Don't miss any stories Follow Tennis View

Tennis Mastermind: William Charles Renshaw

Feb 20th 2024

Greatest Masterminds Of Tennis - William Renshaw 1861 to 1904

In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”

- Sun Yzu, The Art Of War

When William Charles Renshaw picked up a tennis racket for the first time he could never have imagined how it would change his life from that day on. His emotion went from curiosity to wonder to fascination and finally to uncontrollable excitement. He loved this new and exciting game. He loved it so much that he and his twin brother Ernest began to play tennis almost every day.

The small English town of Leamington had witnessed the birth of this new game called “Lawn Tennis” and it had played there since 1872. By 1874 Major Henry Gem and Arguiro Periera had already formed the first-ever Tennis Club called the “Leamington Tennis Club”. The game had been played in Leamington for less than 2 years before its opening.

For William, it was easy to see how this game had captivated the two men. It was a fast-paced sport requiring elegant, flowing movements while striking the ball. It also required a high level of skill in handling the racket. This was the most ingenious device for sports that William Renshaw had ever seen.

Many evenings were spent with twin brother Ernest practicing different ways to swing the racquet. They also experimented by generating different levels of power and precious in hitting the ball. It was rumored Leamington that the Renshaw twins had become quite addicted to the sport. As their skill improved William in particular became almost a full-time student of the game. He would spend hours perfecting his skills while studying the playing style of older more experienced players.

The intensity of his studies and his analysis revealed several ways of making the game more interesting to play. It also gave insights into improving levels of performance in match situations. He discovered, for instance, that great velocity could be generated by striking the ball hard in the air before it bounced. Hitting the ball from the position closer to the net disrupted his opponent's natural rhythm forcing them into errors. It also created an advantage if the ball could be struck in a direction that made returning it difficult if not impossible. This would later be called a “volley”.

This made William begin to experiment more with striking the ball harder during the serve. No strict rules had been placed at this time so there were loud gasps of surprise when William and his brother Ernest began striking the ball in the air during the service motion with great energy instead of the short underhand ball toss of players at that time. The same motion could also be used to deliver the precursor of the modern overhead smash to devastating effect. The crowds loved this style of aggressive play and soon they craved more. It was a welcome change from the long boring baseline rallies observers had endured for so long.

William Renshaw continued to improve and perfect his tactics to great effect. He began to win more games and defeat some formidable opponents. The interest of the general public continued to grow as they followed the progress of the Renshaw brothers. At the first opportunity, William and Ernest entered the Wimbledon Tennis Championship in both the doubles and singles. William Henshaw being barely 20 years old was supremely dominant in his matches. He went on to win the championship by dismantling another Englishman John Hartley 6-0, 6-1, 6-1.

Crowds at the championships were mesmerized by the aggressive and flamboyant attacking style of Henshaw. It was something that had never been seen before. William and Ernest quickly became local sensations and the tennis courts were now buzzing with a large excited crowd whenever they played. The “Renshaw Rush” was on. It was a period of intense interest in tennis. William would go on to win 6 consecutive championships from 1818-1886. In 1887 he continued to innovate even when injured and unable to play in the final. Doctors diagnosed what they called a “tennis elbow” which it is still called today.

Ernest won the coveted title in 1888 but William was back to reclaim it one more time in 1889. He again provided the now characteristic entertainment by winning the semi-final clash in dramatic style with a stunning come-from-behind victory over Harry Barlow. He saved 6 match points after going 0-5 down in the 5th and final set. He beat Ernest in the finals 64, 61, 36, 60.

It must also be remembered that William and Ernest were extremely successful as a doubles pair winning in 1884-86, and 1888-89. Another notable achievement of William Renshaw was his election as the 1st President of the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) a position he was elected to in 1888.

Innovations In Tennis

William Renshaw can be classified as one of the first great tennis innovators and a grandmaster of strategy. In addition to his natural flare for tennis, he exuded an extraordinary charisma that attracted fans in ways unlike any other player before him. He was a naturally gifted and talented visionary at a time when tennis was still in its infancy. His capacity for experimentation and his fearlessness in executing new patterns of play led to the creation of several new tactics.

These include the conventional modern serve, the overhead smash, and the volley. These are all today some of the most notable weapons deployed by many modern tennis players. Gael Monfil's overhead smash and “dunk smash” are incredible and the “serve and volley” game of Pete Sampras in the 90s led to his becoming one of the greatest tennis players of all time.

The new playing styles and shots were supported by a backbone of shameless physicality and aggression. William Renshaw's tactics and plays were designed to gain an upper hand using a high level of aggression. In his case think Nadal or Alcaraz. That's how Renshaw must have appeared to the conservative players of that era.

Renshaw's Mastermind Strategy

In a nutshell, these are the basics of Renshaw's Mastermind Strategy:

1.Focus by removing distractions - Renshaw was able to isolate himself from the tactical trends of his day. He was also able to objectively analyze plays by asking critical questions: What are other players doing? How can I play better? How do I execute my plans and strategy? These questions were fundamental to his success. They are also critical for any player trying to improve their game today.

2. Take time to analyze what's going on - Analysis and testing are important for any scheme or plan to succeed. William and Ernest Renshaw always put their theories and assumptions to the test. They even built their own tennis court where they spent hours sharpening their skills before applying these in actual competitive matches. Modern tennis coaches have realized the importance of data and analysis. There is a need to know exactly what you are doing and why. In this way, it becomes easier to identify flaws and adopt the best remedies to correct them.

3. Constantly look for new opportunities and advantages - It can be observed that Renshaw's tactical changes were focused on increasing the aggressive aspect of each play. He quickly identified a lack of aggression on the part of his opponents as a major weakness. In those days most players were conditioned to grind out points by building slowly from the baseline. More aggressive plays and shots made opponents extremely uncomfortable, forcing errors. It's possible for players to do self-analysis and to analyze an opponent to find areas of strength and weakness.

4. Execute a tactical masterplan with available information - It's one thing to make a plan of action but it's a completely different thing to execute it. Renshaw genius was in applying the information acquired quickly. After his first Wimbledon title, he went on to clinch the title back-to-back 6 consecutive times! Intelligent players apply new information, knowledge, and training almost immediately. Some players will find it hard to shed old habits even when they know they can do better.