U.S. player Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman wanted to generate international interest in women's tennis the way Davis Cup did for men's. In 1920, she donated a sterling silver vase to the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) as a prize for an international team competition. Initial efforts to involve teams from all over the world, and in particular France with Suzanne Lenglen, proved unsuccessful due to financial constraints. The USLTA decided to invite Great Britain to challenge for the prize. Each match consisted of seven 'rubbers': five singles rubbers and two doubles. The top two players from each team would face each other in singles, with the matches then reversed. A third singles player from each team would play each other once. Two doubles teams would compete, but no player could play more than one doubles match. The cup always ended with the doubles match played between the two top pairs from each team.
The inaugural competition was played on 11 and 13 August 1923 in the newly constructed stadium at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York. The matches were played in even years in Britain and in odd years in the U.S. The U.S. matches were played at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York from the first year, 1923, through 1947, and the British matches were played at Wimbledon from the first year, 1924, through 1972. The competition was a two-day event until 1967 when the U.S. event was held over three days in order to generate more revenue. A record 16,000 spectators attended that year. Until 1960 all editions of the Wightman Cup were played on grass courts, in later years also clay courts, cement and synthetic carpet were used. In 1978, the competition moved indoors to the Royal Albert Hall, was sponsored for the first time, and was called the Carnation Wightman Cup.
The competition was continued through 1989. The USTA and the Lawn Tennis Association jointly announced on February 20, 1990, that the competition would be suspended indefinitely, citing low interest following years of American domination.
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