By Mark Ryan Part I of III The first lawn tennis tournament to be held at the grounds of the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club on Worple Road in Wimbledon took place from 9-19 July 1877 and consisted solely of a men’s singles event. It was a rather modest affair – there was a total of only twenty-two entrants – but successful enough for the event to be repeated again the following year and, indeed, every year since then, with the exception of the years when the two world wars were being fought. It would be seven more years before the programme of the Wimbledon tournament was expanded to include both a men’s doubles and a women’s singles event. That was in 1884. In the interim a prestigious men’s doubles tournament had been initiated by the committee of the Oxford University Lawn Tennis Club (OULTC), located in Norham Gardens in that particular university city in central southern England. The OULTC itself had only recently been formed, by Kenelm Digby Cotes and Frederick Penny, two bible clerks from All Soul’s College, Sir William Reynell Anson, then the Vinerian Reader in English Law at the same college, and Robert W. Braddell from Worcester College. According to the Norham Gardens website, “The OULTC grass courts were laid out by Mr Burrin, the groundsman at Iffley Road running track, on land to the north of Lady Margaret Hall (LMH), the university ladies’ college which itself was beginning life in 1879. The site was leased from St. John’s College and was situated where the LMH chapel and the Denneke hall of residence now stand. The pavilion was on the north side of the courts in Benson Place, opposite Norham Mews, where the wealthy residents of Norham Manor kept their horses and carriages and from where the Brewers ran a cab business employing horse-pulled carriages.” The members of the OULTC officially announced their intentions in a letter written by Kenelm Digby Cotes and published in the London “Times” on 15 April 1879. This letter read as follows: “Dear Sir, “I hope you will allow me to inform lawn tennis players through ‘The Times’ that the committee of the Oxford University Lawn Tennis Club have decided to offer a challenge cup open to all England, to be played for in doubles matches at Oxford during the May races, the entries for which will close on 1st of May. Copies of the conditions of the competition and any further information can be obtained on application to me, or to the Secretary, All Souls’ College. I should like to take this opportunity of stating that non-resident members of the Universities are permitted by our rules to become members of the Oxford University Lawn Tennis Club. “I am, Sir, faithfully yours, “Kenelm Digby Cotes, Secretary, Lonsdale House, Cheltenham, April 12” First prize was to be a silver challenge cup worth sixty pounds, while the four finalists would also be given special jackets by the OULTC. Fourteen pairs entered the first tournament. There were representatives from Jesus College, Cambridge, Hinckley, Cheam, the Carlton Club, the All England Club, West Middlesex, Leamington, the Prince’s Club and Oxford University (six pairs). On the first day of competition four pairs either scratched or failed to turn up. One of the striking features of the first tournament, which was held from Tuesday 20 to Friday 23 May 1879, was that every match was played over the best of seven sets. In those days players changed ends only after the end of each set, although they changed ends after every game if a final set was being played. In addition, a ‘vantage set was played only in the final set; this meant that any previous set could be won be 6-5 if the score reached 5-all, whereas the final set had to be won by a margin of two games if 5-all was reached, e.g. 7-5 or 8-6, etc. This is the complete draw for the first Oxford University Men’s Doubles Championship, or the “Oxford University Challenge Cup for Pairs”, as it was then called: First round William Wells-Cole/Edward B. Hill (Jesus College, Cambridge) d. A.O. James and partner (Hickley Lawn Tennis Club), walkover F. Durant/George E. Tabor (Cheam Lawn Tennis Club) d. Henry T. Munro (Merton College, Oxford)/William A. Briscoe (Brasenose College, Oxford), walkover Alfred J. Mulholland/Henry L. Mulholland (Balliol College, Oxford) d. Vernon F. Page (Saint Mary’s Hall, Oxford)/F.G. Burdon (Oriel College, Oxford) 6-2, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 Robert Erskine/Herbert Lawford (Carlton Lawn Tennis Club) d. Robert D. Dalby/F.W. Oliver (All England Club), walkover Rev. Thomas F. Burra (University College, Oxford)/Rev. Francis C. Dillon (New College, Oxford) d. Lyttelton Stewart Forbes Winslow/Charles John Cole (West Middlesex Lawn Tennis Club) 1-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, 2-6, 6-?, 6-4 Mr Shapley/Arthur W. Tomkins d. George R. Ashley (Balliol College, Oxford)/William E. Dunsford (New College, Oxford) 6-4, 5-6, 6-1, 6-5, 6-1 Kenelm D. Cotes (All Souls’ College, Oxford)/John Comber (Oriel College, Oxford) d. Alfred Lubbock/Edgar Lubbock (Prince’s Club), walkover -- Quarter-finals William Wells-Cole/Edward B. Hill (Jesus College, Cambridge) d. Kenelm D. Cotes (All Souls’ College, Oxford)/John Comber (Oriel College, Oxford) 6-1, 6-1, 6-5, 6-5 F. Durant/George E. Tabor (Cheam Lawn Tennis Club) d. Mr Shapley/Arthur W. Tomkins, walkover Robert Erskine/Herbert Lawford (Carlton Lawn Tennis Club) d. Rev. Thomas F. Burra (University College, Oxford)/Rev. Francis C. Dillon (New College, Oxford) 6-0, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 Alfred J. Mulholland/Henry L. Mulholland (Balliol College, Oxford), a bye -- Semi-finals F. Durant/George E. Tabor (Cheam Lawn Tennis Club) d. William Wells-Cole/Edward B. Hill (Jesus College, Cambridge) 6-4, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3 Robert Erskine/Herbert Lawford (Carlton Lawn Tennis Club) d. Alfred J. Mulholland/Henry L. Mulholland (Balliol College, Oxford) 5-6, 6-5, 6-2, 6-4, 6-5 -- Final Robert Erskine/Herbert Lawford (Carlton Club) d. F. Durant/George E. Tabor (Cheam) 4-6, 6-4, 6-5, 6-2, 3-6, 5-6, 7-5 -- It is not an exaggeration to state that the best team won in the end, albeit after a hard seven-set struggle! After all, Herbert Lawford would go on to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon in 1887, having been runner-up in the same event four times. His partner in the Oxford University Men’s Doubles Championship tournament in 1879, the Scotsman Robert Erskine, had reached the final of the All-Comers’ event at Wimbledon on his debut in 1878 before losing to the eventual champion, Patrick Hadow. For some reason, Robert Erskine (b. 1857) played very little tournament tennis. In a report published on 24 May 1879, the unnamed correspondent of “The Field” sports newspaper singled out his play in the final of the first Oxford University Men’s Doubles Championship: “In the final game Mr Erskine gave some beautiful services, and also playing splendidly gave the verdict for his club, after a match that could hardly be beaten as to cleverness. The play all round was certainly worth going some distance to see, though we think the honours must rest with Mr Erskine, to whose splendid judgment the hard-earned victory was fairly due.” As indicated above, the players agreed to play a ‘vantage set if the score reached 5-5 in the final set, which it in fact did. Of the runners-up, George Tabor came from a tennis-playing family, albeit one whose members did not play much tournament tennis. F. Durant (first name unknown) remains the most obscure of the four finalists at this first Oxford University Men’s Doubles Championship.