Wimbledon and technology - A look at their advances through the ages

Written by: Helena Belcher - CRO

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When it all started – 1870’s

Cast your mind back 144 years to 1877. The world was portrayed in black and white, the first human cannonball was fired and the first men’s tennis tournament was held at the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club (AEC & LTC) in Wimbledon, London. Since then, Wimbledon has become an annual tradition and something that’s stood the test of time… from Spencer Gore winning the men’s singles that inaugural year through to Novak Djokovic being 2021’s odds-on favourite.

And in that time, it’s developed and grown but stayed true to its roots: tennis matches played on grass in Wimbledon.

So, what’s all this got to do with technology? Well, nothing really, but I thought it would be interesting to compare a modern-day institution that’s stood the test of time to something that’s evolved considerably in the same time period.

Yes, did you realise that the very first phone call and Wimbledon were born just a year apart!?

Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call in 1876 to his assistant Thomas Watson: “Mr Watson–come here–I want to see you,” were the first words said that monumental day. Innovation moved quickly and a few months later Graham Bell made his first long distance call in Ontario Canada across a distance of 6 miles.

Going international – 1900’s

The evolution of both Wimbledon and the telephone continued at pace and by the early 1900’s both had gone international. The first international telephone call was made from Key West to Havana in 1900 to the response, “I can’t understand you,” and just a few years later in 1905, American, May Sutton became Wimbledon’s first overseas champion winning the ladies’ singles.

1st transatlantic call

Widening reach – 1920’s

But Wimbledon was never going to just stay on the ground; by 1927 Wimbledon had raised its game to be sky high and was broadcast on radio across nearly the whole of the UK, which coincidentally was the same year that the first transatlantic call between the United States and the United Kingdom took place – this time by moving underground through transatlantic cables. Both Wimbledon and the telephone were really going places!

It took another 10 years for Wimbledon to make it to television but by June 1937 Centre Court action was being broadcast directly into people’s living rooms (within a 40-mile radius of the BBC’s transmitters in North London) for around 30 minutes each day. The telephone had also evolved through its first 50 years; 1937 also saw the arrival of the Bakelight phones which are still iconic today and could only be produced in black! Plus, the first 999 emergency telephone service was launched; far removed from the sophisticated information service designed by BT and launched in 1998, this early provision sounded a buzzer in the exchange and a red light flashed to draw the operator’s immediate attention.

Being all inclusive – 1960’s

Let’s now take a big jump to the 1960’s when we saw the early signs of the concept of the Internet. An ‘Intergalactic Network’ of computers was the vision and the concept of ‘packet switching’ was developed which would later become one of the major building blocks of the Internet. Just like the telephone had achieved almost a century previously, in October 1969 the inaugural ‘node-to-node’ communication was delivered from one computer to another.

At the same time Wimbledon was also stepping up a gear. For the first time in 1967 The Wimbledon World Lawn Professional Championships, also known as Wimbledon Pro, were held, opening the previously amateur competition to male professional players with a prize fund of around £26,000. With 30,000 people coming through the gates to watch the matches the decision was made that from that point on Wimbledon would be open to all professionals which set the scene for the Wimbledon we watch today.

Bjorn Borg

Changes in technology – 1970’s and 1980’s

Another game changer arrived for our phone and Internet history in 1973 when Motorola produced the first mobile phone. The DynaTAC prototype weighed 2kg and was the carrier for the first ever handheld mobile phone call. It took another 10 years for the DynaTAC to be commercially available, launched as the DynaTAC 8000X in 1983. Considering that today the tech industry moves at such a pace that we’re all almost always on an out-of-date mobile spec, it seems ludicrous that the mobile phone was 10 years in the brewing. 1988 was also the year that ISDN was launched – the ability to receive multiple calls into the same phone system – and a technology that is still used by around 50% of UK businesses, though they need to change quickly as the ISDN switch off is looming fast having been replaced by much smarter, digital technologies!

Across that same decade Wimbledon was graced by some renowned names that, unlike the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, are still well known 40 years later: Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Bjorn Borg, Virginia Wade, John McEnroe, Stefi Graf and Martina Navratilova to name a few. And technology across the tennis sphere also moved on way quicker than it’s mobile counterpart. In 1981 Wimbledon was won with a wooden racket, forward 12 months to 1982 and the winning racket had progressed to metal and by 1983, the same year as the mobile phone became viable commercially, John McEnroe was the newly crowned Men’s Singles champion winning the game with a Dunlop Max200G, one of the earliest graphite rackets. Just like the DynaTAC 8000X it’s rare to see a wooden racket nowadays but the graphite versions have gone from strength to strength now being lighter and optimised for speed and power, just like our modern-day mobiles.


Accelerating the speed of change – 1990’s

Finally, in the 1990’s we start entering what is now the modern-day era for our communications landscape – the days of the Internet. Dial-up Internet was first made available commercially in 1992, in both the UK and the US, with broadband entering the market in the late 1990’s. The ability for us to access a world of content through our computers was mind blowing and changed the way we communicated forever.

The Internet wasn’t the only long-term plan of the 1990’s. In 1993, The All England Lawn Tennis Club launched its own long term plan: to take Wimbledon into the 21st Century by providing the finest facilities for everyone – spectators, players, media and officials – still played on grass. In 1997 the new No. 1 Court arrived, seating 11,000 and incorporating a food village, joined by the broadcast centre and the Millennium Building they all came together with later enhancements to position Wimbledon as the finest stage in world tennis.

Juggling balls – 2000’s

With graphite rackets decided as the preferred composition, the Wimbledon tennis technologists looked for new ways to improve the game play. After the racket, the ball was seen to be the most important game element so after much research, in 2002, 6% bigger balls were introduced which gave 10% more reaction time for the player receiving serve. In the same year they changed the grass composition to give a higher, slower bounce ensuring that the game was played to capture both the highest skill for the players and the highest enjoyment for the audience.

And while this was happening, our communications network was evolving at breakneck speed. Computers were getting more and more powerful, processing speeds were rising exponentially and the underlying infrastructure had to run fast to keep up. Broadband was launched in 2000, however, many people were wary about taking the leap from dial-up to broadband and only 9% of UK households had broadband connections by 2021, this was a long way behind the 30-40% adoption in Germany and Sweden who were leading the way. The number grew slowly and by 2009 the take-up was at 50% as broadband connectivity became robust enough to stream music and video online.

Wimbledon 2021

Roll forward to today – 2021

Over the last ten years our communications landscape has made huge moves forward. The original copper broadband has been replaced by Fibre, on-site phone systems are rapidly moving to the cloud and the latest iPhone weighs just 164g, 12 times lighter than the first Motorola version of a mobile phone. Tech is moving at speed and is providing us with endless more ways to communicate, every day.

Wimbledon on the other hand has simply been refining its performance. With its new Master Plan being worked on through the last decade, Wimbledon has maintained its status as the ultimate accolade for the greatest tennis talent across the world.

Both Wimbledon and our communications landscape have been through a lot over the last 145 years, both moving from infancy to leading-edge performance but also still recognisable from the first achievement back at the beginning.

If you feel that your communications strategy or tech landscape hasn’t evolved as impressively as its Wimbledon counterpart then please do get in touch. We’d be more than happy to talk you through how to keep the passion of McEnroe while moving to the flexibility of Djokovic and the power of Nadal.


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