When was wooden spoon first used in tennis?

The word “spoony” made its first entrance in the English language in 1971 at the Cambridge University. It was a slang term which substituted the word “foolish.” At Cambridge, “Tripos” refers to the final honours examination for a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1973, at the Mathematical Tripos, the first ever wooden spoon was handed out to the person who stood last in the list of students who graduated.

It is said that the handing of the wooden spoon to the student who was eligible for it was a ceremony that was conducted with a thorough decorum and there wasn’t a whisker of difference in the appreciation that was given to the senior wrangler (the top student) and the wooden spoon receiver. The hall of the Cambridge University where students receive their degree, houses two galleries. Students who stood in both galleries would hold a string, in the centre of which lied the centre of attraction – the wooden spoon.

When the student who qualified for the wooden spoon would come on the stage, the spoon was hung above him and later when he rose from his/her knees, the spoon was lowered and the strings were cut from above after the concerned individual held the wooden spoon.

In 1823, the first text regarding the wooden spoon was published in The Cambridge Tart, entitled,”The Wooden Spoon.” One of its stanza reads,
“And while he lives, he wields the boasted prize,Whose value all can feel, the weak, the wise;Displays in triumph his distinguish’d boon,The solid honours of the Wooden Spoon.”

The following year, the Gradus as Canatabragiam had a brief explanier regarding the wooden spoon. Two lines read, “The last of each class of the honours is denominated The Spoon. This invidious distinction sticks to a man through life.”

Classics Tripos decided to follow the footsteps of the Mathematics Tripos an year after The Wooden Spoon poem was published. They were initially perplexed as to what they should honour the most bottom-ranked graduate with. However, they found the answer in the name of the individual who stood last among the graduated students – Hensleigh Wedgewood.

Quite fittingly, Wedgewood was presented with a wooden wedge in the degree ceremony. He would go on to become a barrister and an etymologist and the tradition of receiving the wedge wood continued when his son, Ernest Wedgewood was presented with one in the 1860s. The wooden spoon gained popularity and soon spread to North America.

However, Americans decided to etch their own philosophy of the wooden spoon and instead of the usual ritual, universities like Yale presented the wooden spoon to the most popular student of the class. The Oberlin College on the other hand handed the wooden spoon to the most ugliest person of the class.  The University of Pennsylvania adapted the wooden spoon handover tradition in 1861.

The graduates of the Cambridge University brought the term Wooden Spoon into sports. The Home Nations Championships was a rugby event, which saw participation from a lot of Cantabrigians. In 1894, South Wales Daily Post reported that Ireland and Welsh were to clash against each other and the outcome would decide the winner of the wooden spoon.

This was one of the first mentions of the wooden spoon in sports and the first time the term wooden spoon was brought into the media. An year later, the County Championships at England introduced the wooden spoon in the sport of cricket. 1903 saw cycling become the third sport to welcome the concept of wooden spoon and was given to the individual who finished last in the Tour de France races. The cyclist who would win the wooden spoon was known as the Lanterne Rouge.

Ever since it was introduced in 1973 in academics, the size of the wooden spoon grew gradually and measured 1.5 metres in its final year in 1909. Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse was the final recipient of the wooden spoon after finishing last in the Mathematics Tripos. The tradition of the wooden spoon was discontinued as the students were later divided into three classes from 1910, which made it difficult to decide upon a single recipient of the wooden spoon. Holthouse surely did not mind the long wooden spoon he received; the primary reason being, he was an oarsman. The inscription on Holthouse’s spoon/oar read,
“In honours Mathematical,This is the very last of allThe Wooden Spoon which you see hereO you who see it, shed a tear.”

Four years later, Chatto & Windus officially published the term Wooden Spoon and Wooden Wedge in their slang dictionary. Years passed by and the wooden spoon was used as a household name despite its popularity that kept fading. The dimmed usage was lit up yet again when in 1931, England, the birthplace of the “Wooden Spoon” received one itself, after losing to France in a football tournament.


WOODEN SPOON IN TENNIS

The distance between Cambridge and the spot where the first tennis club (Leamington Tennis Club) was established in 1872, is less than 75 km. Additionally, only 101 km separate Cambridge from London, where the first ever official lawn tennis tournament was played at Wimbledon in 1877. Yet, what is surprising is that instead of Lawn Tennis, it was rugby that introduced wooden spoon in sports in 1894. All 22 players who played the first Wimbledon hailed from the United Kingdom.

Yet, the earliest mention of a wooden spoon winner in tennis on Wikipedia (that considered only grand slam tournaments) is Greg Rusdeski. He was the earliest winner of the wooden spoon at the 1994 US Open.

Wooden Spoon winners in tennis do not receive an accolade of any kind and nor is it an official terminology sanctioned by the International Tennis Federation. However, the winners of wooden spoon in grand slam tournaments have received special attention since the late 1990s and are tagged as the Anti-Slam winners. Henry Soden was the first ever winner of the wooden spoon in lawn tennis. 

I came across many tournaments where the wooden spoon winner was a seeded player or a lucky loser who received a bye into the second round. The entire concept of the wooden spoon is to give the booby prize to the player who stands last in the competition. Consider this scenario: A player who received a bye in the first round lost his/her second round match and in the same tournament, another player loses his/her first round match.

This creates a complexity as it becomes difficult to decide who should be considered as the player with the bottom-most finish. Therefore, the term pseudo wooden spoon was termed by Dr Balraj Shukla in December 2018. It was defined in the following manner — “Pseudo Wooden Spoon is won by a player who received a bye in the opening round, else was the front runner for the wooden spoon.”

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