Tennis - A sporting World Championship in Dublin - 108 years ago

In the last week of May 1890, the two leading exponents of the ancient game of Tennis (or "Real" Tennis to distinguish it from Lawn Tennis), came to Dublin to play for the World Championship.

The venue was the magnificent marble court built by Sir Edward Guinness (later 1st Baron Iveagh) just five years earlier at Earlsfort Terrace.

The defending champion was Tom Pettitt, of a poor immigrant background, who rose from being the dressing-room boy at the Boston club, to be the first American champion in the sport's history, and all within nine years. His opponent was an English stylist, Charles Saunders from the Princes Club in London. Both men were in their twenties and a close fought struggle was eagerly awaited.

Dublin was chosen as a neutral venue, and the Championship Committee specified two further conditions; no practice on the court beforehand, and the hand-made balls whose characteristics varied between the USA and England were sourced in France!

The match was to be played over three days, the first to seven sets the winner. Play began on a bright Monday morning May 26th, in front of a full attendance packed into the netted "penthouses" which form three sides of the peculiar cloister that is a Real Tennis court. The challenger Saunders settled more quickly in the strange surroundings and led after the first day's play; 3 sets to 1.

Wednesday 28th brought another balmy day and a resurgence in the champion's fortunes, clawing his way back to equality at 4 sets all. The final session on Friday 30th would decide and play commenced as usual at 11 o'clock sharp. Pettitt raced into an early lead for the first time in the match, 6 sets to 4; just one from victory. Saunders however pulled one back by noon, but could not match the champion's 6 games to 2 finalé, and yielded his challenge 7 sets to 5.

Tom Pettitt retained his title and Sir Edward Guinness' court justified the rare honour bestowed on it so soon in its life. However within four months, Pettitt, still in his prime, wrote to the Championship Committee from Boston explaining that he did not wish to defend his title further. Charles Saunders was declared champion of the world, a position he held for six years.

Saunders' vanquisher in 1896 was a supreme exponent, Peter Latham. Tom Pettitt was persuaded to travel to England in 1898 to face the new star, but time is a cruel master, and the champion of Dublin eight years before was defeated 7-0. Pettitt continued as professional to the Boston club until his retirement in 1927 aged 63 years, after half a century of service.


The Real Tennis court building at Earlsfort Terrace is still there.

Rupert Guinness, the 2nd Earl of Iveagh presented is father's court to the Irish State in 1939, since when no game has been played there to this day. The marble floor on which Pettitt and Saunders thrilled over a century before, is now home to the engineering laboratory of UCD and offices of the OPW.

A campaign to restore it for play has drawn national and international support. Dublin Corporation Planning Dept. requested the Office of Public Works to estimate the work involved, which was estimated at IR£1.5m in 1999.

As time of writing (mid-2003), the court's status is the same, but it is thought that UCD has plans to vacate by 2005/6.

Added January 2008: See also the report published in The Irish Times on Tuesday 27th May, 1890.