Exactly how lawn tennis came to the United States is open to dispute, though there is agreement that a wealthy American brought it from the British commonwealth to an East Coast summer resort.
According to one version, that wealthy American was Mary Outerbridge. She brought a tennis set from Bermuda to Staten Island, N.Y. , in 1874.
According to another, 22-year-old Jim Dwight saw the game while traveling in England after graduating from Harvard. He brought a set of equipment back to his aunt the same year Mary Outerbridge brought hers to Staten Island.
The First Lawn Tennis Tournament
Whatever. It is clear the American craze for tennis took hold quickly, as the first U.S. Open was held in 1881, only a few short years after the first American lawn tennis tournament was played on a doctor’s lawn in Nahant, Mass.
Mrs. William Appleton, the doctor’s wife, wasn’t interested in playing tennis. Dwight and his cousin, Fred Sears, decided to try the game. They laid out a court without reading the directions – or establishing guidelines. For a while they batted the ball back and forth. Dwight later wrote,
“As we hit the ball in no particular direction very naturally we could not return it. So we voted the whole thing a fraud and put it away.”
That wasn’t the end of it, though. On a rainy day a month later, the two bored young men took out the set, put on rubber boots and raincoats and tried again. This time, they had fun.
For the rest of the summer, wealthy young Brahmins in Nahant played tennis on Mrs. Appleton’s lawn. By 1876, enough people had taken up the game to have a round-robin contest – that first tournament. Jim Dwight beat everyone. The only one who came close to challenging him was Fred Sears.
Fred Sears had a younger brother, 15-year-old Richard Dudley Sears. Dwight saw how well he played and took him under his wing.
Though Dwight had a medical degree, he suffered from frequent illnesses. The story goes that he caught rheumatic fever, which put an end to his medical career. Whatever the case, he became a tennis bum in 1880.
That year, Jim Dwight took Richard Sears to play in a tournament on Staten Island. The balls were two-thirds the size of the ones they were used to. They quit the singles tournament and did poorly in the doubles.
Dwight realized the need to standardize the equipment and rules for tennis. He and two others formed the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Association in 1881. Dwight served as president for 21 years.
That fall, Richard Sears won the first tournament – the first U.S. Open – at the brand-new Newport Casino. The U.S. Open would be played at the Casino until 1914.
Richard Sears would win the next 18 matches he played in. In fact he never lost.. He cut an unusual figure on the court, wearing pince-nez, a hat and tie.
He retired from the game in 1887. According to the Tennis Hall of Fame, housed at the Newport Casino,
Bespectacled, mustachioed, wearing a necktie and cap on the court, Sears controlled competitive tennis in America from its very beginning. At 19, he won the inaugural U.S. Championships, and by the time he retired undefeated in 1887, he had won an astonishing seven consecutive U.S. National Championships. Attacking whenever presented with the opportunity, he moved into the forecourt to end points with crisp volleys before other players fully perceived that strategy. At the end of his reign as the first American tennis champion, he became President of the USNLTA.
The Newport Casino is on the National Register of Historic Places and a National Historic Landmark. The U.S. Open ranks as one of the most important tennis championships in the world.
This story was updated in 2022.