Early Lawn Tennis in Marin for Women… and Men

By Carol Acquaviva and Jennifer Christensen

The Lawn Tennis Manual for 1885

“That’s a woman’s game,” said the Overland Monthly in 1892. The snark was in reference to the reputation of lawn tennis as a mere pastime than a sport requiring athleticism. The Overland Monthly clarified: “It is, indeed, the only genuinely athletic game that women can play, and in which they can become proficient.”

And proficient they were! Despite the snark noted in Overland Monthly, the mere fact women competed on lawn tennis courts alongside men during a time when they were primarily relegated to matters of the household, was an incredible act of inclusion. One could also argue that it takes a certain brand of athleticism to compete in long skirts, layered over petticoats, bustles, corsets, long drawers and stockings, as was customary during that time.

If baseball was the national pastime, tennis was for “society people” and was immensely popular amongst both men and women. In 1888, a tennis match was listed in the Society column before announcements of weddings, engagements, dances, and other club activities.

Daily Alta California, October 14, 1888

In the early years of the sport in California, the 1870s and 1880s, there were not enough players to generate “champions.” In the years that followed, those who excelled and repeatedly won tournaments became well-known, drawing players and teams visiting from the East, opening the sport to a wider audience.

Image from Lawn Tennis for 1883, by L. Upcott Gill

During this time, just as lawn tennis was gaining popularity here in California, the sport was growing globally, with many familiar international competitions having officially launched. The U.S. National Singles Championships for Men, now known as the US Open, held its first tournament in 1881. Six years later, the first U.S. Women’s National Singles Championship was introduced at the Philadelphia Cricket Club. 1877 also marked the inaugural tennis tournament at Wimbledon, with the first Ladies’ Singles event debuting in 1884. Additionally, the French Open, now referred to as Roland-Garros, started in 1891 and the Australian Open in 1905.

Locally, the Marin Lawn Tennis Club, established in 1880, played their first games on the grounds on Culloden Avenue. The San Rafael Lawn Tennis Club organized around the same time and incorporated in 1884. By the turn of the century, Corte Madera, Larkspur, Sausalito, and San Quentin all had their own clubs, with the sport starting to remove “lawn” from its name.

The Pacific States Lawn Tennis Association (PSLTA), established itself a decade after the Marin Club in 1890, as an offshoot of the National Lawn Tennis Association. Membership to the PSLTA included amateur players “from the states of California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and the territories of Utah and Arizona and British Columbia.” The growth of the PSLTA became a turning point for the sport, as numbers of players, funding, and visibility of the sport increased. Women and men from Marin’s local clubs were included in the roster.

Lawn tennis tournaments were held across Marin, at resorts like the Hotel Rafael in San Rafael, and the El Monte Hotel in Sausalito. Hotels were happy to allow their grounds as the location for matches, as it guaranteed crowds of spectators.

“The game is one specially fitted for ladies, as it requires very little force. The main point is not to hit too hard.”

Group on the tennis court at the Mount Tamalpais Military Academy, March 1914. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

In 1892, the Halcyon Tennis Club, whose headquarters were the courts at the Mount Tamalpais Military Academy (today’s Marin Academy), held a lively tournament. Mr. Percy Rolls emerged as the men’s champion and Miss Nellie Bunn reigned as women’s champ. That same year, the club relocated to Fifth Street between D and E Streets, the property of Charles Fish.

San Rafael Lawn Tennis Club Grounds were at this time on Fifth Street, just west of H Street, in the West End neighborhood of San Rafael. This view is looking northwest, circa 1890. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.
Group of tennis players in Marin, circa 1900. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.
Sonoma Democrat headline from July 22, 1893.

In June 1909, a women’s state championship tournament was held on the “splendid courts” at the Hotel Rafael, with a Miss Hotchkiss defending her title. The famed Mae Sutton, former world champion, spent much of that summer at the Hotel Rafael, as both a guest and tennis player. Simultaneously, the Marin Country Club hosted their own tennis tournaments.

Twentieth century tennis gained further momentum. In 1926, Amy Andreason Eastman began raising money to build a new tennis court in Inverness. Two years later, the Inverness Tennis Club was officially established, with property secured on a former level-set plot of land formerly used as a vegetable garden by Mr. Hosmer. In July 1929, matches began on weekends, and included tournaments for women… and men, a tradition that continues to this day (without corsets, thankfully).

Tennis court in Mill Valley around 1922. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

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