On 24th June 1907, Prince George and Princess Mary of Wales – later crowned King George V and Queen Mary – became the first members of the monarchy to join the crowds at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships. The Prince enjoyed the game so much that he became the club’s president later that year.
Ever since, the Royal Family has been central to the identity of Wimbledon, to the point that it became customary for players to bow or curtsy to spectators in the Royal Box. Even though the tradition was phased out in 2003, Andy Murray made a point of bowing to the Queen in 2010, when she visited Wimbledon for the first time in 33 years to see him beat Jarkko Niemenen in straight sets.
From 1922 onwards, the Royal Family has had an open invitation to sit in the Royal Box, and it’s rarely been left empty – except, for example, during the 2012 London Olympics, when William and Kate chose to sit with the public instead. The Duchess of Cambridge’s adoration of the game is well-documented, having attended the tournament nearly every year since marrying William – and writing a note of apology to Andy Murray when she was unable to. The Queen, recognising this passion, passed on her patronage of Wimbledon to Kate in December 2016.
The Royals’ love of tennis dates back much further than Prince George’s attendance in 1907, however – the British monarchy actually played a significant role in popularising the sport during the Tudor period. Henry VIII was known to be extremely enthusiastic about the game – albeit the early ‘real tennis’ (also called ‘Royal tennis’) variant is somewhat different to the lawn tennis played at Wimbledon. Henry VIII was known to spend hours playing this form of tennis in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace. Before that, his father Henry VII had built a number of tennis courts, in Westminster, Richmond, Wycombe and Woodstock.
Only one Royal has ever actually competed at Wimbledon, however. In 1926, Prince Albert – who would become King George VI – played in the men’s doubles tournament, mere months after his daughter (and the future Queen of England) Elizabeth had been born.
Prince Albert’s partner was his close friend Wing Commander Louis Greig, whom Albert had met when he attended the Royal Naval College on the Isle of Wight, and the 30-year-old Greig had taken it upon himself to mentor the 15-year-old Prince. Somewhat less positively, Louis Greig was also a member of the British Union of Fascists-affiliated January Club, set up by infamous Nazi sympathiser Oswald Mosley.
Dubious political allegiances aside, the Prince and the war hero took to centre court ready for battle – seven years after they had joined the RAF together – and faced off against H Roper Barrett and AW Gore in the first round of the 1926 Wimbledon men’s doubles.
The match was over in three straight sets – 6-1, 6-3 and 6-2 – none of which were won by the Duke of York and Louis Greig. As seen in the video above, the future King demonstrated a serve that could charitably be described as flamboyantly unique; to what extent this highly individual stroke contributed to the Royal team’s resounding defeat remains unclear.
Where Prince Albert did succeed, however, was in embodying the Royal Family’s centuries-long love of tennis in the most wholehearted and committed way possible. In doing so, he showed that even the Royals aren’t above casting themselves as that which the British so famously love: an underdog.