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How Bermuda Brought Tennis to America

Bermuda isn't just a great place to play the game; the sport as we know has roots out here.

Aerial view of Newstead Belmont Hills

Newstead Belmont Hills and the harbour beyond

From the forefront of fashion (Bermuda shorts), to innovation in sailing (the Bermuda rig), there’s no denying this small island's trailblazing spirit. You’ll even find Bermuda’s influence in the sport of tennis as we know it today – from its establishment in the U.S. over a century ago to the fall of 2019, when for the first time, Bermuda will be the exclusive tourism partner of the US Open Tennis Championships. Here's how Bermuda inspired tennis as we know it nearly 15 years ago.

Tennis’s Bermudian Roots

Bermuda and tennis in the U.S. have a long history. According to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Mary Ewing Outerbridge (née Gray), born in Philadelphia to Bermudian parents, first came across the game while visiting her family’s home on the island in 1874. After picking it up from British officers stationed in Bermuda, she sailed back to New York with tennis equipment and introduced the sport to Staten Island – a move that earned her the title “the Mother of American Tennis.”

While on island, she played the game at Clermont, a house in Paget Parish with a sprawling lawn. Her father, Sir Brownlow Gray, had been given equipment by his friend, Thomas Middleton, a Bermuda-based merchant who had learned the game in England. It was then a popular pastime of British admirals and governors. 

Mary was so taken with the game that she took the equipment with her when she returned to America on board the S.S. Canima in 1874.

She nearly lost her chance; records show that customs agents were suspicious of the unusual equipment – a large net and a stick with strings – and confiscated them. Luckily, Mary was well connected. Her older brother, A. Emilius Outerbridge, a shipping executive, was able to have the equipment released and Mary introduced the game to friends on Staten Island, setting up the country’s first tennis court on the grounds of the Staten Island Cricket & Baseball Club. The first game was played between Mary and her sister Lauren.

How Tennis Evolved

The sport was very different from tennis as we know it today. The court was shaped like an hourglass, 30 feet wide at the base and 24 feet wide at the net – not the 27-foot-wide rectangle used today. The game was a slow and relaxed affair with plenty of time to socialise in between serves.

Fairmont Southampton's tennis courts are oceanside

Fairmont Southampton's tennis courts are oceanside

The sport quickly grew. Tennis courts popped up in Rhode Island, New Jersey and New Orleans, although there was no standardised mode of play. In some cities, the net was three feet high; in others, four. The balls varied in size. These inconsistencies led to the creation of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association in 1881, now known as the USTA. It’s said that Mary’s younger brother Eugenius led the charge with James Dwight, a player who, after a trip to England, set up a court on his uncle’s lawn in Nahant, Massachusetts.

The game grew so quickly that the debate still remains as to who introduced tennis to America first – Dwight or Outerbridge. However, the official passenger list on the S.S. Canima sailing from Bermuda to New York showed that Mary returned to New York in February 1874, before any court existed in the United States. 

The family’s impact can also be felt throughout Manhattan. Mary's brother Eugenius Harvey Outerbridge, was the first chairman of the city’s Port Authority. The Outerbridge Crossing links Staten Island with Perth Amboy in New Jersey. 

The Legacy Lives on Out Here

Mary hosted the first national tournament in 1880. Though a pioneer of the game, especially for women, she unfortunately missed America’s first championship game for women in 1887; she died of Bright’s disease a year too soon. She was 34.

A life-sized cutout of Mary Outerbridge remains at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. 

Play where it all began – Bermuda’s climate makes tennis a dream year-round. From the superbly maintained courts at Fairmont Southampton, to kid-friendly equipment and facilities at Grotto Bay Beach Resort to the luxury offerings and elevated programmes at Tucker’s Point Tennis Club, Rosewood Bermuda, there are options to suit every level of tennis player. See top Bermuda resorts for tennis players and where to play tennis in Bermuda.