Collecting tennis memorabilia can be challenging, fun, and rewarding. Discovering a tennis treasure, whether it is a postcard one doesn’t have, or a Victorian garden umpire chair, thrills the true collector. Tennis memorabilia, compared to that of golf and collecting baseball, is relatively undervalued, allowing collectors with modest budgets to build very satisfactory collections. One of the greatest side benefits of collecting is meeting wonderful people in all walks of life, whose paths would not cross were it not for this mutual interest.
Someone who collects teapots is always looking for an object within a specific range of size and shape. Not so the tennis collector! He or she can look for racquets, presses, ball cans, oil paintings, silver or ceramic objects, and unlimited printed matter such as programs, books, trade cards, advertisements, and postcards.
Beginning collectors usually amass items, providing an educational lesson about quality, price, and condition. Jeanne Cherry, a founding member of the Tennis Collectors of America, remembers trudging the fields of Brimfield, buying up junk racquets galore and meeting Jay Zirolli, an experienced collector, for the first time. He looked at the pile of racquets and said, “Geez, Jeanne, they’re not in very good condition.” He wouldn’t have put them in his garage.
A Brief History of Tennis
From the royal courts of England and France to center court at Wimbledon, from Henry VIII to Federer the great, the game of tennis is steeped in history and tradition.
The precise origins of tennis are disputed, with some historians dating it back to Ancient Egypt, but the modern form of lawn tennis was designed and patented in 1874 by Walter C. Wingfield in Great Britain with an eight-page rule book titled Sphairistike or Lawn Tennis. In his version, the game was played on an hour-glass shaped court and the net was higher (4 feet 8 inches). The service had to be made from a diamond-shaped box at one end only and the service had to bounce beyond the service line instead of in front of it. He also adopted the racquets-based system of scoring where games consisted of 15 points (called ‘aces’).
The first tennis court in the U.S. was built in 1876, and the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association was formed in 1881. International competition began in 1900 with the first Davis Cup tournament between the U.S. and Great Britain.
Today, the four biggest competitions on the tennis circuit – the Grand Slam – are Wimbledon, the US Open, the French Open, and the Australian Open. Since the mid-1920s they became and have remained the most prestigious events in tennis. Winning these four tournaments in the same year is called the Grand Slam (a term borrowed from bridge). On the men’s side, Roger Federer holds the #1 position among Grand Slam winners with 18 titles, followed by Pete Sampras (14), Rafael Nadal (14) and Novak Djokovic (12). On the women’s side, Margaret Court holds the #1 distinction with a total of 24 Grand Slam wins. This past January, Serena Williams surpassed Steffi Graf with her 23rd win to take the #2 position.
Where to Look for Tennis Treasures
Obvious places to look for tennis memorabilia are flea markets, garage and estate sales, antique shops, auctions, and dealers who specialize in sports related items. Carrying a racquet with you often prompts dealers to run after you offering tennis items. It is also a good way to meet fellow tennis collectors.
An often overlooked source is a fellow collector who is selling or trading duplicates or trying to raise money to add a special treasure to his collection. More affluent collectors can subscribe to a service such as Thesaurus.com, which, for a fee, alerts collectors to their special interests by tracking all auctions or sales and notifying them by email. Another effective method is to network with non-tennis acquaintances, friends, and dealers. A business card with a tennis motif instantly reminds people that you are an obsessive tennis memorabilia hunter. Some lucky collectors have found racquets and tennis posters on walls of restaurants and shops and cajoled proprietors into parting with coveted objects. Ads in local or antique newspapers can also bring results. Tracking down every lead, however casual, often results in success. The old sports adage “Never give up” applies to tennis collectors as well.
There are only a few museums dedicated solely to tennis, but to the collector, they are well worth the visit if you are in the vicinity or planning a trip.
The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, on the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, England, opened in May 1977. The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum’s collection contains over 20,000 objects that chronicle the history of lawn tennis from a popular pastime to the world class sporting tournament that is The Championships. Since its founding, the museum has expanded its collection to include a wide variety of artifacts. These range from a ca. 1555 book on the game of tennis, to the balls used in the 2014 Gentlemen’s Singles final. The collection also includes some unusual tennis themed objects such as toys and teapots.
Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum’s latest exhibition features 87 racquets from the 1870s right up until the present day and charts the evolution of the humble racquet from a single piece of wood bent into shape with steam to a model complete with a smart chip that tracks on-court behavior. Some of the more rudimentary designs feature sheepskin grips and piano wire strings, while the exhibition also includes some decidedly wackier creations, like a racquet-shaped vegetable dish. Designed to highlight how the racquet has continually been adapted to provide any sort of on-court advantage, it takes visitors through a chronological history of its development and points out the key evolutionary jumps along the way. The exhibition, “Reinventing the Racket,” is open until March 20, 2017.
Following a visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in the early 1950s, Jimmy Van Alen, then-President of the Newport Casino, and his wife Candy decided that tennis also needed a place to honor its great figures. The Newport Casino was in danger of demolition, and with its rich tennis history, it was the perfect spot to establish a hall of fame. Jimmy Van Alen successfully lobbied the leadership of the United States Lawn Tennis Association to sanction the establishment of a National Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport. The venerable Newport Casino became the National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum and was officially recognized by the International Tennis Federation in 1986. Today the museum showcases nearly 2000 objects of the more than 25,000 artifacts and hundreds of thousands of images, videos, and publications in its holdings.
The Tenniseum, also known as the Musée du Tennis or the Musée de Roland-Garros, at Roland Garros Stadium in Paris, France, opened its doors in time for the French Open championships in May 2003. Built on 2,200 square meters under court 3 and the federal pavilion, the museum strongly utilizes multimedia with the latest in technology to create highly interactive exhibits. There is also a workroom for children with quizzes, educational games, and fun activities. The library houses volumes ranging from the ca. 1555 Scaino Treatise on real tennis to the latest publications and posters.
The Australian Tennis Museum in Sydney, Australia officially opened in January of 2005 with a collection of books, artworks, memorabilia and collectibles showcasing the transformation of the sport from an amateur pastime for the wealthy to the professional power sport of today. The Australian Tennis Museum also boasts an extensive library including tennis magazines, programs, reports, and books.
Dealers who specialize in tennis memorabilia usually charge higher prices than general antique dealers, but often have high-quality items, which they spend time, travel, and expense to acquire. They are doing the hunting for collectors who may have less time than money or do not enjoy poking around in junk shops and flea markets.
Tennis items often go higher at auction than at markets or through dealers due to the fierce competition, especially of one-of-a-kind objects. There is usually a 10-20% buyer’s premium and a sales or value added tax added to the gavel price, which increases the cost considerably and is often forgotten by the buyer in the heat of bidding. If possible it is always best to preview an auction in person to examine items carefully for chips, cracks, authenticity and general condition. Online auction services, such as eBay, have radically altered tennis buying because of their instant access to thousands of items.
Tennis Collectors Groups
There are many benefits to belonging to a tennis collectors group. First, is getting to know other collectors and making lasting friendships by mutual interests. Other benefits are sharing information, reading and writing articles, and getting together at annual meetings for seminars, buy and sell, and show and tell.
Tennis Collectors of America was organized in 2003 to promote tennis collecting and the history of tennis through an ongoing exchange among members utilizing a TCA website, published media and meetings. For more information on joining, visit www.tenniscollectors.org.