Sphairistiké was otherwise referred to as lawn tennis
Sphairistiké was otherwise referred to as lawn tennis

Rhodri Marsden's interesting objects: The Sphairistiké set

The game was patented in 1874 by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield and was inspired by the athleticism of the ancient Athenians

Rhodri Marsden
Saturday 21 February 2015 01:00
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This weekend in 1874, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield patented the game of Sphairistiké. Inspired by the athleticism of the ancient Athenians, he gave his invention a Greek name, although his Greek was a bit off; it's more of an adjective than a noun, and translates as something akin to 'ball-ism'. The Sporting Gazette lampooned the name: "Let us try our hands at Sph- Sph- Sphair... No! I will not undergo the torture of pronouncing it! I content myself with the last syllables: stiké." Yes, much to Wingfield's chagrin, people started calling it 'Sticky'.

You could buy a Sphairistiké set for the not inconsiderable sum of £6 (about £600 today). For this you got a net, posts, four bats, balls, a mallet, a line brush and a book of instructions. Said book bemoaned the decline of the noble game of real tennis. "It has died out owing to the difficulties of the game, and the expense of erecting courts. All these difficulties have now been surmounted by the inventor of Sphairistiké," wrote the inventor of Sphairistiké (which, by now, was subtitled 'Lawn Tennis').

This game of "healthy and manly excitement" was a race to 15 points, played on an hourglass-shaped court (the baseline was wider than the net). In winter, if played on ice, it would "give an opening for the exhibition of much grace and science," wrote Wingfield, optimistically. Sphairistiké was a hit with the upper classes; The Prince of Wales, the Crown Prince of Prussia and the Duke of Buccleuch were just three of an extensive list of customers printed in the second edition of the instructions. One article billed Sphairistiké as "the new rival to croquet" – and, in 1877, the All England Croquet Club in Wimbledon decided to stage games of Lawn Tennis for the very first time.

@rhodri

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