The twins Ernest (1861 – 1899) and William Renshaw (1861 – 1904) were the tennis players of their age. They were born at Brandon Lodge, Brandon Parade, Leamington, and baptised at Saint Mary’s Church. When the twins were only a few months old, the family moved to Cheltenham, where eventually they built their own tennis court, for practice.
The Renshaws became the first great stars of lawn tennis, asked for autographs and followed by crowds. They revolutionised the game. Without them, lawn tennis might never have been much more than an elegant pass-time for garden parties. From the first Wimbledon Championships in 1877 until 1880 when the Renshaws first appeared, the game was often called ‘Pat Ball’, – a revealing term, – where the object of the exercise seemed not so much to win as to avoid losing.
Harry Gem and J B A Perera, together with Dr Arthur Tomkins and Dr Frederick Haynes, formed the world’s first lawn tennis club in 1874, on the lawns of the Manor House Hotel in Leamington. Their rules were printed in a small booklet entitled “Rules of the Game as Played by the Leamington Club.” In the same year Major Walter Wingfield launched his Sphairistike game, soon renamed Lawn Tennis as was the Leamington version. It was the commercial impetus behind Wingfield’s product which drove its widespread adoption and rapid popularity. The All England club in Wimbledon, London, took up the game in 1875, the same year that the MCC drafted revised rules based on Wingfield’s game. Further rule changes were to be made by the All England Club in readiness for their first Championships in 1877.
As with most ‘crazes’ within a couple of years, after the first flush, interest in lawn tennis began to wane until the Renshaws came on the scene. The Renshaw twins brought with them a new dynamism. They were competitive and exciting to watch, hitting the ball hard, developing the overarm service, taking the ball early and volleying. In doubles they both advanced to the net, – all very modern techniques. For years the smash was known as the ‘Renshaw Smash.’
In 1880, Spencer William Gore, the first Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Singles winner in 1877 wrote, “In 1880 ended the frivolous era of lawn tennis,” – as in that year the Renshaw brothers started to compete nationally. William Renshaw won the title from 1881 to 1886 and again in 1889. Ernest Renshaw won the title in 1888, and was runner up in 1882, 87, and 89, The brothers won the All-England doubles seven times: Oxford in 1880 to 81, Wimbledon from 1884 when it started, to 1886 and again in 1888 to 89. In 1889, before beating his brother in the final, William defeated Harry Barlow in what may well have been the first great match. Barlow won the first two sets, Renshaw the third. In the fourth, Barlow was six times at match point, but Renshaw took it 10-8. In the fifth Renshaw fell behind 0-5, but eventually won 8-6.
William Renshaw is one of the most successful male players in the history of the game, whose six consecutive Wimbledon singles titles remain an unbroken Championship record.
There is a Blue Plaque to the Renshaw twins at their birthplace, Brandon Lodge, Brandon Parade, now numbered 60 Holly Walk, Leamington.
Additional information supplied by R M C Holland