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Everyone for tennis

There is a corner of Wimbledon where the rain never stops play and where you don't have to queue to get on the Centre Court. Nicki Household went there. There may not have been a British Wimbledon champion since Virginia Wade won the Ladies' Singles in 1977, but two comforting facts that can never be denied are that it was an Englishman, Major Walter Wingfield, who invented the game of lawn tennis in 1874, and the Wimbledon Championships are still the world's most prestigious tournament.

So it's rather surprising that the vast majority of visitors to Wimbledon's fascinating Lawn Tennis Museum come not from the UK, but from Japan, America and continental Europe. "British people still say 'Gosh, is there a museum there?' even though we've been plugging away for years," says a perplexed Valerie Warren, the museum's curator.

Open since 1977, the museum owes its existence to the enthusiasm of a private collector, Tom Todd, who persuaded the All England Club that a museum would be a good idea, then donated his own collection. This has now been vastly extended to create a lively, atmospheric display, celebrating the drama and social history of tennis as well as the story of rackets and balls.

It's open all year round, but only to people visiting the tournament during the two weeks of the Championships. Facilities include a schools room, tea-room and souvenir shop, and the museum has prepared an activity-packed primary-level worksheet (with answers) for teachers.

Until the eccentric Walter Wingfield began marketing his boxed lawn tennis sets (pear-shaped wooden rackets, rubber balls, nets, telescopic net posts and a book of rules), only indoor versions of the game, called real or royal tennis, had existed. Lingfield's outdoor game, which he named Sphairistike, the Greek for "ball game") was an instant success. It was immediately added to the activities of the All England Croquet Club ln Wimbledon, who staged the first Gentlemen's Singles Championship in 1877. Spectators paid one shilling to see an old Harrovian, Spencer Gore, win the final.

Exhibits from those days include photographs, portraits, trophies, newspaper features and an original boxed set of Sphairistike. But what really brings the era to life are the life-size recreations of an 1895 spring tennis party and a "tennis enthusiast's parlour" of the 1890s. In the garden scene, lady players in corsets and bustles take tea with gentlemen in boaters, cravats and long white flannels. Only a cad, in those days, would hit a ball away from a lady rather than towards her! But as early as 1884, when the first Ladies' Singles Championships were held, quite a few women were taking the game seriously as a sport and not just a pastime.

The Victorian parlour scene, with its 80 tennis-related artefacts, shows how quickly the game became a craze. Everything from clocks, screens, ornaments and jewellery to mugs and jelly moulds could be found with a tennis theme.

Other entertaining set pieces include 1920s and 30s tennis parties, in which the women released, at last, from their corsets and petticoats wear flimsy calf-length cotton dresses and head bandeaux like the great French champion, Suzanne Lenglen. There's also a mock-up of a racket-maker's workshop and of the original gentlemen's changing room, with elegant blue and white china hand basins. This can be compared with a replica of the l990s Wimbledon locker-room all Walkmans, newspapers, kit bags and foot sprays.

Memorabilia abounds in the form of the autographed rackets and shoes used to win Wimbledon by the likes of Ann Jones, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. But even more exciting, for tennis enthusiasts, are the countless video screens showing famous champions, from the 1920s to the present day, in action. A separate video theatre shows continuous highlights of the most recent championships.

An entry ticket to the museum automatically includes a visit to the famous Centre Court, situated right next to it. The court itself may be empty, apart from mowers and rollers, but cunning sound effects in the viewing box recreate (well, nearly) the ambience of a Wimbledon final.

The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, Church Road, Wimbledon, London SWl9 5AE. Tel: 0181 946 6131. Open throughout the year, Tuesday to Saturday 10.30am-5.00pm, Sunday 2.00pm-5.00pm. Admission: adults Pounds 2.50, children Pounds 1.50 (10 per cent discount for prebooked groups of more than 20).

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