How Wimbledon Grew From an Amateur Tournament to the Greatest Tennis Event in the World

by Shirley Williams
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Wimbledon, which excites the tennis world for two weeks every year, had modest beginnings. Today, world-class players such as Simona Halep and Novak Djokovic play in front of 15,000 at Centre Court and millions watching and listening around the world. Conversely, in 1877, it was an amateur event that was contested by 22 men’s players with a final that was attended by 200 while radio and television broadcasts would not come into existence for decades.

The field at this 11-day event was also not the international assortment of athletes that it would later become. Every player was British, and they had responded to an announcement that the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club had posted on June 9 of that year in The Field, a weekly sporting magazine that originated in 1853 and is still published today. Exactly a month later, the event got underway. Many of the rules that the competitors followed then still exist today, such as six games being enough to win a set and one fault being allowed.

One of the first advancements in the sport occurred seven years later when a women’s singles competition was held here for the first time. Interestingly, the final that year was a battle of siblings as Maud Wilson rallied from a set down to defeat her sister, Lilian Watson, by 6-8, 6-3, 6-3 scores.

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However, the amateur aspect of this event carried on for nearly a century. As is likely not a surprise, television appears to have played a role in this decision. The 1967 Championships were the first to be broadcast on color television in the United Kingdom. A few weeks after that event was held, Wimbledon Pro took place on the grounds. That event was the first held here to offer prize money. It was broadcast by BBC, who was also its sponsor.

That set the stage for Wimbledon proper to award prize money for the first time in 1968. It was believed by many that previous players were not actually amateur as they had received incredible amounts of money to cover expenses for participating in events. As a result, to simplify things, Grand Slam competitions started awarding prize money. The 1968 French Open was the first, followed shortly by Wimbledon that year. A total of £26,150 was divvied up at the latter that year. The men’s champion took home £2,000 while the winner of the women’s title claimed £750.

The prize money increased steadily throughout the following years. The biggest pay jump, percentage-wise, occurred in 1974 as the £97,100 that was awarded then was 85% higher than the £52,400 that had been given to the top players in 1973. The biggest pay jump in recent years was in 2013. The £22.6 million that was given out that year was 40% more than the £16.1 that was paid out a year earlier.

In 2019, the prize money totaled £38 million. Even accounting for inflation – the 1968 prize money today would be around £450,000 – the amount of money awarded nowadays dwarfs that.

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