125th Anniversary Celebration

Tennis was born of the lawns of middle England and at Beckenham in Kent (although it is now part of the sprawling London Borough of Bromley) it has been played on the grass courts continuously for 125 years, writes Barbara Wancke for Tennis Today magazine (July/August 2004).

On the Saturday before Wimbledon, Beckenham Lawn Tennis Club celebrated that fact with thirteen hours of activities at its famous Foxgrove Road ground, including a demonstration of grass-court tennis by three-time Wimbledon Champion Maria-Esther Bueno, and an exhibition match involving two local Kent legends.

“Our club has a great history as one of the founder lawn tennis clubs”, said Peter Clegg, Beckenham LTC’s Chairman. “Only Wimbledon and Queen’s are older. We believe tradition is important and have worked at establishing a worthy legacy for the future by acknowledging the club’s past, which we are celebrating today in the presence of our special guests from Tennis Club de Coutainville and our anniversary sponsors, Tudor Park.” Nine years after the first Championships at Wimbledon in 1877, Beckenham organised its own tournament, earning a reputation for a garden party atmosphere. For the next 110 years Grand Slam and world champions plus players of every nationality thumped the grass. All the greats and many not-so-greats graced the manicured courts in the essential warm-up to Wimbledon.

Foxgrove Road became an important stop for young players and synonymous with excellent play due to the appearances of the Renshaw and Doherty Brothers, Dorothea Lambert Chambers, Sir Norman Brookes and Anthony Wilding. The Kent All-Comers title fast earned its own recognition and rose from the shadows of Wimbledon.

Bill Johnston, Elizabeth Ryan, Helen Wills-Moody and Fred Perry heightened its international reputation, while Maureen Connolly, Althea Gibson and those great Australians Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and John Newcombe plus Maria Bueno, Ann Jones, Margaret Smith-Court and Billie Jean Moffitt-King continued the tradition, all enjoying their visits to the cricket outfield.

As professional tennis dawned, champions such as Bjorn Borg, Arthur Ashe, John McEnroe, Pat Cash and Stefan Edberg returned again and again, as did Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Steffi Graf, Pete Sampras and Martina Navratilova who made Beckenham an vital stop for major honours.

In fact, an amazing 33 champions etched their names on the two singles trophies at both Beckenham and Wimbledon, playing a pivotal role in the development of Lawn Tennis in this country before the demise of the Kent tournament in 1996 due to the lack of sponsorship. But the game goes on and members have filled the void by lovingly restoring the club’s Summer Pavilion, built circa 1890 and probably the country’s oldest remaining tennis structure that now houses a gallery of memorabilia as a permanent reminder of Beckenham’s unique tennis history and tradition. Fundraising continues to maintain the integrity of the listed building that now needs urgent work on the roof.

Maria Bueno, the Brazilian tennis star with 19 Grand Slam titles to her credit, has been a member of Beckenham for 15 years and lends much of her time in support of the club’s efforts to maintain tennis tradition. In fact part of the pavilion is dedicated specifically to Maria in acknowledgement of the special role she plays there and the genuine affection with which she is held by all.

Once again she graced the grass at Beckenham on Saturday, reminding the gathered crowd of her particular magic as she stroked the ball with all the fluidity and artistry that continue to be the hallmark of this great champion. A wistfulness fell over all for past glories. It was through Maria’s efforts that Beckenham LTC was twinned this year with one of France’s oldest clubs, the Tennis Club de Coutainville, founded in 1898 where she is also a member, and a delegation travelled from Normandy to participate in the celebrations.

In her formal remarks, the Vice Chairman of Coutainville, Maylis Burel, recalled fondly having played her first tournament on grass at Beckenham many years ago, and added: “As we are in Normandy, this year is very important to us, being the sixtieth anniversary of Operation Overlord. I want to give thanks for all those who gave their lives at Gold Beach and Sword Beach for our freedom and thanks also to your country who welcomed my cousins who came with De Gaulle and admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu to London. We will never forget Great Britain, Canada and America and now Beckenham members are welcome to Coutainville where you can visit these historic places, which are very close by, and, of course, to play tennis.”

A demonstration of the club’s introductory junior programme, presented by the club head pro, Clive Best, warmed-up the on-court festivities that were concluded by a spirited and closely contested men’s doubles match won by Australian coach Brett McLennan & Irish Davis Cup player Peter Hannon (Ireland) representing the Rest-of-the-World who defeated the Kent Legends John Watton & Andrew Searle 6-3 7-6.

Later, after one of Beckenham’s legendary ‘Special Teas’, Hannon and Watton, who are local heroes, holding 12 club singles titles between them, were presented with honorary life membership of Beckenham Cricket Club.

The 125th Anniversary celebrations ran long into the night with pre-barbeque aperitifs provided by Coutainville in the form of 24 bottles of Vin de Pays du Comte Tolosan Moelleux carrying a special Cuvee prestige Maria-Esther Bueno World Champion 59/60/64 label and commemorating the twinning of the two clubs. The empties swiftly became collectors’ items.

A live ‘Anthony Goldsborough At The Pavilion Concert’ got everybody rocking despite the chilly evening and was followed by Karaoke that is best left unreported. Beckenham has always celebrated well and is already looking forward to the next 125 years.