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125 years of Wimbledon: From birth of lawn tennis to modern marvels

By Gary Morley, CNN
  • Wimbledon celebrating the 125th staging of the world's oldest tennis championships
  • Museum has exhibits from the birth of the outdoor sport to its modern-day stars
  • Longest match in tennis history, from 2010 event, is among the latest showcases
  • Curator says "every championships is different and every championships is a challenge"

(CNN) -- As museum curator for the world's oldest and arguably most prestigious major tennis tournament, Honor Godfrey lives Wimbledon's rich history every day.

Indeed, the 61-year-old helps bring the past back to life in the museum's interactive tour and collection, which this year highlights the 125th time the grass-court event has been staged.

"I love the collecting aspects of the museum and I find the championships really invigorating," she says.

"We try to capture anything which is new or very, very different. Every championships is different and every championships is a challenge."

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The items on display include some of the first lawn tennis sets, an unwanted tournament poster from 1893 found in someone's house, kitsch tennis-related ornaments and parts of the original men's dressing room.

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Fashion from down the ages lights up the collection, from unbelievably impractical early women's outfits to Ted Tinling's classic designs and the garments worn by recent champions such as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

"We collect examples of the fashions that are worn every year along with other things," Godfrey says. "We collect from the queue, we collect from the players, from spectators."

The renowned and lengthy Wimbledon ticket queue, which has been a feature of the tournament for the past century, is the focus of this year's special display.

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It gathers anecdotes from spectators who have often stayed up all night in their bid to gain coveted entrance to Centre Court, and also provides evidence -- from the women's suffrage era, when activists targeted high-profile events -- that sports fans have had their bags searched for many decades.

Another highlight is the display commemorating the longest match in tennis history, the 11-hour epic between American John Isner and France's Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon last year, spread out across three days.

"Mahut came to visit the museum and he took photographs of this showcase," Godfrey says.

Major Walter Wingfield popularized this game enormously. He was absolutely terrific at marketing and he sent his game all over the world
--Honor Godfrey on the inventor of lawn tennis

"He was carrying his racket and John Isner's racket, and he was sending the photographs through to John Isner in the States going, 'Where am I?' "

The All-England Club, which hosts Wimbledon, is the home of tennis as we know it. Prior to the club's introduction of the lawn game in 1875, it had largely been an indoor sport.

The advent of the outdoor game was largely due to one man, Victorian entrepreneur Major Walter Wingfield.

"He popularized this game enormously. He produced a boxed set which included a net, poles, rackets, balls for playing the game -- and most importantly you had his rules," Godfrey says.

"He was absolutely terrific at marketing and he sent his game all over the world. He had very good connections with the clergy, the law profession, and the aristocracy and he sent thousands of sets out in the first year or so, in 1874."

The All-England Club started out as a croquet organization, and the first tennis championships there in 1877 helped raise funds to repair the broken pony roller that kept the grass flat at the original Worple Road site in south-west London.

"It was open to allcomers but it was a gentleman's championship," Godfrey says.

"Everybody who entered the championship paid a guinea (worth about $80 now)entrance fee, and the spectators who came to watch the final paid a shilling each (about $4) and they saw Spencer Gore beat William Marshall in the final."

Gore was a cricket fan who believed that outdoor tennis would never catch on. He lost in the final the following year, but by the time of his death in 1906 tennis had well and truly captured the public's imagination.

This poster was found scrunched up behind a mirror and somebody sent it into the museum and said, 'If you don't need it, just burn it'
--Godfrey on 1893 artifact

The museum's 1893 poster shows that women's and doubles competitions had been added to the Wimbledon schedule, which that year began at 4.30 every afternoon and went from July 10-17, closing curiously on a Monday.

"There weren't covers on the courts in those days and they didn't know what the weather was going to be like," Godfrey explains.

"The great thing about this poster is that it was found scrunched up behind a mirror and somebody sent it into the museum and said, 'Would you like to have it? If you don't need it, just burn it.' "

In 1922, unable to cope with demand for tickets, the club moved from Worple Road to its existing site in Church Road, a winding walk up and down tree-lined hilly streets from the local train station which may test first-time visitors. There is a shuttle bus during the championships, which is an easier option.

The show court at Worple Road was in the middle of a rectangle of surrounding ones, and its title stuck following the move despite the different layout at the new venue, which took just 10 months to complete.

"When we came here Centre Court was still called Centre Court for historical reasons, even though it was right at the north of the site," Godfrey says.

That era of the tournament introduced flamboyant players such as Suzanne Lenglen, a six-time Wimbledon champion who revolutionized what women could wear, and compatriot Jean Borotra -- a two-time winner who was one of France's "Four Musketeers" of men's tennis.

The museum evokes their grace and style with Art Deco pieces by designers such as Karl Hagenauer and Ferdinand Priess along with film footage of the period -- it's Godfrey's favorite exhibit.

He decided to weigh the clothes worn by his lady opponent and he found that they were 4.9 kg, as opposed to his which were about 2.4 kg
--Godfrey on Major Wingfield

But that's closely followed by the fashion showcases that dominate the second half of the museum tour.

"When women first started playing lawn tennis they would dress in their best garden party clothes. You would have corsets and layers of petty coats on underneath -- it would be very hard to play," Godfrey says.

"In fact, somebody said what women were wearing was tight where it should be loose, and loose where it should be tight.

"Major Wingfield decided to weigh the clothes worn by his lady opponent in a game and he found that they were 4.9 kg in weight -- that's about five large bags of sugar -- as opposed to his clothes, which were about 2.4 kg."

Tinling was a former tennis player who became Lenglen's personal umpire before earning renown as a clothes designer.

He dressed Wimbledon women's champions in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, while the legendary Billie Jean King ensured his legacy endured into a fourth decade when she sported one of his creations in the 1984 mixed doubles final.

"What was fantastic about the way he worked was he looked at the whole personality of the player, and he dressed the player to be happy in his creations," Godfrey says.

When you're collecting I think it's absolutely amazing because you don't know what the boundaries could ever be
--Museum creator on job highlights

The tour also features a holographic John McEnroe, who recalls his first visit to the hallowed men's locker room as "an 18-year-old punk kid from Queen's New York who had somehow made it to the semifinals at Wimbledon."

"If you made it in here, you knew you were someone. This is where the contest really began. This is where the adrenalin really started to pump," the American, who won three Wimbledon titles, intones in his nasal drawl.

The tour ends with a sight that any tennis player dreams of -- the Wimbledon winners' trophies.

But one of Godfrey's most cherished items is a little more obscure, harking back to the tennis boom days when memorabilia was found in all shapes and unlikely forms.

"When you're collecting I think it's absolutely amazing because you don't know what the boundaries could ever be," she says.

"One of my favorites is a tiny little zip fastener, and running up and down the sides of the zip are tiny gold rackets. I just think, 'Who on earth made this?' I would never have thought anyone would have made anything like that."

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