History of Tennis - Origins and Evolution of Tennis
When it was initially devised in 12th century northern France, the sport that is today
known as tennis did not look very similar to its modern variant that is
still played today. It did not use the racket, but instead, a ball was hit
with the open palms of the hand. After being adopted by the royalties and
nobles of France, England, and several other European territories, the “royal tennis” (known in France as “ jeu de paume” - the game of palms) transformed
into a sport that much more resembled modern tennis when simple rackets
were adopted in the 16th century.
As the tennis became more and more popular and when newly discovered
lawnmowers (patented in 1830) enabled tennis courts to move to open grass
fields, professional clubs and large courts appeared across Europe and the
rest of the world. The most notable courts became the foundation of the “Four Majors” tournament -Wimbledon (1877), U.S. Open (1881), French Open (1891) and Australian Open
(1905). Professional tennis players established well-known annual
competition known “Davis Cup” in 1900, and more
recently, the Fed Cup in 1963.
Between its inception and mid-20th century, tennis maintained an image that
it was one of the preferred sports of upper/middle-class players, although
that image started wavering when commercial pressures opened major tennis
tournaments to both professional and amateur players.
The modern word tennis was derived from the French word “ tenez”, which is a plural imperative form of the
verb tenir ("hold!", " receive!" or "take!").
This term was used as a call from the server to his opponent, indicating
that he is preparing to serve the ball across the court.
The word racket was derived from the Arabic word “rakhat”, which translated to the “ palm of the hand”.
Predecessors of Tennis
Some historians believe that the origins of the Tennis could be found much
earlier in time than is today accepted.
Clues found in the ruins of Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations
(including written reports in Arabic) point that a game similar to tennis
was played on stone floors and dirt fields. Another theory says that the
word tennis was derived from the Egyptian town of Tinnis. However, lack of
concrete evidence has pushed the majority of historians to accept that one
true predecessor of modern tennis was created in 12th century Italy.
Jeu de paume
Jeu de paume
is a precursor of modern tennis. Originally devised by the Italian priests
and played extensively by common people in northern Italy, this “ palm game” involved smacking ball in indoor
courts without the use of rackets.
Palm game managed to achieve notable recognition. It could be played both
indoors and outdoors, and in 1908 it even became part of Summer Olympics,
which American Jay Gould II managing to win the Gold medal against Eustace
Miles from Great Britain. Today, Jeu de paume is regarded as the longest
ongoing annual world championship in the sport with over 250 years of
While Jeu de paume was sometimes also called “ real tennis”, this distinction is today closely
connected to the variation of palm tennis in which players used rackets to
smack the ball across the playing field. Evolving over the period of 16th
to mid 19th century, real tennis moved towards racket play and became
extremely popular in royal courts of Europe. Royalty played real tennis so
much that this sport was directly connected with the deaths of King James I
of Scotland (assassin), Louis X (exhaustion and severe chill) and Charles
VIII (head injury).
The popularity of the sport in France led King Charles IX to establish
Corporation of Tennis Professionals in 1571, with three professional
leagues consisting of apprentice, associate and master level players. The
first written rules of this real tennis league were published in 1599.
During 17th and the first half of 18th century, tennis expanded in
popularity across Europe, except in two territories - England where
Puritanism did not approve of such activity and France where nobility
became under pressure from dissatisfied commoners.
18th century England slowly moved away from real tennis and more toward
lawn tennis, which eventually became what we know as modern tennis.
Lawn Tennis Beginnings
The origins of lawn tennis can be found in the exploits of Birmingham,
England, Major Harry Gem, who managed between 1859 and 1865 to successfully
combine the elements of rackets, Spanish ball game " plota", and croquet lawn playing field. He and
his friends formed first modern tennis club in 1874, called Leamington
During the period of just one to two years, many aspects of modern tennis
were standardized with the efforts of British army officer Walter Clopton
Wingfield. He devised basic rules, hourglass-shaped playing field and more.
During that time, tennis also fueled establishment of several more cubs and
Lawn tennis (sometimes also called “ Wingfield’s game”) arrived in the United States
just a few years later in 1877.
Walter Clopton Wingfield Biography
Major Walter Clopton Wingfield (1833-1912) was a famous welsh inventor that
is remembered today as the father of lawn tennis and a crucial figure in
forming the style of modern tennis that is played today.
After military campaigns in India and China and earning a rank of Major,
Wingfield returned home to England where he eventually became appointed to
the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms, who have oversight of the courts
of the royal family (Queen Victoria and her son Edward VII). During that
time he started experimenting with lawn sports, and most notably, trying to
see if newly developed rubberized balls that could bounce much better then
than widely used one could be integrated into the sport of indoor game of
With a goal of transferring this indoor sport to the flat surface of
croquet lawns, he eventually managed to patent “ New and Improved Court for
Playing the Ancient Game of Tennis” which he started promoting under the
name of “Sphairistikè” in the spring of 1874. He sold boxes of rubber balls
at several courts and played exhibition matches in which the main net that
separated two players was set at 4 feet 8 inches high, and scoring system
awarded each player 15 points for a successful “ace”. In just a year, he
managed to sell over 1000 ball sets to English aristocracy, which pushed
many croquet lawn owners to adapt them into tennis courts.
After just a few years of successfully promoting a game, Wingfield lost the
interest in tennis after his wife developed mental illness and the death of
his three young sons.
First Tournaments - The Championships, Wimbledon - 1877
The famous Wimbledon courts were established in 1868 as the private club
that provided lawns and courts for aristocratic players who enjoyed
croquet. However, with the rise of the popularity of Major Walter Clopton
Wingfield “lawn” version of indoors real tennis, this private club switched
its focus to tennis by renaming itself into "The All England Croquet and
Lawn Tennis Club" and starting annual tournaments starting with the famous
inaugural 1877 Wimbledon Championship.
This influential tournament was not important only because of tradition it
will set, but also because of the modified rules that it would use.
Wimbledon tournament official devised a rule set that became a basis of
modern tennis, with only differences being a distance of the service line,
width of the net posts, and height of the net itself. In 1922 Wimbledon
courts moved to a new position, but the overall position of the playing
fields remaining the same, including the famous “center court” that was
surrounded by smaller tennis courts.
In addition to men singles matches, Wimbledon started promoting Ladies'
Singles and Gentlemen's Doubles competitions from 1884, and Mixed Doubles
events from 1913. Up to 1968, Wimbledon tournaments were filled with only
top-ranked amateur players, but that changed with the adoption of the “open
era” that allowed professionals to compete also.
Today, Wimbledon is considered to be the world's premier tennis tournament
in the world.
The Davis Cup
The famous Davis Cup tennis tournament was originally
devised in 1899 by four members of the Harvard University tennis team who
wished to test the capabilities of British players. By the time of the
first official Davis Cup match in 1900 that pitted Britain and the United
States, this tournament already started to gain popularity. Several years
later, Davis cup attracted national teams from several more European teams,
with Australia and New Zealand joining in 1914.
From that point on, the tournament gained worldwide recognition, spitting
into several sections (Eastern, American and two European zones) to better
handle increasing number of national teams, the format of competition
switched to knockout elimination in 1972, and its modern tiered system of
competition that is still in use today was devised in 1981. In it, teams
from 12 sub-groups compete each year for the chance to enter into main
“World Group” that consists of teams from 16 best-ranked countries.
In 2017, three best ranked national teams in Davis Cup are Argentina,
France, and Great Britain.
History of Tennis Courts
Grass Court History
Neatly trimmed short grass
on top of very hard packed soil layer is the most popular tennis surface type, but sadly they are today
not the most commonly found one. High maintenance and time commitment needed to keep them
in top shape have pushed many courts to switch to clay or other types of
Grass offers the fastest movement
, but the differences in grass density determine how the ball will bounce
off. Negative points of grass courts are that they have to be regularly
trimmed and kept in good condition without the appearance of wear and tear
after prolonged plays.
Since the bounces of the grass are low, this surface usually leads to faster and more energetic plays that are best suited to
the players who favor the serve-and-volley type of play.
Clay Court History
Clay is the most popular tennis
court surface in Europe and Latin America. Since clay reduces the speed of the ball after bounces, this
heavily disadvantages fast servers and promotes baseline players
Clay courts have been proven to be easy to initially create, but they
require significant costs for upkeep and keeping the top surface nicely
even and properly dry. Out of all Majors, only French Open uses this court
Hard Court History
The surface of hard courts is made from a rigid and uniform material that
is commonly coated with an additional acrylic surface layer that is
sometimes mixed with sand. The amount of sand determines how fast will ball
bounces be. This surface type slows down ball bounces a bit, somewhere in
between the speed of grass and clay courts.
Different types of hard surfaces are used for both US Open and Australian
Carpet Court History
“Carpet surface” in tennis represents any surface
that can be removed or reinstated at moment’s notice. Many indoor arenas
use rolls of rubber-backed court surfacing to easily convert themselves for
tennis tournaments that are played on artificial turf. This surface type is
very common in Asia, and some of the big tournaments (such as Paris
Masters, WCT Finals, and others) are also played on top of it.