Hooray for Andy Murray! I am reprinting my piece from several years ago about our own family’s claim to a Scottish tennis tradition. Holding her racket like a canoe paddle (and you can tell she was a leftie) is my grandmother Alison Stirling Jackson, third from left (in a jaunty tam).
Here is a photo of my grandmother Alison on a tennis court in Scotland in the early nineteen twenties. That makes my daughter, whose middle name is Alison, a fourth generation tennis player.
I wish I knew more about my grandmother’s experience with the sport at the time. I’ve had to guess at what it meant to take up the racket as a young Scottish woman some 80 years ago. Tennis was, no doubt, a popular sport throughout the United Kingdom. By the nineteen twenties, Wimbledon had become the most important tennis championship in the world. With the formation of sports clubs, tennis became more accessible to working class people, like my grandmother.
At the time of the photo, my grandmother was a young single woman, a graduate of her high school, Trinity Academy. She had studied botany and had a job working for a seed company. I imagine that, like many women of the era with opportunities for education and employment, playing sports was part of exploring a new sense of freedom. Indeed, I have photos from this era of my grandmother playing tennis, swimming, hiking, boating and playing field hockey. She would probably qualify as a flapper, at least in part. She was sporty and danced and smoked but she did not wear her hair short. She artfully styled “her crowning glory” to look like a bob but her long hair was coiled and pinned in back.
When I examine the tennis photo, I believe that the tennis court is lawn. It’s hard to tell in black and white. I think that lawn was a common surface in that era. (I discovered that clay courts are called “blaes” in Scotland; a lovely word that refers to the bluish-black hue of the shale surface.) The court has an urban background. Perhaps she played at Leith Links near her home in the scrappy waterfront city that is now part of Edinburgh.
My grandmother and her friends are wearing short, comfy looking dresses. I like the bandeau the lady on the left is wearing and I like my grandmother’s slouchy tam. Her outfit, a drop-waist dress with a sailor collar and a fairly high hemline over anklets with “trainers,” clearly signals that she and her friends are next generation women.
They may well have taken their lead from tennis celebrity, Suzanne Lenglen, the young French woman who débuted at Wimbledon in 1919. She shocked the crowd with her short dress, hemmed just above the calf (although her legs were covered in stockings held up by garters). Her arms were bare and she wore her bobbed hair neatly tucked beneath a broad bandeau. She was a contrast, on the court, to her opponent 40-year old Brit, Dorothea Katherine Douglass Lambert Chambers (Mrs. Robert Lambert Chambers, for short) who wore the traditional tennis costume of a long full skirt cinched at the waist and long sleeved blouse; her long hair twisted and fastened to her head in a bun.
Fashion aside, both of these women were serious tennis players. Chambers and Lenglen were an evolutionary leap ahead of the upper-class Edwardian women who wore corsets, petticoats and hats stabbed with long pins to secure them onto their voluminous hair-dos while they played leisurely lawn tennis. (See the lovely film “A Room with A View” for some idea.)
The 1919 women’s singles match at Wimbledon made tennis history. Lenglen and Chambers played 44 games, the longest Wimbledon final ever, at the time. That’s about twice as long as a match I might have played in a recent USTA tournament. I figure, with tiebreakers, I couldn’t play more than 27 games. While I nibbled on a banana to bolster my flagging energy during recent tournament matches, Lenglen, notoriously, sipped brandy between sets. Maybe it helped; she won the match.
I am grateful for my grandmother’s photos, small as postage stamps, carefully glued onto the black pages of a photo album and labeled in white ink. My Grandmother Alison died long before I knew her. It is a loss that has been acknowledged many times in the naming of girls in our family. Perhaps there is something of her spirit that lives on, as well, in the exhilarating smack of a ball on a racket.