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Women Playing Tennis

July 15, 1999

The game of tennis arrived in Canada in 1874 from England, via Bermuda and the United States. It replaced croquet as the favourite summer game of the country's ruling elite. Women played it from the beginning, although we have to wonder how, given the fashion requirements of the day.

Ottawa's Rideau Club staged the first women-only tournament in 1881 (only 4 years after the first Wimbledon tournament in England, and the same year as the first men's international championships was played). The dress code at the Club required that "women wear a ground-length dress of wool or coarse silk, well-flounced, with decorative sleeves, high neck and nipped waist". Under that were corsets and petticoats, on top were bustles and an ornate layered bonnet. To play a summer game!

The Canadian Lawn Tennis Association (now Tennis Canada), was founded in 1890, and by 1892 the "ladies draw" was an established part of the Canadian Championships. In 1899, Violet Summerhays (pictured below) of Toronto won the first of six consecutive women's titles.

Lois Moyes Bickle (pictured below) took over as the women's singles champion in the years 1906-08, 1910, 1913-14, 1920-22 and 1924. She also won a number of doubles titles, and was the first woman to win both the West and East Championships. On the court, she was known for her tenacity, skill and "sportsmanlike" conduct.

Off the court, Moyes Bickle was considered "eccentric" as described in Advantage Canada: A Tennis Centenary by Martyn Kendrick (p. 52): "She drove to the Championships in her Model T Ford (still an uncommon site for anyone, let alone a woman); lived in a rustic cottage in the posh Toronto suburb of Rosedale; raised prize cockerels, which, to the annoyance of her neighbours, began their predawn crowing with monotonous regularity; read voraciously; won awards for her horticultural achievements (especially her irises); and was a patron of the arts.

Women in Canada continued to play tennis against increasingly stiff international competition over the next forty years, through the Great Depression and Second World War years. Women's tennis, which started as a game of "moonballs" - high floating balls from one side of the baseline to the other side - gradually became the sport that we see today built on the internationally sanctioned "supertournament" which came to Canada in 1969.

By 1981, the women's and men's open championships were once again divided. That year saw the play of 13 year-old Carling Bassett(pictured below), to date the only woman in Canada to rank in the top 10 of the Women's Tennis Association (8th in 1985). She was Canada's top female athlete in 1983 and 1985.

Following marriage and the birth of her first child, Bassett returned to competition at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 to place fifth in doubles competition with Jill Hetherington, considered Canada's finest doubles player ever. Helen Kelesi played her first Canadian Open in 1985 at the age of 15, ranking 13th internationally in the 1989-90 season.

The bustles and bonnets have long gone. The popularity of the game remains as tennis is played by over 2-million Canadians, making it the third most popular sport after swimming and hockey.

Resources for this story

Books

  • Biographies and pictures of many of Canada's most accomplished athletes can be found in Wendy Long's Celebrating Excellence: Canadian Women Athletes (Polestar Book Publishers, 1995). Click here on Polestar for its web site.
  • Tennis Canada produced a detailed history of the sport on Canada on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of its forerunner in 1890. See Martyn Kendrick, Advantage Canada: A Tennis Centenary (McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1990).
  • Women and Girls in Sport and Physical Activity, Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Fall 1995 (Volume 15, Number 4), CWS/CF, 212 Founders College, York University, 4700 Keele Street, North York, ON M3J 1P3, email cwscf@yorku.ca

This feature was first published on section15.ca's predecessor site CoolWomen.

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