As one of the most popular sports in the world, tennis is loved by people in countries across the globe. International tournaments such as Wimbledon and the Roger’s Cup are watched by millions of fans each year and the sport continues to grow in popularity.
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Historians maintain that games involving striking small balls have been played since as early as the fifth century, though at this point, players would generally use their bare hands and there was no net.
The rules are largely unknown and were almost certainly very different to the modern game so many people love today. The origins of the sport are not clear and many scholars disagree on the time period tennis was first played.
Some experts claim that games with some similarities to tennis can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt, however, this is still refuted by some people. Though there are no etchings or drawings of ancient people engaged in games, there are several written references to the town of Tinnis, which is situated on the banks of the river Nile.
Those who support this theory say that the modern word for tennis evolved from this point. Similarly, the word racquet is said to have evolved from the Arabic word Rahat, which means the palm of the hand. This would be consistent with early reports of people playing a rudimentary version of the modern tennis match using just their hands.
Records between ancient times and the next millennium are incredibly scarce but some historians have stated that from 1000 AD onwards, French monks were known to play a very basic version of tennis using a ball and the walls of their monastery.
Known as jeu de palm in French or “game of the hand” in English, this phenomenon is considered to be the real birth of tennis by those who believe the stories about ancient Greece and Egypt to be untrue.
Though it is not universally accepted, many people say the French word tenez, which can be roughly translated to mean “take this” in English, was used to describe the game as it involved two players effectively passing or “serving” the ball to each other.
At this point the crude balls were often made from whatever material was available at the time, so things like straw, hair or string were used. As the game began to spread from the monasteries to the mansions and courts of richer people such as lords or royalty, it was played in open spaces by many of France’s well to do families.
By the time Henry VIII took the throne, the early form of tennis had spread to England and the king himself was said to be a keen player. Around 1500 or so, the first wooden, stringed rackets were beginning to appear. Usually strung with animal sinew or dried intestines, these basic implements were quite similar to the modern rackets we know today.
The “courts” that were used were longer and narrower than the large, segmented grass playing areas that are used in professional tournaments in the 21st century. London’s Hampton court is still in use to this day but is classed as a “real” tennis court as opposed to lawn tennis, which is what the game eventually become known as. By this point, the game was starting to resemble the much-loved format of the modern age with a low net in the middle of the playing area.
After several hundred years of relative disinterest, the discovery of vulcanized rubber by the now famous Charles Goodyear changed the way tennis was played quite profoundly. As balls were now quite resilient and had a pronounced, bouncy quality, players started to have matches outdoors. This made things much faster and also changed the rules of tennis significantly.
As croquet was extremely popular by the late 1800s, many of the flat and well maintained lawns used for this game were adapted to be suited to tennis matches. Walter C Wingfield is credited with patenting the racket and the rules that gave birth to lawn tennis, which is the game professional players still play today.
The key difference was in the shape of the courts which had an odd, curved shape, similar to an egg timer. This received a great deal of criticism and by 1875, the rules had been considerably revised. Finally, in 1877, the very first Wimbledon tournament was held in London. Though some adjustments have taken place over the years, this is still considered the beginning of the modern tennis game that is enjoyed by millions of people the world over.
As the popularity of the game began to spread, tournaments were held in America, Russia, France and beyond. There was still some change between the materials used to build tennis courts as some were made from clay rather than grass, but other than the tiebreak rule, which wasn’t introduced until the 1970s, the rules and structure of the modern game remains largely unchanged.
Some of the tournaments that are still in existence today were established in the early 20th century, most notably the Davis cup, which was first played in 1900. As popularity continued to grow, so did the prizes and potential for professional players to make a living from playing the game. By 1963 the Federation cup was launched and in 1968 the Grand Slam concept was born. This meant competitions could be specifically for highly trained, seasoned players who expected a very high standard of performance.
In the 21st century, professional players such as Serena Williams and Tim Henman can earn in excess of 1 million dollars for winning a competition and there are schools providing coaching to players of all ages and levels. Add the additional revenue brought in by advertising and endorsement to this and the game of tennis is one of the most lucrative sports industries in the world.