Newport Tennis Traditions

When tennis first came to the United States in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Newport, Rhode Island, was considered the epicenter of the sport. In 1881, the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (USNLTA) selected the newly built Newport Casino to host the first U.S. National Men’s Singles and Doubles Championships that year.

The site was chosen due to Newport’s proximity to both Boston and New York, where many tennis clubs were being established. Dick Sears emerged as the country’s first champion, winning the first seven championships (1881-1887) before retiring undefeated. The early years of the tournament, coinciding with the early years of tennis’s growing population, was dominated by several American men, except for England’s Laurence Doherty’s win in 1903.

By 1914, the event had outgrown Newport, leading the USNLTA to relocate the championships to the West Side Tennis Club, which has recently relocated from Manhattan to expansive and newly-built facilities in Forest Hills, New York, thus paving the way for other tournaments to be played here at the Newport Casino.

1890-1901 United States National Lawn Tennis Association U.S. National Pairs Championship Challenge Trophy

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Although the U.S. National Men’s Singles Championships were in Newport from 1881 to 1914, the doubles championships were held in a variety of locations. The Newport Casino hosted the doubles tournament from 1881-1886, again in 1890-1892, and finally from 1894-1914.

In the tournament’s first few years in Newport, Dick Sears partnered with fellow American James Dwight to capture five doubles championships (1882-1884, 1886-1887). When the tournament returned to Rhode Island in the early 1890s and again in 1894, Clarence Hobart, frequently partnering with Fred Hovey, and Oliver Campbell, who partnered with Bob Huntington were two pairs who dominated the competition. From 1899 through 1901, the title was won by Holcombe Ward and Dwight Davis, two of the four players recognized for founding the Davis Cup. To close out the decade, partners Fred Alexander and Harold Hackett won the title four consecutive times, from 1907-1910.

1882 United States National Lawn Tennis Association U.S. National Championships First Prize for Pairs presented to James Dwight

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Tennis has always been a foundational part of the Newport Casino in Newport, Rhode Island. Even after both the singles and doubles editions of the U.S. National Men’s Championships moved from Newport to Forest Hills, championship tennis continued at the Casino with the Newport Casino Invitation Tournament.

Played every year before the U.S. National Championships from 1915 to 1967, the Casino Invitation welcomed the best international players to hone their play during America’s grass court season. Many esteemed players of the era were victorious at Newport, including Bill Tilden, Bill Talbert, and Don Budge, as well as Australians Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, and Malcolm Anderson.

1915-1925 Newport Casino Invitational Lawn Tennis Tournament Challenge Cup

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Photo courtesy of ITHF/Carol Newsom Collection (center)

Throughout the 1920s-1940s, the Newport Casino held various women’s events. After a gap in the middle of the twentieth century, professional women’s tennis returned to Newport in 1971. Known as the Virginia Slims of Newport, a professional women’s singles and doubles tournament was contested from 1971-1974, attracted standing-room-only crowds to watch the likes of Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Françoise Dürr, Pam Shriver, and Kerry Melville play exceptional tennis. The Virginia Slims of Newport returned in 1983, and in 1991 it became the Virginia Slims Invitational of Newport, which lasted until 1998.

After the Newport Casino Invitational Tournament ended, the Hall of Fame Championships began, continuing the rich tradition of tennis at the Newport Casino, the home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.