100 years of game, set and match in Hunstanton

With over 1,000 players competing every year, the Hunstanton Lawn Tennis Tournament is the largest event of its kind in the country – and is about to return to the town even brighter and better than ever…

Descended from the 12th century French handball sport jeu de paume (game of the palm), tennis is one of the most famous sports in the world. The game we know today was codified in England in the early 1870s and popularised by the prestigious championships at Wimbledon, which began in 1877. 

But for over 100 years Norfolk has played an important part in the history of the sport, with the annual tennis tournament in Hunstanton outstripping Wimbledon in terms of its number of competitors and matches played.

Running for seven days in August, the Hunstanton Lawn Tennis Tournament takes place on 38 grass courts located on the town’s recreation ground. 

It originated around 1920 when a group of local dignitaries decided to organise an annual competition as a social event following the end of the First World War. In the early days the tournament consisted of just a handful of players who engaged in more chatting and drinking than actual tennis – although following its sanction as an ‘open’ event by the Lawn Tennis Association Council in 1923 it soon became a popular competition that attracted entrants from all over the country.

After the outbreak of the Second World War the tournament ceased for several years, and was revived in 1950 by an enthusiastic committee of players and fans. A unique and prominent feature in Britain’s summer sporting calendar, the competition continued to grow and evolve throughout the rest of the 20th century. 

As player numbers rapidly increased, more junior and veteran age groups were added along with extra courts and matches. There are now 43 events catering for competitors of all ages from the under 12s to the over 65s - with a Round Robin event for younger players. Today, up to 1,300 people take part in the tournament every year - some travelling from overseas to compete in what is now recognised as one of the nation’s greatest sporting events. 

To mark Hunstanton’s centenary tournament in 2020 (which was postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic) passionate committee member Ashley Martin researched and wrote a book outlining the event’s remarkable history and its best moments. 

“The tournament is a wonderful social occasion that’s brought me so much joy over the years,” says Ashley, who began competing at Hunstanton in the 1970s and joined the committee in 1993. “It’s a fantastic event for everyone, from the most experienced players down to enthusiastic beginners, and researching and writing about its history was a thoroughly enjoyable labour of love.” 

The inspiration for the book came when Ashley was chatting to tournament Secretary Chris Holt (who’s been involved with the event’s committee since 1975) as the 100-year anniversary approached. 

“We were reflecting on memories of the competition’s past and discussing how it all began,” says Ashley. “Chris showed me some old  newspaper cuttings he’d found from the event’s early days, and I thought it would be interesting to put the history of the tournament down on paper.”

Using skills he’d acquired during his lifelong career as a journalist, Ashley set to work researching the background of the tournament and interviewing a few of its longstanding players and committee members. Starting with the competition’s foundation and ending with a vision for its future, the book lists all the past winners of its five open events, identifies its most successful players and royal connections, and details its expansion over the years into what is now the largest open tennis tournament in the UK – and quite possibly the world. 

Ashley Martin with tennis book
“It’s a fantastic event for everyone, from the most experienced players down to enthusiastic beginners, and researching and writing about its history was a thoroughly enjoyable labour of love.” 

“It’s a publication intended to revive fond memories for many people, whether they’re competitors or spectators.” Ashley says. “I also hope readers will have a thought or two for all the enthusiastic people who’ve worked tirelessly over the last 100 years to ensure the much-loved tournament has taken place. It’s thanks to their perseverance and devotion that it’s now reached - and passed - its centenary.” 

The book is a wonderful tribute to the tournament’s past and everyone who buys a copy will be supporting its future, as all proceeds are going towards the cost of staging the event. 

This year’s competition runs from Sunday 14th to Saturday 20th August and, with plenty to celebrate, it’s set to be a spectacular occasion. 

Despite its cancellation in 2020, the Hunstanton Lawn Tennis Tournament was voted ‘Competition of the Year’ at the prestigious Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) Awards. One of 18 national winners, it was dubbed the ‘Glastonbury of Tennis’ and current President of the LTA David Rawlinson will be paying a visit to the 2022 event. 

“Winning the title of the best tournament in the country was a tremendous accolade, not only for the committee but also for all the dedicated players who turn up year after year,” says Ashley. “Competitors’ love for the tournament is what keeps it going, and among the long list of entrants there’s evidence of third and even fourth generations of the same family taking part. It will be due to these people continuing the support, enthusiasm, and passion for the tournament that will, hopefully, guarantee its next 100 years.”

Tournament trophies - secretary Chris Holt (left) and president John Barrell at finals day 2019
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