The Challenge Round first came into being at Wimbledon in 1878. The draw would be made for the tournament with the defending champion not included. Then the winner of the tournament would play the defending champion in the Challenge Round to determine who was the new champion. Sometimes the previous year's winner did not defend. In this case no Challenge Round would be played and the winner of the tournament won the Challenge Round by default. Looking back on it now, it seems a strange idea and rather unfair. Back in the late Victorian era, sports weren't viewed in the same way as they are today. Although, even today, there are tour events where seeded players have a first round bye, this is because the first round is viewed almost as a semi-qualifying round. The idea of allowing players byes through to the later stages of an event would be unthinkable today. The U. S. introduced the Challenge Round in 1884, three years after the tournament began. Richard Sears' dominance of the event may have persuaded the organisers to adopt Wimbledon's Challenge Round format. However, by 1912, the nature of the sport had changed. The Challenge Round was viewed as unfair, so the U. S. scrapped it. There were calls for Wimbledon to follow suit. However, it wasn't until 1922, when the event moved to Church Road, that they finally abolished the Challenge Round. The Australasian never had a Challenge Round. By the time the French opened its' doors to international players, the Challenge Round had had its' day. Only in the team competition the Davis Cup did it continue, right up until the early 1970s. Therefore, the records of all the Wimbledon champions before 1922 and the U. S. champions before 1912 should be scrutinised to see how much the Challenge Round played a part in their victories.
Wimbledon Challenge Rounds
40 Challenge Rounds 1878-1914 & 1919-1921
Holder d. Challenger 20/40 50.0%
Challenger d. Holder 14/40 35.0%
Holder did not defend 6/40 15.0%
U. S. Challenge Rounds
28 Challenge Rounds 1884-1911
Holder d. Challenger 16/28 57.1%
Challenger d. Holder 6/28 21.4%
Holder did not defend 6/28 21.4%
Men who won titles when standing out until Challenge Round
Wimbledon Challenge Rounds
William Renshaw 5
H. Laurie Doherty 4
Reggie Doherty 3
Anthony Wilding 3
Wilfred Baddeley 1
Arthur Gore 1
John Hartley 1
Joshua Pim 1
Bill Tilden 1
U. S. Challenge Rounds
Bill Larned 5
Richard Sears 4
Oliver Campbell 2
Mal Whitman 2
Robert Wrenn 2
Henry Slocum 1
When the holder did not defend, there was no Challenge Round, so the winner of the event won in just the same way as champions after the Challenge Round was abolished. When the holder lost in the Challenge Round, an argument could be made that he was at a disadvantage through rustiness, whilst his opponent had played himself into form during the tournament. However, a greater argument is that the challenger was tired and the holder was fresh. Besides which, the holder had ample opportunity to prepare for the Challenge Round by playing exhibition matches if he so desired. Therefore Challenge Rounds where the Challenger proved victorious should also be viewed as 'fair' victories. The difficulty comes in deciding whether the holders who successfully defended their titles in the Challenge Round would have done so if they had played through the draw. Of course there is no way of knowing. However, it is worth taking a look at some of the players who won multiple titles when they stood out until the Challenge Round in a little more detail. There are three players who hold the joint records for most singles victories in Grand Slam events who stood out until Challenge Round in winning several of their titles.
William Renshaw won seven Wimbledons in the 1880s, a record he shares with Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. However, Sampras and Federer played through the draw in every one of their seven victories, whereas Renshaw stood out until the Challenge Round in five of his. Therefore, Sampras and Federer should be viewed as holding the record alone, because they played through the draw to win all of their titles. Renshaw had to fight hard to win his seven Wimbledon titles in the few matches he had to play to win them. In fact, in one of Renshaw's two victories playing through the draw in 1889, Renshaw was six match points down in the All Comer's final against Harry Barlow. On one of them, Renshaw dropped his racket and Barlow had only to hit an easy smash into the open court to win the match but, in an act of "sportsmanship", dollied the ball to give Renshaw time to recover. Such a gesture would never have occured in a later era. In the five titles he won where he stood out until the Challenge Round, William was twice taken the distance by his twin brother Ernest in 1882 and 1883. It is widely regarded that William was the better singles player than Ernest, but perhaps part of the reason was down to the fact that in these two five set Challenge Round encounters, William was fully rested, whilst Ernest had played five/four rounds and had some tough matches that went the distance. Although William (as challenger) did beat Ernest (as holder) in the 1889 Challenge Round, it should have been Barlow who faced Ernest. If Ernest had won the two five set Challenge Rounds against William, Barlow had put away the ball to beat William in the 1889 All Comer's Final, and Ernest had gone on to beat Barlow in the Challenge Round (which he would have been favoured to do), Ernest and William would have won four Wimbledon titles each!
In the U. S., Richard Sears, Bill Larned and Bill Tilden won most men's singles titles at 7. However, whilst Tilden played through the draw every time, Larned stood out until the Challenge Round in winning five of his titles and Sears stood out until the Challenge Round in four of his wins. Therefore Tilden should be viewed as holding the record alone, because he played through the draw to win all his titles. Sears never lost and was never taken to five sets in his Grand Slam career (plus he won his first three consecutive titles playing through the draw, proving he could win playing through the draw over a sustained period without losing). Larned, on the other hand, was known for having a very attacking style of play, which made him prone to being erratic. He was taken the distance in the Challenge Round in 1909 and 1910. By then Larned was in his late thirties and stamina would probably have been an issue. The fact Larned was fully rested and his opponents in the 1909 and 1910 finals had played seven matches must have been a factor in the fifth sets. It is unsurprising that, when the Challenge Round was abolished after Larned's seventh win in 1911, Larned decided he did not want to play through the draw and promptly retired.
If a player was taken to five sets several times before the Challenge Round, it would probably effect his performance in the Challenge Round. Before the First World War the levels of fitness amongst top players were not particularly high. However, rallies were played at a more leisurely pace than they are today. To give an example of the levels of fitness of some of the players, Willoby Hamilton (who beat William Renshaw twice at Wimbledon) had the nickname 'the Ghost' because of his frail health. This forced him out of the game aged 25. Reggie Doherty, a four times Wimbledon champion, was plagued by ill health and claimed that there was never a day when he felt really well. He died aged 38. Three of Doherty's wins came when he stood out until the Challenge Round, meaning he only had to push his frail body to win one match each year to become Wimbledon champion. Reggie's brother Laurie won four of his five titles when standing out until the Challenge Round.
WOMENS CHALLENGE ROUNDS
Wimbledon Womens Challenge Rounds
32 Challenge Rounds 1886-1914 & 1919-1921
Holder d. Challenger 10/32 31.2%
Challenger d. Holder 11/32 34.3%
Holder did not defend 11/32 34.3%
U. S. Womens Challenge Rounds
30 Challenge Rounds 1888-1916 & 1918
Holder d. Challenger 9/30 30.0%
Challenger d. Holder 13/30 43.3%
Holder did not defend 8/30 26.6%
Women who won titles when standing out until Challenge Round
Wimbledon Womens Challenge Rounds
Lottie Dod 3
Dorothea Douglass/Mrs. Lambert Chambers 3
Suzanne Lenglen 2
Mrs. Blanche Bingley-Hillyard 1
Charlotte Cooper 1
U. S. Womens Challenge Rounds
Molla Bjurstedt 2
Mary Browne 2
Hazel Hotchkiss 2
Juliette Atkinson 1
Mabil Cahill 1
Bertha Townsend 1
Like the men's singles events at the Wimbledon and the U. S. championships, the women's singles also had a Challenge Round. At Wimbledon the Challenge Round was instituted in 1886 and was abolished when the event moved to Church Road in 1922. The U. S. Challenge Round was instituted in 1888 and abolished in 1919 (the 1917 Patriotic tournament did not contain a Challenge Round). However, whilst the number of entrants in the men's events continued to grow, the women's events continued to be quite small up until the turn of the century and thereafter, though they grew, were always considerably smaller than the men's events. In 1890 at Wimbledon there were only three entrants in the women's singles, so defending champion Blanche Bingley-Hillyard played in the main draw. She lost in the opening round to Helena Rice. Then Rice won the final and then beat Bingley-Hillyard by default in the Challenge Round (technically the only time in Grand Slam history that a player has beaten the same opponent twice in the same event of the same tournament).
The women have always played the best of three sets in Grand Slams in all rounds apart from U. S. Challenge Rounds from 1891-1901 and All Comer's finals from 1894-1901. Elisabeth Moore's win in 1901 was unique, because she won back to back five set matches to win the title. As a result of this, the U. S. T. A. thought it unfair for the women to play five sets and the women never played best of five sets in a Grand Slam event again. The men played best of three sets in early rounds at the U. S. from 1884-1885 but played the best of five in every other round and year in the Challenge Round era at Wimbledon and the U. S. Therefore stamina would have played less of a part in the women's than it did in the men's game. Also, because the Wimbledon women's singles only had eight entrants or less virtually every year before 1898, the challenger would only have to win three rounds or less before playing in the Challenge Round. There were slightly more entrants in the early days of the U. S. championships than there were at Wimbledon, but always a lot less than the men's.
The Challenge Round statistics endorse the theory that the male holders had more of an advantage than the female holders by standing out until the Challenge Round, due to the male challengers playing more rounds than the women and playing best of five sets en route to the Challenge Round. Whilst the holder of the men's singles won the majority of the Challenge Rounds at both Wimbledon and the U. S., in the women's the challenger won the majority.
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