Historians have often debated over the question, “who invented tennis?” Some argue it was the ancient Egyptians, with the Arabic word for palm of the hand, ‘rahat’, being the origin of the word ‘racket’.
However, the most commonly-held opinion is that tennis was invented by 12th century French monks, who would play by hitting a ball with their hand, shouting, “Tenez!” as they served. This is the French word for ‘take this’ and it is believed to be where the word ‘tennis’ originated.
Aristocrats learned the game from the monks, with noble families’ courtyards being turned into tennis courts. By the 13th century, there were thought to be around 1,800 indoor courts in France.
They first designed gloves, followed by bats to hit the ball – rather than using their hands. The first rackets were fashioned from cork wrapped in string or cloth, later to be replaced by leather. By 1500, rackets were made from wood, laced with strings made from sheep’s intestines. The cork ball weighed about three ounces.
This early game, referred to as ‘real tennis’ by some historians, was considerably different from the global sport of tennis as we know it today. When playing ‘real tennis’, players hit the ball around walls, winning points by hitting it into netted windows below the galleries’ roof. The court was marked with scoring lines, with a net that was three feet high in the middle but five feet high at each end.
Even King Henry VIII played tennis, building more courts in the 17th century – including one from 1625 that survives today at Hampton Court Palace.
Birth of Modern Tennis
In 1844, a technological development led to the birth of modern tennis. American manufacturing engineer, Charles Goodyear, invented a process called vulcanisation of rubber that made it bouncier. Tennis balls manufactured from rubber could now be used on grass, so new rules were created.
In 1874 Welshman, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, patented a game called ‘sphairistiké’. The Greek for ‘playing at ball’, sphairistiké combined courts and rackets and was said to be the foundation for modern tennis.
After the patent expired, the sport further evolved, with the rules changing in 1875. This lead to the first Wimbledon Tournament in 1877. The All England Club Croquet set up a committee to host the first Wimbledon, changing Wingfield’s hourglass-shaped court for the rectangular one we know today. The first Wimbledon champion was Spencer Gore, who won prize money of about £12.
The organising body became the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club and by 1882 it had made further changes, including permitting overarm serving, lowering the net, introducing the ‘let’ rule and making the service box smaller. The game has remained virtually unchanged since – apart from introducing tiebreaks in 1971.
Although Wimbledon has always been played on grass courts, the introduction of other playing surfaces in the 20th century saw clay and hard courts gain in popularity.
Throughout the 20th century, tennis evolved into the multi-billion pound industry that exists today, with 198 national member associations from every continent in the International Tennis Federation.
There are four major tournaments in the professional tour:
- Australian Open in January
- French Open in May
- Wimbledon in June
- US Open in August
Both men’s and women’s tennis are now really big business!