Lawn and order: Croquet carves out slice of history at Wimbledon

London (AFP) –


Who has won the most individual Wimbledon championships? Roger Federer? Martina Navratilova? Serena Williams?

Try again and take a bow Professor Bernard Neal who has amassed an impressive 37.

However, Neal's titles, captured between 1963 and 2002, have come in croquet which is still played on the famous lawns of the All England Club where the third Grand Slam tennis tournament of the season gets underway on Monday.

Tennis may now famously rule the roost at Wimbledon in south-west London but it was not always the case, Quiller Barrett the president of the Croquet Association told AFP.

Indeed it was mallet on ball hammered through hoops rather than ball on racquet speeding over a net that was the foundation of the world-famous club in 1868 that now bears the name, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC).

Barrett, who has been in his present role for 10 years, points out, though, that contrary to popular perception the 'All' in the name is a major nod to its croquet past.

"The 'All' part is in the title thanks to croquet, it has nothing to do with tennis," he told AFP in a telephone interview.

"Players from the Wimbledon club founded in 1868 were intent on establishing common rules throughout the country for the game.

"At the time players from all round England had different interpretations of how the game should be played."

Croquet had seen a surge in its popularity in Victorian England as men and women could both play.

However, once tennis was admitted to the club in 1877 it took just five years for the founding sport to be dropped only to be reinstated in 1899.

- 'Fighting Lewis Carroll' -

It never regained its pre-eminence -- one of its lawns disappeared in 2007 when Court Two was built on it -- and now consists of three lawns which are in play from April to September save for the four weeks around the championships when they are used as practice courts.

"Tennis people rule the roost at Wimbledon," admitted Barrett.

"There is no friction at all; we have to accept croquet is a fringe activity.

"It is very nice of them to remember us, they invited me to the Royal Box on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the club last year."

Barrett, who will oversee the world championships in July in Southwick near Brighton, which will involve around 80-100 players including from New Zealand, Australia and the United States, says you cannot just join the AELTC if you wish to play croquet.

"The croquet club has 30 members," he said. "You cannot join the croquet club unless you have already been a member of the tennis club.

"They largely change over for age or health reasons."

Barrett, whose association has 7,000 affiliated members with an average age of 60, would love there to be a broader younger church of players coming through, not just at Wimbledon but says there are two things that hold them back.

One is perhaps more surprising than the other -- Lewis Carroll's classic book Alice in Wonderland which features a croquet game.

"Alice in Wonderland does not help, it is the bane of our lives," said Barrett. "We are always fighting Lewis Carroll!

He added: "There is also the perception that it is a game for rich, aristocratic people which is perhaps pertinent to 1910 but is not the case any longer."