There has been much debate over the years about when tennis was invented and who originally came up with the idea. Although there isn’t one individual who can be credited with its invention, there’s no doubt it has become one of the world’s most popular sports today.
Research reveals tennis is the world’s sixth most popular sport, with an estimated 60 million people playing on a regular basis, according to Topend Sports. Men’s and women’s singles are the most popular choices, although doubles attracts its fair share of players too.
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A study by Sport England in 2019 revealed almost 755,000 people in the UK were playing tennis at least twice a month.
Governing body, the Lawn Tennis Association, generates annual revenue of around £60 to £65 million a year, as a result of major events such as Wimbledon. Up to 500,000 spectators attend Wimbledon, where 6,000 employees include catering staff, stewards, ball boys and girls, umpires and various other assistants.
The first evidence of tennis
Some historians believe an early version of tennis was played by the ancient Egyptians, who used the palm of their hand to hit a ball. The Arabic word, “rahat”, meaning palm of the hand, was said to be the origin of the word “racket”.
The most popular belief is that French monks invented tennis in the 12th century, hitting a ball with their hand. They would shout, “Tenez!” as they served (the French word for “take this”), which turned into the word “tennis” over the centuries.
This theory fits in with what is believed to be the first drawing of a tennis match. A historic book dating from around 1300, called the Book of Hours contains two drawings of what looks like people playing tennis.
The handmade book originated from the Roman Catholic diocese of Cambrai, in France, around 700 years ago. The margins are full of humorous drawings of people, animals and hybrids taking part in many activities such as fishing, climbing, dancing, cooking, playing games, making music and playing tennis. The book apparently amused parishioners during prayer.
Clues in the text of the Office of the Dead suggest the book belonged to a female. It contains a number of signatures on the manuscript – perhaps the people who had contributed. Written in Latin and French, it is believed to prove the existence of tennis in France by the year 1300.
The famous book has been passed down through the centuries. In the 17th century, it was owned by the Duke of Savoy, Charles Emmanuel II, who held the title from 1634 to 1675, as his family shield is stamped on the cover.
Has tennis changed much over the years?
The key development in tennis has been the use of increasingly high-tech rackets.
Monks taught aristocrats how to play, with the courtyard of many a noble family being turned into a court. At the time of the Book of Hours, historians estimate there could have been around 1,800 indoor tennis courts across France.
Initially, specially-designed gloves replaced using bare hands. Then, the first rackets (made from cork wrapped in cloth or string) were used at some point prior to 1500. Leather replaced the cloth and the first strings were made from sheep’s intestines! The balls were made of cork, weighing only around three ounces.
The early game is referred to as “real tennis”. Rather than hitting the ball just over the net, players hit it at the walls instead. They won points by striking netted windows, located below the roof of the indoor court.
Like modern tennis courts, the early courts were marked with scoring lines. At this time, the net was 3ft high in the centre, but 5ft high at each end.
King Henry VIII was said to be a tennis fan and played often, building more tennis courts in the 16th century. One of the courts still in existence today at Hampton Court Palace dates from 1625.
When did modern tennis begin?
Technology advances in the 19th century led to a much faster game that finally resembled modern tennis. Charles Goodyear, the US manufacturing magnate, invented vulcanisation in 1844 – the process that made rubber bouncier. Tennis balls were then manufactured from rubber, starting the trend for playing on grass. New rules were created for lawn tennis.
In 1874, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, a British Army officer and inventor from Denbighshire, Wales, patented a game called “sphairistiké” – the Greek term for “playing at ball”. It was said to be the foundation for modern tennis, combining rackets and courts that were the early prototype of the ones we use today. There’s a bust of Wingfield at Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum.
New rules were introduced in 1875 and the first Wimbledon Tournament was held on grass in 1877, after the All England Club Croquet set up a committee to host a tennis championship. The first Wimbledon men’s champion was Spencer Gore. In those days, the prize money for the men’s singles champion was only £12, equating to £1,409 in today’s terms. In 2019, the Wimbledon men’s singles champion received a hefty £2.25 million!
Further rule changes took place in the late 19th century. Overarm serving was permitted in 1882, the net was lowered to 3ft, the “let” service rule was introduced and the service box was made smaller. Apart from the introduction of tie-breaks in 1971, the rules have remained virtually unchanged since.
When did women first play tennis?
Women started playing tennis professionally in 1926, when the women’s number one pro-player was Suzanne Lenglen of France. She became one of the biggest superstars on the circuit in the 1920s.
She commanded huge prize money of $50,000 for playing a series of matches against American player Mary K Browne, the three-time US Champion. Their ability to draw in massive crowds warranted the prize money – the equivalent of £3 million today!
Throughout the 20th century, tennis evolved into a multi-billion pound global industry. The International Tennis Federation has 198 national member associations from every continent.
Wimbledon has always been played on grass courts, but during the 20th century, more playing surfaces, such as clay and hard courts, have gained popularity for other tournaments.
Carrying out the proper tennis court maintenance has become a professional industry to make sure the surfaces are kept in pristine condition for today’s fast-paced game, as both men’s and women’s tennis are big business.