Although organized tennis had been present at Penn as early as 1880, it took the University several years to catch up with its Ivy League counterparts in forming an official tennis team.
The earliest record of the Quakers competing came when the school held the Middle States Intercollegiate Tournament on the ground of the Belmont Association in 1887. Schools invited included Amherst, Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Lafayette, Lehigh, Swarthmore, Trinity, Wesleyan, Williams, and Yale. Unfortunately for the Red and Blue, Penn’s five players failed to advance past the first rounds in doubles.
After this tournament, Penn's involvement in intercollegiate tennis was rather scattered, as most of student interest was squashed by the University’s lack of adequate tennis courts.
In a letter to the editor, an anonymous 1890 graduate wrote, “In the midst of a city which takes so much interest in the game of tennis as Philadelphia, the University is woefully behindhand in her accommodations for this sport.”
This was a request that took multiple years to honor.
In the meantime, tennis on campus largely occurred in the form of tournaments between classes or those run by fraternities and sororities.
In 1896, Penn held their first Interscholastic Tennis Tournament. The purpose of this tournament was to identify individuals that would be sent to compete against winners of tournaments at the University of Chicago, Columbia, Princeton, Yale, and Harvard.
By 1899, however, Penn could not even field a representative to send to the intercollegiate tournament. In order to avoid getting kicked out of the Intercollegiate Tennis Tournament, a planning committee was created to formalize Penn’s involvement in tennis. Despite this effort, tennis remained one of the most underrepresented sports at the University.
In the coming years, although Penn’s tennis community was lacking, it did not fail to attract the top tennis players of the country. One of these top talents was Edward Dewhurst. A 1906 graduate, Dewhurst won the singles title at the U.S. National Indoor Championships in 1903 and 1905.
Later in 1905, captained by Dewhurst, three other players were chosen to represent the Quakers at the Intercollegiate Tennis Tournament. Building on this enthusiasm, plans were set to build six more courts on campus. With these new courts, the future of Quaker tennis was bright. Penn started to compete in tournaments with other schools, and in 1907, the varsity team made it as far as the semi-finals of the Intercollegiate Tennis Tournament before falling to Harvard.
After Penn continued to compete against other schools, plans for an official season schedule formed in 1911 for the following season. The chairman of the team was none other than Edward Dewhurst. Members were selected via a tournament strictly for Penn students.
The Quakers’ first official match came against the University of Pittsburgh, and the Red and Blue marched their way to a victory. They won two out of the four singles matches and swept both of the doubles matches.
Penn went on to play many more matches against schools across the country. Notably, they swept Penn State and won two of three matches against Harvard. Two of the Quakers’ more significant losses occurred when the team lost 5-1 to Cornell and 9-0 to Yale, but they put up a strong fight in all of these matches.
Years of back and forth and lackluster tennis involvement at Penn finally culminated in an official season in 1912, which Penn ended with a record of 5-4-1.
Although the Ivy League does not fully dominate the tennis scene today as it did back then, it still produces strong teams that compete fiercely in the Eastern College Athletic Conference.