Game, set & match: The meeting that shaped tennis

The International Tennis Federation is the sport’s global governing body, with responsibility for tennis in more than 200 member nations.

It was founded to regulate and promote the sport more than a century ago, following a meeting between two forward-thinking tennis innovators.

Today, the ITF partners with the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association to govern professional tennis. It oversees multiple aspects of the game including regulating international competitions, enforcing rules, promoting tennis and managing anti-drugs and anti-corruption programmes.

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It also organises Grand Slams; annual mixed team events, such as the Hopman Cup; men’s team competitions, including the Davis Cup; and women’s competitions, including the Fed Cup.

The ITF manages the Olympic tennis and wheelchair tennis tournaments at the Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games, on behalf of the International Olympic Committee. It sanctions tennis circuits at different levels, spanning all age ranges, from juniors and seniors to the professional men’s and women’s events.

Within the sport, the ITF is in charge of various disciplines, including the less well-known beach tennis. On top of all this, it maintains the world rankings for players in all age groups and disciplines.

In short, the ITF has transformed the sport from a fragmented circuit, with few international tournaments, into the multi-billion-pound global industry it is today.

Original Williams family

None of this would have been possible without the determination of one man. Charles Duane Williams had a far-reaching vision for the future of tennis. Born in August 1860, he was a lawyer from Radnor, Pennsylvania, who had immigrated to Geneva, Switzerland, as a young man.

A direct descendant of a Founding Father of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, Williams married Lydia Biddle White. They had one son, Richard Norris Williams, born in Geneva in January 1891. He attended a private Swiss boarding school, spoke fluent French and was an aspiring young tennis player.

He started playing at the age of 12, with his father as his coach. Williams Snr had a keen interest in tennis himself. In 1911, at the age of 20, Richard won the Swiss Championship. His father became acutely aware there was little scope for national champions to test their skills against players from other nations.

The original Williams family was a force to be reckoned with in tennis, a century before today’s famous Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, dominated the sport. The Wimbledon tournament at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in the UK was seen as the world tennis championship on grass courts in 1911.

Charles Williams had the idea of launching a tournament of similar stature to Wimbledon, but on clay. Not one to waste any time, he immediately set the wheels in motion for his plan and decided on the best person to approach.

Meeting of two Charles

At the time, the biggest name in Swiss tennis was Charles Barde, president of the Swiss Lawn Tennis Federation. Born in January 1882 in Geneva, Barde was a talented all-around sportsman.

Captain of the professional Geneva-Servette ice hockey club, he was involved in the development of Swiss ice hockey, as well as being an excellent tennis player.

At the age of 33, he was runner-up in the Swiss national men’s singles tennis championship, when he was narrowly beaten by Victor de Coubasch in a five-set thriller. He was a magistrate but was most famous for his role in tennis development.

In October 1911, when Charles Williams met Charles Barde to relate his idea of founding an international governing body for tennis, it propelled the sport onto the world stage. Williams’ proposal included holding an international tennis tournament in Paris.

As well as putting the idea to Barde, Williams also wrote to Henri Laurent Wallet, a leading French tennis official, who was known to be on holiday near Lake Geneva at the time.

The French Championships were open only to players from French clubs but Williams, Barde and Wallet agreed an international tennis tournament in France was the way forward. The World Hard Court Championship was born in Paris in 1912. Meanwhile, plans were put in place to found the International Lawn Tennis Federation.

Tragedy mars ITF launch

After setting the wheels in motion for the new tennis governing body, Williams planned to return to the US in April 1912, with his son. It was 11 months before the planned meeting of high-level tennis officials was due to take place in Paris to discuss the ITF.

However, Charles and Richard Williams booked their passage to America as first-class passengers on the doomed liner, RMS Titanic, boarding at Cherbourg. Tickets for first-class travel on the luxury liner cost £61 7s 7d – the equivalent of around £7,000 today.

They boarded the ship on 10th April and sent a telegram to Charles’ brother in Philadelphia at 6.38 pm on 14th April. Addressed to Norris Williams, of 8124 St Martins Lane, Philadelphia, it said simply: “Arrive Wednesday, Titanic. How are you? Fine voyage. Charley.”

Tragically, this was the last time anyone heard from him. After the Titanic hit an iceberg, she sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on 15th April 1912. With no room in the lifeboats, father and son both jumped into the icy water. Richard, 21, was picked up and saved, but Charles Williams lost his life in the tragedy at the age of 51.

Many years later, Richard recounted the details of what had happened on that fateful night. Charles had been struck by a falling funnel that had become detached as the Titanic sank and was lost at sea. Richard recalled: “I saw one of the four great funnels come crashing down on top of him. Just for one instant, I stood there, transfixed.”

The funnel was big enough for two cars to stand on top of it, side-by-side, he noticed. Richard had been wearing a heavy fur coat when he entered the water but had to discard both his coat and shoes to stay afloat. He suffered severe frostbite.

He managed to stay afloat in the icy waters and eventually made it to a raft, until he was picked up by a rescue ship, RMS Carpathia, two hours later. His feet were in such a terrible state due to the frostbite that he could barely walk. He narrowly escaped having to have them amputated.

Rather than take the doctor’s advice and have both feet amputated, Richard opted to work hard to recover from his injuries. He had to get up and walk around every two hours, all round the clock, to get his blood circulating again. His recovery was rapid and nothing short of miraculous. He won his first US Tennis Championship, in the mixed doubles, later the same year.

Charles Williams did not live to see his dream of an International Lawn Tennis Federation become a reality. His co-founders, Barde and Wallet, were among the 21 delegates, representing 12 countries, who met in Paris on 1st March 1913 and unanimously voted in favour of the organisation.

Richard went on to become the US National Men’s Singles Champion in 1914 and 1916. He was also three-times Wimbledon doubles champion in 1920, 1925 and 1926. He played on the winning US Davis Cup team in 1914, with team-mate and fellow Titanic survivor, Karl Behr, of New York City.

Development of ITF

Wallet became president of the ITF in 1914. The organisation was officially recognised as the governing body of lawn tennis worldwide in 1924 when the rules were drawn up. The ITF went from strength to strength and had 59 member nations by 1939. It finally dropped the word “lawn” from the title in 1977.

During World War II, its headquarters moved to London, remaining there to the present day. Initially, it was based at Wimbledon, but moved to its current home, the Bank of England Sports Ground, in Roehampton, in 1998.

The meeting of Charles Williams and Charles Barde truly put tennis on the world map. Prior to this, it was mainly a national sport. The launch of the ITF was a turning point. Without its inception, today’s legendary professional tennis players would not have had the same opportunities. especially in terms of the prize money structure, which has seen the cream of the pro=players become millionaires.

World’s richest tennis players

The world’s richest tennis player is the retired Romanian men’s singles player, Ion Tiriac, now 82, and the Romanian Tennis Federation president. His estimated worth is £1.2 billion, according to the Forbes’ billionaire list, following his successful tennis career in the 1960s and ’70s.

Tiriac was a highly successful doubles player, with 22 victories. He also won gold in the men’s singles and doubles in the 1965 Budapest Summer Universiade; the French Open doubles in 1970, with partner Ilie Năstase; the BMW Open doubles in Munich, Germany, with partner Guillermo Vilas in 1978; and many more.

After turning pro in 1968, he retired as a player in 1979, but invested his career winnings wisely in business ventures, eventually founding a bank, Banca Tiriac, in 1990.

Swiss pro-player Roger Federer, 39, who is still playing on the circuit today, is worth an estimated £323 million, while third on the rich list is his long-time nemesis Novak Djokovic, 34, from Serbia, whose net worth is £143 million.

Rafael Nadal, 35, of Spain, is joint fourth with the first female player on the list, American Serena Williams, 39. Both have an estimated fortune of £129 million.

Thanks to the ITF, tennis has advanced in every possible way as a global sport, in terms of the number of tournaments, the prize money and the technology. The ITF Technical Centre in London contains more than one million dollars’ worth of equipment, enabling advanced research into all technical aspects of the game.

The latest developments are Player Analysis Technology and Electronic Line Calling. The PAT is particularly useful since it enables detailed player performance data to be gathered in real-time and analysed rapidly.

Without the first simple meeting more than a century ago, none of this would have happened. Face-to-face meetings are where new ideas are discussed and formulated. Never underestimate the importance of discussing things in person; book your venue with &Meetings today.

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