May 21st, 1881: The day the USTA was founded
- 21 May 2020
What happened on this day and why it still resonates today
On this day, May 21st, 1881, at the initiative of Dr. James Dwight (“the Founding Father of American Tennis”), the United States Lawn Tennis Association was founded in New York, known today as the United States Tennis Association (USTA). It is the governing body for tennis in the United States.
The meeting that was held on Fifth Avenue that day in order to standardise the rules of tennis in America also helped to found the first US Championships, later known as the US Open, and was the first step towards a new competition that Dwight already had in mind and would be known as the Davis Cup.
The game of Lawn Tennis was introduced in America in 1875 by Mary Outerbridge, who had learnt it from British soldiers in Bermuda. Five years later, it was played in more than 30 clubs, mainly in the north-eastern states, and each club played according to its own rules.
In 1880, this variation in rules proved to be a major nuisance during the first tennis tournament of national interest held at New York’s Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club. Dwight and Richard Sears came to compete from Boston, representing the Beacon Park Athletic Association, where they were playing by the All England Club rules and using English-made tennis balls.
They were quite puzzled when they found themselves hitting much smaller and lighter balls over a considerably higher net! On top of that, the counting system was also different. Dwight tried to protest, but the organisers did not intend to change their rules and told him he could always pull out if the regulations didn’t suit him. Sears and Dwight lost badly in the second round of the doubles event and, following the officials advice, withdrew from the singles draw.
Dwight and Sears did not give up on the rules of lawn tennis. They stirred the pot for weeks, until eventually, even the secretary of the Staten Island Club himself, Eugenius Outerbridge, agreed: for the greater good of lawn tennis, standard rules should apply in all clubs and tournaments in America.
On May 5th, 1881, a notice was published in The American Cricketer, signed by Dwight, Outerbridge and Clarence Clark (representing the Philadelphia Lawn Tennis Committee). Stating that the sport’s rules and regulations needed to be standardised, they called on lawn tennis clubs to establish an association to “govern the game of tennis throughout the whole of the United States.” in order to serve “the better promotion and interest of the game at large.”
Following their call, more than 30 club representatives from six different states met on the May 21, 1881 at this lawn tennis convention, held at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, in New York. Although the transcript from this meeting was lost, we know that they agreed to adopt the “All England Club rules” for one year, and elected Robert S. Oliver, from the Albany Tennis Club, the first president of the new USNLTA, the United States National Lawn Tennis Association.
They also agreed to hold an official championship, in August the same year, in a location to be decided by June and which would turn out to be the Newport Casino, on Rhode Island. This event, named the US National Men’s Singles Championship, would become the Grand Slam we know today as the US Open.
From 1881 to the present day, the USNLTA has been a vital part of many changes that have shaped the game of tennis. Its greatest achievement was the creation of the Davis Cup in 1900, 17 years after James Dwight’s first attempt to challenge England in a team competition.
In 1882, Dwight, who is known in tennis history as “the Founding Father of American tennis”, was elected president of the UNSLTA and held the position for a record 21 years.
In 1920, the word “National” was dropped from the organisation’s name, two years before the newly named USLTA joined the International Lawn Tennis Federation. In 1975, along with almost all the tennis associations around the world, the word “lawn” was dropped as well and the organisation was now called by its present name, the USTA.
One hundred and forty years after its foundation, the USTA has 700,000 members and 8,000 organisational members, divided into 17 geographical sections. American tennis has produced six world No 1s in men’s tennis (the last one being Andy Roddick) and eight world No 1s in women’s tennis (the last one being Serena Williams). American teams have claimed a total of 32 Davis Cup and 18 Fed Cup titles.
And it all started with two angry players blaming their loss on the balls.
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