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Wimbledon's modern glamor shaped by humble beginnings

  • Wimbledon has come a long way since its humble beginnings in late 19th century
  • The first final took place several days after rest of tournament due to players' commitments
  • English grass-court event is now most the prestigious on the tennis calendar
  • It has managed to retain many of its traditions while becoming a global tennis showpiece

(CNN) -- More than 130 years ago a tiny crowd of just 200 spectators -- some huddled on the 30 wooden seats available -- watched the first Wimbledon final.

Bizarrely, it had been delayed by several days due to a school cricket match at the same venue, as well as the players' social commitments.

Today, it is anticipated that the world's favorite tennis tournament will be watched by a cumulative TV audience of close to 400 million in 182 countries. An estimated 40,000 fans are expected to pack the grounds of the All England Club in south-west London on each day of the fortnight-long event.

Wimbledon has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1877, but in many ways what happened in the first few tournaments has shaped the modern tournament that we know today.

The early years

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Wimbledon is the oldest of the four Grand Slam tournaments. The U.S. Open was the next to begin in 1881, a French championships followed in 1891 and the first Australian Open came 14 years later.

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Jon Henderson covered the grass-court showpiece for 40 years for British newspaper The Observer and news agency Reuters and is the official biographer of three-time Wimbledon champion Fred Perry.

"Wimbledon was the first tennis tournament ever played anywhere in the world, so it really is a starting point for everything that came in the sport since," he says, explaining why he believes it is still the number one tennis event. "The impact that it has had on tennis is huge."

But while Wimbledon has become synonymous with tennis, the sport isn't what the All England Club was initially intended for when it opened in 1865. Tennis, or "sphairistike" as it was then known, was not added to the private All England Croquet Club's program -- or its name -- for another decade.

And although the grass surface, the all-white tennis outfits and, of course, the rain -- which interrupted the first final between Spencer Gore and William Marshall and has continued to inconvenience play since -- would be familiar to 21st-century tennis fans, plenty about the early years of Wimbledon would not.

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Thanks to one player forgetting to turn up for the first day, eventual runner-up Marshall received a bye to the final -- while Gore had to make his way past the other competitors. The tradition of the titleholder progressing through to the final began the following year and remained in place until the 1920s.

Due to a cricket match between the fee-paying Eton and Harrow schools -- then one of the highlights of the British sporting year -- the Gore-Marshall final was scheduled for a week after the rest of the Championships.

Wimbledon has consciously tried to retain its English, middle-class gentlemanly feel, which has set has set it apart
--Jon Henderson

Rain meant it was further delayed -- not to the day after, but to several days later because of other summer social commitments. Even more bizarrely, champion Gore was not even a dedicated tennis player and also represented Surrey at cricket, that other English summer sporting tradition.

Women were not a fixture for several years at Wimbledon. "Tennis was a gentleman's sport," Henderson said. "Women were seen as too gentle and not robust enough to play."

However, the inaugural ladies' singles championships eventually took place in 1884 -- the same year as men's doubles began. Just 13 women took part compared to the 128-strong draw there in 2010.

The ladies' doubles and the mixed doubles competitions did not happen for a few years later, both beginning in 1913.

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A woman became the first overseas champion in 1905 when American Mary Sutton took home the title, with Australian Norman Brookes in 1907 becoming the first non-British champion in the men's.

Wimbledon was originally just a British tournament, but as travel became easier it became more and more international -- something that Henderson believes increased interest in the sport.

"Tennis is truly an international sport played in every country. Despite its inherent Englishness, this has always broadened the appeal of Wimbledon and is why it is so successful around the world."

First changes

As tennis and Wimbledon became more and more popular, spectators found themselves crammed into the 6,000-capacity venue at Worple Road.

A new venue was proposed, but due to World War I -- the Championship was suspended stopped for the duration of the conflict -- the move did not take place until 1922.

Play stopped again for World War II, when the All England Club was used as a base for Britain's Home Guard -- the wartime volunteer defense force -- and the ambulance service, as well as a home for farm animals.

During the Blitz, four bombs hit Centre Court -- but the damage was sufficiently repaired by the end of the war in 1945, when the court was used for a series of matches between Allied servicemen before the Championships resumed in 1946.

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Some were concerned that the new larger location was not necessary, but demand for the tournament was so high over the first half of the century that a ticket ballot system was set up that is still in place today, in part due to players such as Fred Perry.

The legendary Centre Court -- which is only ever used during the Wimbledon fortnight -- has stood, albeit with some modernizations, since the foundations were laid in the 1920s.

Continuing development

Over the last 60 years, Wimbledon has tried to move with the times while also staying true to its 19th-century origins.

"Wimbledon has consciously tried to retain its English, middle-class gentlemanly feel, which has set has set it apart from other tournaments and has proved so popular," Henderson said.

"It is the only big tournament still played on grass, the all-white rule [for clothing] makes it look a little different and adds a certain charm."

But he is keen to point out that Wimbledon, while maintaining its traditions, has also been at the forefront of many developments in the sport.

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"Wimbledon was the first of the Grand Slams to allow professionals to compete in 1968 and the first to introduce the new line-call technology 30 years ago," Henderson said.

"More recently they have also introduced equal prize money and, of course, the roof, which 30 years ago no-one ever believed would happen."

In 1993 a long-term plan was revealed stating how the club hoped to improve on its already world-class ground and facilities. It all began with the new Number One Court in 1997, and a new broadcast center which followed.

And after years of rain delays, a retractable roof was unveiled over on Centre Court in 2009. Britain's Andy Murray and Swiss player Stanislas Wawrinka made history by being the first players to complete a match under the roof in their epic five-set fourth-round match in 2009.

What does the future hold?

A new sunken Number Two court has been added to the grounds, and work is set to continue with the re-modeling of courts three and four, which will be extended in time for the 2011 tournament and the London 2012 Olympics -- for which Wimbledon will play host to the tennis competition.

"The crowds and the interest Wimbledon attracts, as well as the aura around, it show what a hugely successful tournament it is. It really is a phenomenon," Henderson said.

"You never know what other changes they might make -- perhaps they will cover more courts -- and it will be interesting to see whether they keep the grass. But Wimbledon will always try to retain its tradition and that sort of distinctive Englishness that has made it what it is."