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.
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 was the exclusive tourism partner of the US Open Tennis Championships. Here’s how Bermuda inspired tennis as we know it nearly 150 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, 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, 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.”
Tennis had caught on as a popular pastime in Bermuda, particularly among members of the British military stationed there. Even the future King George V played the sport while spending time as a naval officer in Bermuda. The first tennis set had been brought back from England in 1873 by merchant Thomas Middleton. Mary was so taken with the game, she took the equipment with her when she returned to America on board the S.S.Canima the following year.
She nearly lost her chance, however; records show 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 goods released and Mary introduced the game to friends on New York, 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.
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 of the S.S. Canima sailing from Bermuda to New York showed 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 tennis 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 where to play tennis in Bermuda.