This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of The Bermudian. We look back at a sport with a long history in Bermuda.
Great opportunities have opened up for today’s young tennis players, but history shows it was not always so. If you happened to be black, you were persona non grata at the island’s best tennis facilities up until the mid-1950s.
Growing up as a tennis-mad teenager in 1940s Bermuda was far from easy for Allan Simmons. In the days when the best of the island’s tennis courts welcomed only white players, a young black boy, who liked nothing more than to whack a tennis ball, had to go to extraordinary lengths to indulge in his favourite sport.
In stark contrast to the promising young tennis players of today, who are coached, encouraged to practise every chance they get and regularly enter junior tournaments, Simmons had to stand around for hours to get a brief chance to play on a makeshift court. The Government Tennis Stadium (now known as the W.E.R. Joell Tennis Stadium) was around in those days-it was built in the 1930s-but Simmons and many of his contemporaries were barred from playing there for reasons of skin colour.
Despite the obstacles, Simmons persisted, eventually he became Bermuda’s number one player and represented the island at the 1967 Pan American Games. Now 76, and an honorary life vice-president of the Bermuda Lawn Tennis Association (BLTA), he still dedicates much of his spare time officiating tennis tournaments and working to ensure that others enjoy the kind of opportunities that he never had as an adolescent.
“I must have been about 13 when I started playing tennis at a grass court in Somerset,” Simmons says. “It was called the Shady Rest Tennis Club, and I remember it was run by Nurse Scott. It wasn’t like the manicured grass courts of today; it was just a patch of Bermuda grass. Every Thursday afternoon was a holiday in those days, and on Thursdays and Sundays I would get down there early. I used to spend hours cutting the grass and marking out the court, and I would get to play just one set. A lot of people were waiting to play.
“The area was so small that you had only about five feet of room behind the baseline. It was so tight you had to use an abbreviated service motion. The bounce was uneven on that surface, but that taught you to volley a lot, to play it before it bounced.”
The history of tennis in Bermuda is similar to that of almost all the island’s organised sports in that the British introduced it to the island in the nineteenth century and play was racially segregated. A British army officer, Major Walter C. Wingfield, is credited with inventing the modern game of tennis in the 1870s. In 1873, an Englishman named Thomas Middleton brought the first tennis set into Bermuda, and it was used to set up the first court at Clermont, then the Paget home of Attorney General Sir Samuel Brownlow Gray. Clermont was the site of the first game of tennis played in the Western Hemisphere.
Famously, the game spread to the United States via Bermuda, thanks to a young American visitor to the island, Mary Ewing Outerbridge. Having played at Clermont during her stay, she was so enthused with the game that she took racquets, balls, a net and a rulebook home with her on her voyage to New York on February 2, 1874. Outerbridge set up America’s first tennis court on the grounds of the Staten Island Cricket Club. The United States National Lawn Tennis Association was founded seven years later, and the rest is history.
The game became increasingly popular after the turn of the century, and by the 1930s there were dozens of grass courts on private lawns all over Bermuda. Sartorial elegance was always paramount; ladies wore long, flowing dresses and the gentlemen long, white trousers.
Opportunities for the black community to play tennis were limited, but the efforts of businessman William E.R. Joell did much to change that. Born in 1902, he started playing the game at 14 and devoted much of his life to leading the fight against segregation in the sport. He helped to establish the Somers Isles Lawn Tennis Association in 1935. The Association, even though it had no base to call its own, organised opportunities for black players to play on courts provided by supportive individuals. The organisation was allowed to stage a 10-day tournament at the Government Tennis Stadium each November.
In the late 1940s, Joell built the aptly named Rainbow Tennis Club, where people of all colours were welcome, on a piece of marshland near the BELCO site. It was where Allan Simmons, who went on to become Joell’s son-in-law, was able to hone his fast-developing racquet skills. But he recalls that he still had a wait around for a game.
“I would come down from Somerset on a Sunday to the Rainbow Tennis Club, or another court we used at Happy Valley, and I’d sit there all day for the chance to play one set,” he says. “Sometimes I didn’t even get a game at all. A lot of juniors gave up the game for that reason, but I was determined that I was going to learn how to play.”
Frustration was widespread, as blacks waited for hours to get a chance to play at the few courts they could use, while they were denied access to the Tennis Stadium, which then had six clay courts. It was a government facility, but not yet a public facility. Sometimes people ignored the racial rules and took to the courts when there was no one around, but Simmons recalls that “the police would come and throw them off.”
The injustice could not last, and a determined W.E.R. Joell played a key role in finally bringing down the racial barriers in the 1950s. When Althea Gibson, who went on to become the first black player to win a Wimbledon title in 1957, visited the island in the mid-1950s, some local players wanted to take her to the Stadium for a game.
One of them was Leslie Lynch, who is also black. He told a local newspaper: “We had gone down to the court because we had reserved a court, and the lady at the desk didn’t give us a hard time and she let us through, but the manager wasn’t there at the time. When the manager did arrive, he yelled at us and told us we couldn’t be on the court. But we didn’t move, and we just kept on playing, and he finally left us alone.”
That incident, an attempt to throw one of the world’s greatest players off a Bermuda tennis court because of the colour of her skin, prompted Joell to take action for integration. He rallied support for a petition, which he then presented to Russell Dismont, a member of Parliament. The House of Assembly unanimously approved the change, and, finally, the courts were open to the public. Joell died in 1985, but his contribution to tennis was officially recognised when the Tennis Stadium was named after him some 16 years later.
In 1959, soon after the racial barriers were lifted at the Tennis Stadium, the All Bermuda Tennis Club (ABTC) was created to widen the appeal of tennis. It had none of the restrictions that applied to membership at other private clubs on the island, such as the Coral Beach and Tennis Club, and quickly became popular. The Tennis Stadium was its base, and it had an office in the complex, which is used today by the BLTA.
“There was no Pomander Gate Tennis Club in the early days of the ABTC, and so all the expatriate workers who wanted to play tennis would join the ABTC,” Simmons says. “It really was a thriving club.”
Tennis boomed in popularity and was helped by frequent visits from some of the world’s top players. In 1973, for example, the one-hundredth anniversary of tennis in Bermuda was celebrated with a tournament featuring Richard “Pancho” Gonzales, Clark Graebner, Tony Roche and Vitas Gerulaitis. There were many others who played at the Tennis Stadium over the years, including the Australian Rod Laver, who came here in 1963, the year after he won all four Grand Slam events in the same season.
Laver’s fellow Australians Ken Rosewall (1963) and Lew Hoad (1958) also played here, as well as the American Arthur Ashe (1969), who went on to be the first black man to win a Wimbledon title.
Ashe, who beat Jimmy Connors in 1975 final to clinch that historic Wimbledon triumph, visited Bermuda several times and gave some of his time to coaching children. Simmons remembers how he also made a statement on the island’s history of segregated tennis on a trip here in the early 1970s, in his own quiet and dignified way.
“I remember when Arthur Ashe and Charlie Pasarell came down to give a clinic at Coral Beach,” Simmons says. “Arthur knew the history of Coral Beach, where black people had not been allowed to play for many years. For that reason, he elected not to go on court. The kids came up to him and asked for his autograph, and he just sat on the bench and made no fuss.”
The Coral Beach and Tennis Club has long since lifted the barriers to blacks, and Simmons himself is a member. The green clay courts are where he plays most of his tennis now, as the surface is kinder to his joints than hard courts. The site is also home to the island’s annual ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) Tour Challenger event, a tournament played here for the past 11 years that has given local fans the opportunity to see some of the world’s greatest male players in the flesh.
Mats Wilander, winner of seven Grand Slam titles, played at Coral Beach in 1995, while Andy Roddick displayed his blistering serve as an 18-year-old in 2001, two years before he won the U.S. Open title. Four years ago, local fans witnessed the astonishing court coverage of Michael Chang, who won the French Open as a 17-year-old in 1991.
One of the XL Bermuda Open’s favourite stars over the years has been the Australian Patrick Rafter. He became a Bermuda resident in 1994, long before he hit tennis superstardom. He reached the final of the doubles at Coral Beach in 1996, playing with fellow Aussie Pat Cash, a former Wimbledon champion. The following year he stunned the tennis world to win his first U.S. Open title and double his career earnings at a stroke. In 1998 he triumphed again at Flushing Meadows. His ranking was too high to play in the singles at Coral Beach by that time, but he lent his star power to his adoptive island home’s annual tournament by turning out for the doubles and playing in an exhibition match against Richey Reneberg in 1999.
Rafter’s impact on Bermuda tennis was limited; his rigorous tour commitments meant he spent little time here, and when he did, he liked to relax rather than train. But those few local players who were lucky enough to hit with him and the fans who saw him hit dozens of serves in succession on the Fairmont Southampton’s courts in his search for perfection must have drawn inspiration from the presence of one of the world’s great athletes.
Bermuda has never produced a player of Rafter’s calibre, but the island has enjoyed some success in the lower echelons of international team competition over the past decade. The opportunity to compete in the Davis Cup and the Federation Cup-respectively the men’s and women’s World Cups of tennis-came about only after the formation of the BLTA.
Founding the BLTA was a long, drawn-out process, and Allan Simmons was, of course, heavily involved in that significant event in the island’s tennis history. “We started meetings in 1967, but the BLTA did not become a reality until 1973,” he says.
“I believed it was important for us to be associated with the world governing body, the International Tennis Federation [ITF], to standardise the way our tournaments and clubs were run. So I went to London, to the ITF, and talked with them and filled out an application for Bermuda to become members. Then I had to come back and convince the club [ABTC] that it was important that we should be a member and that it would give us the chance to play in the Davis Cup. A lot of them said it was not worth the money.”
But the doubters were eventually overcome, and the BLTA was formed in 1973 under its first president, Colin Selley, who worked for the Department of Tourism. In addition to Simmons, W.E.R. Joell was involved, as well as Hal Dale, an insurance executive with American International.
It took another couple of decades before Bermuda mustered the personnel and the courage to compete on the world stage. The island’s first Davis Cup team competed in the Americas Zone Group IV tournament in the Dominican Republic in 1995. Donald Evans, who three years earlier had topped the American Tennis Association rankings after winning five tournaments in the U.S., Steve Bean and two Way brothers, Michael and the late Billy, were selected. Although they didn’t win a single match, they made history, and the team returned stronger for the experience.
In the 1997 the team of Evans, Michael Way, Ricky Mallory and James Collieson won promotion to Group III, with victories over Costa Rica and Eastern Caribbean on home courts at the Fairmont Southampton. In 2000, in Honduras, the team of Mallory, Collieson, Jenson Bascome and Dean Mello earned promotion of Group III once more.
Bermuda made its Fed Cup debut in 1996, with the team of Kelly Holland, Donna Bradshaw, Kim Simmons and Gill Butterfield, who was 52 years old and still holds the record as the oldest player in the Cup’s history. Age didn’t stop her winning a doubles match with Holland against Costa Rica. The women have enjoyed less success than the men have, but in recent years, youngsters like Ashley Brooks and Zara DeSilva have benefited greatly from the tough opposition Fed Cup offers.
How times have changed since kids had to wait around all day just to play one set.