The vast majority of tennis fans will never have heard William Charles Renshaw. It’s a name that almost never appears when people discuss the greatest ever players, and even when British tennis history is discussed it is largely Fred Perry who is talked about.
But were it not for Renshaw emerging in the very early days at Wimbledon tennis may not have come close to being the sport it is today, with William and his twin brother Ernest being the main reason for the popularity of tennis in its early years in England.
He was born in Leamington, Warwickshire on the 3rd of January 1861 and first became interested in tennis during his days as a student at Cheltenham College. In those days the Wimbledon Championships had an ‘all comers’ section of the draw, where 48 players could compete to gain entrance to the main tournament.
He first qualified when he was 20 years old, and faced Reverend John Hartley in front of a crowd of 2,500 people. It took Renshaw just 37 minutes to defeat his opponent, winning 6-0 6-1 6-1. Hartley was suffering from a cholera, but he admitted he would have lost even if he had been completely healthy.
This was Renshaw’s first Wimbledon title, but it was by no means his last. Renshaw played the game with a style no one had seen before, following up big serves with volleys at the net and overhead smashes.
This was the beginning of serve and volley tennis, then known as the ‘Renshaw Rush’, a style which has become strongly associated with the Wimbledon tournament. William was also one of the first players to train all year, one of the earliest true professionals in the sport.
He played with incredible speed and power in an age where players mostly tried to hit winners from the baseline, and it wasn’t long before he became the first tennis superstar. When he returned in 1882 to defend his title huge crowds gathered to watch this phenomenon play his unique and exciting style of tennis.
William went on to win his second title in a row, defeating his brother Ernest in a 5 set epic which ended 6–1, 2–6, 4–6, 6–2, 6–2. The following year the popularity of the sport led to more regulations being put in place, including a standard net height. The standard of player has also increased, and the ‘all comers’ draw had been reduced to 28.
It was once more the Renshaw twins who contested the final, and again William was the winner in 5 sets. The crowd was standing room only to witness William Renshaw winning his 3rd straight Wimbledon title.
Renshaw went on to win the next 3 Wimbledon titles, all against Herbert Lawford in the final. Lawford is widely believed to have introduced topspin to the game, and won one Wimbledon title and finished as runner-up 5 times, with his other two defeats coming against John Hartley and Ernest Renshaw.
The 6 titles in a row won by William Renshaw remains a record to this day. Sadly he was unable to compete at his highest level in 1887 as he was suffering from tennis elbow and lost to Lawford.His performances in the 1889 tournament are widely thought of as his most memorable.
In the final of the ‘all comers’ draw, he faced Harry Barlow, with the winner set to face Ernest in the main final. The match went to a 5th set, and Renshaw was down 0-5, and somehow managed to fend off 6 match points. He went on to win the set and eventually defeated his brother to claim his 7th Wimbledon title. Only Pete Sampras has managed to match that record.
His loss to Willoughby Hamilton in the 1890 final signaled his retirement from professional tennis. His 7 singles titles matched the 7 doubles titles he had won playing with his brother to make him the most successful player ever at the Wimbledon Championships.
He was also the first ever president of the LTA, and the All-England Club handed over control of the Wimbledon Championships to the new organization. He passed away in 1904. It’s unlikely anyone will match the incredible achievements of William Renshaw at the Wimbledon Championships ever again, and he deserves far more recognition when the greats are discussed.
He remains a genuine legend and someone who we can all thank for tennis being as successful as it is. His pioneering style is style widely used today, and perhaps was used most famously by fellow Wimbledon legend Pete Sampras.