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Serve, Volley, Read: Visiting the All-England Club’s Wimbledon Library

By Roger Tagholm

Down in the bowels of the All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, away from the dramas being played out on the courts above, lies a room of quiet and calm that isn’t disturbed by the cries and the applause and the grunts. This sanctuary is home to one of the most unusual libraries in the UK — the Kenneth Ritchie Wimbledon Library, part of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, which sits just a lob away from Center Court. Here, the players of yesteryear who once graced the hallowed grass just a few yards away, have another life altogether, and a kind of quiet, respectful immortality.

To walk along the shelves here is to indulge in a double nostalgia – for players from your tennis-watching past and for swathes of publishing history. Here are biographies and memoirs and instructional books and complete runs of annuals, like the UK’s World of Tennis whose publishing history you can trace from Ward Lock through MacDonald/Queen Anne Press to Collins Willow. There is also every Official USTA Tennis Yearbook from 1942, as well as countless programs from the Grand Slams and bound volumes of the world’s tennis magazines.

The 7,000-odd books are arranged alphabetically by country, and then by year of publication within that. Here you’ll find Man with a Racket: The Autobiography of Pancho Gonzales published by Thomas Yoseloff of London and New York in 1950, and here is Simon & Schuster’s huge Fireside Book of Tennis from 1972. There are rare items in glass cases too, like copies of Major Walter Wingfield’s instructions for “Sphairistike” (from the Greek meaning ball-playing), which was the earliest form of lawn tennis and was sold in kits to those living in large country houses in Great Britain to use on their croquet lawns.

Assistant Librarian Audrey Snell

The library also has books by James Dwight, described as “the father of US tennis,” including his Practical Lawn Tennis, published by Harper New York in 1893. If it’s about tennis, and it exists in book or periodical form, then it’s very likely in this fabulous library.

Just as in a Federer v. Nadal match today, or in the great Chrissie v. Martina/ Borg v. McEnroe battles of yesterday – gems abound. Did you know that Ilie Nastase and Martina Navratilova were both novelists? Here are copies of Nastate’s Tie-Break and The Net from WH Allen, published in 1985 and 1987, respectively, and here’s Navratilova’s The Total Zone, published by Hodder in 1994.

The library entrance

In fact, the tennis novels section is one of the most fascinating, full of oddities and curios. Listen to these two openings: “Anthea Pennington selected a frock from her amazing collection, held it up against her almost nude, bronzed form, shook her head, chose another, and another, until finally she selected the one she had first discarded.” And…”Gorgeous Gussie Moran made a mistake when she paraded in lace panties: and a bigger mistake when she told the world too much about her love affairs.”

The first could be a contemporary chic lit novel set in the world of tennis; the second sounds older, as if it belongs to the Gatsby era. But in fact, the first dates from 1935 and is from a novel called Death on the Centre Court by George Goodchild, published by Hodder in 1935; the second is from Centre Court Murder by Bernard Newman, published by Gollancz in 1951. The conclusion is obvious – Centre Court has always been a dangerous place! But we all knew that, didn’t we? Just ask Andy Murray, if you’re a Brit.

When it comes to fiction, it seems authors have long associated the game with three things – crime, sex and money – and few would dispute that at least two of those still explain some of the fascination with the game today. So here’s a copy of Death Serves an Ace by Helen Wills and Robert Murphy, published by Scribners in 1939, and here’s The Tennis Murders: A Dion Quince Mystery by Timothy Welch, published by Popular Library New York in 1976, with its ‘read me’ subtitle: “The courts filled up with corpses as a smooth slaying killer served up death with a savage twist.”

Let’s not forget Set Point: A Win Hadley Sport Story by Mark Porter, from Grosset & Dunlap New York, 1960, with its fabulous teaser: “The tennis tournament was all-important to Win Hadley, until the bank robbery took place.” Well, even the best players surely can’t cope with a Grand Slam and a major bank job.

Founded in 1977 by Alan Little, Honorary Librarian and compiler of the annual Wimbledon Compendium “stat-fest,” it is named after Lord Ritchie of Dundee, who was for many years a member of the management committee of the Championships. Little works part-time at the library today, with Assistant Librarian Audrey Snell running it on a day-to-day basis, assisted by volunteer Kay Crooks, who is president of a local tennis club.

“We get all sorts of enquiries,” says Snell. “We have a database of everyone who has played at Wimbledon, so we sometimes have relatives tracing family history. Or we have students doing projects on fashion, or researching the history of racquets. We have people doing statistical research – does it make any difference if you serve first, that kind of thing, and we have quite a few authors looking things up. John Henderson, who wrote the Fred Perry book [Yellow Jersey 2009] and Debbie Beckerman who wrote Mr Nastase [Collins Willow 2004], both came in. And we have social history researchers too.”

It is easy to see why historians might use the library’s resources, since so much about the society of the time can be learnt from the way tennis was written about. In 1910, Methuen published Lawn Tennis for Ladies by Mrs Lambert Chambers, which is straight out of Downton Abbey. “Exercise in some form or other is essential,” she writes, “and although I am quite ready to admit that games of the strenuous type, such as hockey and lawn tennis, can be and sometimes are overdone, yet the girl of today, who enters into and enjoys her game with scarcely less zest than her brother, is, I am convinced, better in health and happier in herself than the girl of the past generation.”

Among countless books that catch the eye is Arthur Ashe’s memoirs Advantage Ashe, published in 1967 by Coward-McCann Inc, New York. Its subtitle is: “The Story of the Young Negro who stormed the exclusive world of tennis to become the United States ranking amateur.” Contrast this with 2007’s Charging the Net – A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters, by Cecil Harris and Larryette Kyle-Debose, published by Ivan R. Dee of Chicago. Changing times, changing language.

Snell has worked at the library for 13 years and loves the year-round variety “and the buzz of the two weeks of the Championship.” As well as meeting players – like the Frenchman Nicolas Mahut who played the longest game ever in 2010 and came in to donate his kit to the Museum – there is one very enviable perk too. “We get 20 minute slots on Centre Court every day – near the Royal Box and the players’ family box…”

DISCUSS: What are You Recommending to Read this Fourth of July?

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