orange Club, and those at Jersey City, Newark, Morristown, and Short Hills. The first two are large and important clubs, but they owe their organization in the first instance to cricket rather than to lawn tennis. The largest and most important of the clubs devoted to lawn tennis exclusively is the Orange Club, which though in its first season, numbers a hundreds members, and possesses a very pretty ground at New Brighton, Staten Island, which, running down to the water’s edge on one side, command a glorious view of the upper bay, while the background is formed, by the terraced hill, and its many tasteful villas embellished in masses of foliage.

But New York has by no means a monopoly of lawn tennis clubs. The Beacon Park Club is the chief among several at Boston; and Philadelphia, the stronghold of cricket, is likewise a warm admirer of the new game. In as much, indeed, as a good cricket ground is also a god lawn tennis ground, Philadelphians should, and perhaps do, take the lead among the devotees of the game.

The first tournament held under the auspices of the National Lawn Tennis Association has recently been concluded at Newport. The exhibition of fine play on the part of Mr. Sears, the winner of the championship, and of those who pressed him most closely, was a revelation to most of the spectators, and the association is to be congratulated on its success in bringing together such a number of first-rate players. A national association, indeed, was all that was wanting to advance the interests of the sport. Its sterling merits as a game hae been shown by the popularity which it has so quickly won, and its admirers, while they do not regard lawn tennis as the whole duty of man, and the single end and aim of existence, are sufficiently devoted to it to wish to see it take rank with other sports and pastimes which have their national associations and their annual re-unions.

Questions to think about

Please, Comment:

  1. Even today, ‘backyard croquet’ is considered a family and friends social event. There are many different rules and it’s okay to create and play by your own house rules. One of the more popular rules is the “foot shot” sending an opponents ball to some far off place. Six balls are everywhere and the ‘croquet bully’ is quickly identified. In the sport of 9 wicket croquet, he or she is called ‘Aunt Emma’ who just loved to smack opponents balls off the court. A fun version of the game is where everyone is shooting for the same wicket as you go around the court. You can eliminate the second and sixth wickets and turning stake in the traditional court layout. The order of play is blue, red, black, yellow, orange and green. The first player to clear the first wicket gains a point and every is now shooting for the next wicket as everyone moves around the court. This version is fun and the only skill is your ability to shoot straight and get into position to clear a wicket. There are formal rules for this version of the game but why complicate this informal fun event.

    — Ford Fay · 1777 days ago · #

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