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The Royal Family’s History With Wimbledon: From George V to Kate Middleton

8 minute read

Wimbledon tennis tournament is a big ticket item on the U.K. social calendar, but beyond that it has earned global cachet for offering attendees a quintessentially British experience. Think Pimm's Cup cocktails, strawberries and cream, and the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the British royal family, dressed to the nines, besides celebrity guests in the Royal Box.

But as the two-week sporting event—which debuted in 1877—returns to its namesake London suburb between July 1-14, there could be one glaring absence from courtside. Kate Middleton, the Princess of Wales and incumbent patron of Wimbledon’s All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club (AELTC), has taken a break from royal duties while she receives treatment for an undisclosed form of cancer, and could miss this year’s championships.

Kate Middleton, Princess of Wales, watches as Carlos Alcaraz gives his on-court interview after winning the Gentlemen's Singles Final match at Wimbledon in 2023.Tim Clayton—Corbis/Getty Images

But all is not lost for fans holding out hope for Kate’s presence at Wimbledon. The Princess of Wales recently delighted fans when she attended the annual Trooping the Colour parade on June 15. She was seen waving from the balcony of Buckingham Palace alongside King Charles III and Queen Camilla, as well as Prince William and their three children Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and Prince Louis. Ahead of her appearance, Kensington Palace shared a statement from Kate on its social media accounts. The royal said she hopes to join a few public engagements over the summer, but added that she’s “not out of the woods yet.” 

A known lover and skilled player of tennis, Kate has become a regular fixture at the tournament. Over the years, the mother-of-three has been spotted enjoying intense games with William, the Prince of Wales, and her children Prince George, 10, and Princess Charlotte, 9. She has also had the honor of presenting trophies to tennis stars Novak Djokovic, Marketa Vondrousova, and Elena Rybakina. Her presence, for many, has become part of the charm and appeal of the matches.

Kate Middleton, Princess Charlotte, Prince George, and Prince William in the Royal Box at Wimbledon in 2023.Tim Clayton—Corbis/Getty Images
Princess Charlotte and Prince George watch Carlos Alcaraz vs. Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon 2023 men's final.Karwai Tang—Getty Images

“The royals and Wimbledon have one thing in common,” royal historian Richard Fitzwilliams tells TIME. “They are the world’s most high profile family and Wimbledon, I would argue, is the world’s most high profile tennis tournament.”

But Kate is not the first royal with a strong connection to the tournament, with relations between the royal family and the tournament dating back to the early 20th century and further shaped by the Duke and Duchess of Kent. 

“The royals are as synonymous with Wimbledon as strawberries and cream or Henman Hill [within the grounds of the tournament],” Katie Nicholl, royal editor at Vanity Fair and author of Kate: The Future Queen, tells TIME. For Fitzwilliams, Wimbledon and the royal family have “a symbiotic relationship.”

As Wimbledon returns, here’s what to know about the royal family’s deep rooted history with the sporting spectacle.

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What is the royal family’s early relationship with tennis?

The British royal family’s relationship with tennis dates back even further than their relationship with the tournament and is said to have begun with Henry VIII, the first royal with a recorded interest in tennis. It is understood that Henry was a talented player in his youth and would spend hours on the court. In 1519, the Venetian Ambassador wrote that “it was the prettiest thing in the world” to watch Henry play tennis, according to the Historic Royal Palaces website. 

Between 1526 and 1529, the first tennis court was erected at Hampton Court Palace for Cardinal Wolsey, later to be replaced by a new court for Charles I in 1625. “Cardinal Wolsey apparently, was the first person to pair strawberries with whipped cream. It was at a banquet that he mixed them,” Fitzwilliams says. Since then, the sweet treat has been widely associated with tennis spectatorship in the U.K.

Neale Fraser of Australia is presented with the Gentlemen's Singles Trophy by HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, following his victory over Rod Laver in the Wimbledon final in 1960.Douglas Miller—Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It would be three decades since the first Wimbledon tournament before a member of the royal family attended a match. King George V and Queen Mary were the first royals to attend in 1907 before they ascended the throne. 

Three years later, George V was asked by then secretary for the Wimbledon Club George Hillyard to take on the role of president at the All England Club and present trophies to the winners. The tradition has been carried out by royals into the present day.

The Duke of York (later King George VI) competing at Wimbledon. Hulton Archive—Getty Images

In 1926, King George VI, father to Queen Elizabeth II, made history as the first—and last—royal to participate in the tournament. Then the Duke of York, he competed in the men’s doubles tournament with his friend and mentor Sir Louis Greig to no avail: “He lost fairly ignominiously,” says Fitzwilliams.  

Which royals are most associated with Wimbledon?

Over the years, a number of royals have been spotted enjoying a tense Wimbledon match, from Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, to Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex. The Duchess attended in 2016, before she married into the royal family and twice again as a royal in 2018 and 2019, to support her friend and tennis champion Serena Williams.

Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle attend day twelve of Wimbledon on July 14, 2018.Clive Mason—Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth served as patron of AELTC from 1952 until 2016, but she only attended the tournament four times during that entire span. “On her 90th birthday she retired from the role, handing the baton on to Kate,” says Fitzwilliams, noting that the late Queen’s scarce appearances suggest she held little favor for the sport compared to her enthusiasm for the Royal Ascot and the Windsor Horse Show.

Queen Elizabeth II meets tennis players Roger Federer, Serena Williams, and Novak Djokovic during a visit to Wimbledon on June 24, 2010.Oli Scharff—AFP/Getty Images

Prior to Kate becoming the royal most synonymous with tennis, Prince Edward, the Duke, and his wife Katharine, Duchess of Kent, were best known for their influence at Wimbledon. 

The Duke of Kent was appointed president of the AELTC in 1969, and was known for having a hands-on approach for five decades. He presented winners’ trophies to champions at the end of the tournament until his retirement in 2021. The Duchess of Kent also gave out trophies but was present for more tender moments with the athletes, such as letting Jana Novotná cry on her shoulder in 1993, a memorable Wimbledon moment for Fitzwilliams. 

“The long-standing representative of Wimbledon was always the Duchess of Kent, and she did it with such glamor and panache and style, and clearly had an absolute love of the sport,” says Nicholl, who describes Kate as her “perfect replacement.”

Kate Middleton chats with Roger Federer and his wife, fellow former professional tennis player Mirka Federer, at Wimbledon in 2023.Charlotte Wilson—Offside/Getty Images

Appointed in 2016 as the Queen’s replacement, Kate has brought a touch of youth and a renewed interest in Wimbledon courtside fashion to the tournament. Fashion commentators eagerly follow Kate’s Wimbledon wardrobe each year, which has historically included garments from luxury fashion brands Alexander McQueen, Dolce & Gabbana, and Balmain. 

What is Kate Middleton’s role at Wimbledon?

The Princess of Wales’ role as Patron of the AELTC predominantly involves her attendance at matches to boost the profile of the tournament each year. There is also a charitable aspect to the role, supported by the Wimbledon Foundation, that requires her to visit local initiatives and sports programs, as well as engage with young people. 

“A role like that is so enhanced when you have a member of the royal family who actually does love tennis,” says Nicholl, noting that Kate is a passionate fan of the sport based on their conversations.

Kate Middleton holds the Venus Rosewater Dish trophy after the Ladies' Singles Final during day thirteen at Wimbledon on July 9, 2022.Simon Stacpoole—Offside/Getty Images

“If you ever want to see a competitive streak between her and her husband, put them on the tennis court, because that's where it comes out,” Nicholl adds, noting that Kate is likely the better player between the two.

“Kate has a very commanding presence in that Royal Box. She's always wearing a fantastic outfit. But more than that, it's her enthusiasm when she's watching a great game. She's so involved,” Nicholls says. 

What is the Royal Box?

Reserved for members of the royal family and high profile guests, the Royal Box has been a fixture at Wimbledon since 1922. Until 2003, it was tradition for players to bow and curtsy towards the Royal Box when Queen Elizabeth was present. The box is home to the most coveted seats and invitations are issued by the Chair of the All England Club, a role currently held by former professional tennis player Deborah Jevans.

Princess Diana and Prince William applaud in the Royal Box at Wimbledon, as Steffi Graf wins the Women's Singles Championship in 1991.Manuela Dupont—Getty Images

The box has been the setting of a number of iconic royal sightings, from Princess Diana bringing a young Prince William in 1991, to Meghan Markle joining her sister-in-law Kate in 2018. The box has also hosted famous musicians and actors; 2023’s tournament saw the attendance of Ariana Grande, Jonathan Bailey, Brad Pitt, Guy Ritchie, Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and more. 

The box is a “mutually supportive” fixture, says Fitzwilliams, noting that the royals “invariably get good photo opportunities” when sitting courtside, and this in turn raises the profile and appeal of the tournament each year.

Kate Middleton and Prince William watch from the Royal Box as Novak Djokovic wins against Jannik Sinner on day nine of Wimbledon on July 5, 2022.Julian Finney—Getty Images

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Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com