Forgotten Heroes of Tennis: William Renshaw

Sergey ZikovSenior Analyst IMarch 21, 2009

When one thinks of the great names in the history of tennis, players like Laver, Borg, Sampras, Agassi, and McEnroe might come to mind.

They are all highly decorated players who have won many career Slams. So who is William Charles Renshaw?

Renshaw was born on Jan. 3, 1861 in Leamington, Warwickshire. 

Twin brother to Ernest Renshaw, William may be an excellent reason for the growth of tennis in not only England, but the entire world.

As a college student at Cheltenham College, William first became interested in tennis. At the time, the Championships at Wimbledon had 48 spots in the "all-comers" bracket, where anybody who could qualify would gain entrance to the tournament.

Renshaw won himself a spot as a 20-year-old in a challenge match against Reverend John Hartley of Shropshire. In front of a crowd of 2,500, Renshaw employed an attacking style of play, using volleys and smashes never before seen. He defeated Hartley in 37 minutes, 6-0, 6-1, 6-1. 

Although a cholera attack affected the clergyman's game, Hartley admitted that even if he was in his best form, he would not have defeated Renshaw.

It was Renshaw's first Wimbledon title, with many more to come.

Word quickly spread around London and Renshaw became an instant sensation. In the 1882 final (which Renshaw had automatic entrance into because he was the reigning champion), crowds flocked to Wimbledon to see Renshaw play.

They coined his tactics as the "Renshaw Rush", as the masses had never seen a player attack the net or hit the ball with such incredible velocity. The game had been largely won with baseline shot-making in the past.

Renshaw would defeat his twin brother Ernest in the final, in an epic five set match for his second straight title.

Tennis' popularity was skyrocketing. 1883 lead to more standards, including a universal net height. The number of "all-comers" entrants had been whittled down to 28 now and the matches were becoming much more competitive.

In front of a standing-room-only sellout, William again defeated his brother in five sets for his third consecutive Wimbledon crown.

With his forceful play, Renshaw would win the next three Wimbledon titles, all against Herbert Lawford of Bayswater. He now had won the title six consecutive years in a row, a record that has never been matched.

Renshaw's run finally came to an end in 1887 because he suffered from tennis elbow, and was defeated by Lawford. 

The 1889 final however, may have been Renshaw's most memorable. He faced Harry Barlow in the All-Comers final for the right to play his brother in the Wimbledon final. After forcing the match to a fifth set, Renshaw fell behind 0-5 and faced six match points.

He would save all of them and defeat Barlow in one of the most incredible comebacks ever seen.

He would eventually defeat his brother yet again for his seventh Wimbledon title, a mark only matched by Pete Sampras.

That gave him 14 Wimbledon titles in total, with the other seven coming in doubles while partnered with Ernest. After his defeat in the 1890 Gentleman's Singles championship to Irishman Willoughby Hamilton, Renshaw retired from professional tennis.

His contributions to the tennis community were far from over.

He became the first president of the LTA (Lawn Tennis Association), and the All-England Club handed over the running of the Wimbledon Championships to the LTA.

When he passed away in 1904, he had changed the face of tennis entirely. The right-handers power and tactics were light years ahead of his competition. His "Renshaw Rush", now more commonly known as serve-and-volley, is still a highly used and taught strategy over a hundred years later.

Six straight Wimbledon titles. A feat still unmatched today. Rest in peace, William Charles Renshaw, you are truly appreciated.