Brief History of Tennis

January 2017
A Brief Guide To The History of tennis

While many of us play tennis week in week out, few of us really know the history of the sport. The game is believed to date back to the 12th Century.


Since this time, many royals have enjoyed a game of Real tennis. And many more have enjoyed the game we now call lawn tennis. Although, today most of us rarely play on real grass!


Over time as the game has evolved, much has stayed the same. From Wimbledon, the world’s oldest tournament, to the Real tennis court at Hampton Court Palace, which is still in use today.



12th Century Hand Ball

Many historians believe that tennis origin lay in 12th century northern France. Louis X of France was a keen player of jeu de paume (“game of the palm”). Over time, small racquets replaced hands and the game was known as real tennis.


Louis became notable as the first person to construct indoor tennis courts in the modern style. Louis was unhappy with playing tennis outdoors and accordingly had indoor, enclosed courts made in Paris. It is believe these were built around the end of the 13th century.


Owning your own Real tennis court soon became popular, especially in the case of royalty. And, so most European palaces built real tennis courts, with most royalty being fine players of the sports.


It is said that in June 1316 at Vincennes, Val-de-Marne, following a particularly exhausting game, Louis drank a large quantity of cooled wine and subsequently died of either pneumonia or pleurisy, although there was also suspicion of poisoning.


Another of the early enthusiasts of the game was King Charles V of France, who had a court set up at the Louvre Palace.



The Humble Lawn Mower

During the 18th century and early 19th century, as real tennis declined, new racket sports emerged in England. It is believed that the patenting of the first lawn mower in 1830, in Britain, was the catalyst, for the modern-style grass courts, sporting ovals, playing fields, pitches and more.


This in turn led to the codification of modern rules for many sports, including lawn tennis, most football codes, lawn bowls and others.



Origins of the Modern Game

Between 1859 and 1865 Harry Gem and Augurio Perera developed a game that combined elements of racquets and the Basque ball game pelota.


They played this new game on Perera’s croquet lawn in Birmingham, England. And in 1872, along with two local doctors, they founded the world’s first tennis club in Leamington Spa, which is still active today.


A year later, in 1873, British army officer Major Walter Clopton Wingfield designed and patented a similar game. He called his game “sphairistikè” (Greek: σφαιριστική, meaning “ball-playing”).


The game was soon known simply as “sticky” for the amusement of guests at a garden party on his friend’s estate of Nantclwyd Hall, in Llanelidan, Wales. Wingfield deserves much of the credit for the development and popularization of modern tennis.


He produced a boxed set which included a net, poles, rackets, as well as balls for playing the game. Most importantly, he wrote the first rule book.  As a clever marketer, Wingfield soon had sent sets to all four corners of the globe and to many different types of people.



Tennis Tournaments

Within a few years, people desired to make the sport competitive.  The Wimbledon Championships were first played in London in 1877 and are the world’s oldest tennis tournament. This first Championships started a debate on how to standardize the rules and the game.


Wimbledon has continue to play an important part in the history of tennis and is still one of the most important tennis tournaments today.


Lawn tennis also grew in popularity in France. The first French Championships were held in 1891. Although until 1925 it was open only to tennis players who were members of French clubs.


Today, Wimbledon, the US Open, the French Open, and the Australian Open (dating to 1905)  have remained the most prestigious events in tennis. Together these four events are called the Majors or Slams (a term borrowed from bridge).



Tennis Across the Pond

Across the pond in the U.S. Mary Ewing Outerbridge, a young socialite, returned from Bermuda in 1874 with a sphairistikè set.


Fascinated by the game, she laid out a tennis court at the Staten Island Cricket Club at Camp Washington, Staten Island. 6 years later, the first American National championship was played there.


An Englishman named O.E. Woodhouse won the singles title, and a silver cup worth $100, by defeating Canadian I. F. Hellmuth. While a local pair, won the doubles title.


As the popularity grew, each club seemly invented it’s own rules. This led to the formation in 21 May 1881, of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association, now the United States Tennis Association.


This new body standardize the rules and started to organize competitions. The U.S. National Men’s Singles Championship, now the US Open, was first held in 1881 at the Newport Casino, Newport, Rhode Island.


The U.S. National Women’s Singles Championships were first held in 1887 in Philadelphia.


The Davis Cup, an annual competition between men’s national teams, dates to 1900. The analogous competition for women’s national teams, the Fed Cup, was founded as the Federation Cup in 1963 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the International Tennis Federation (ITF).


The comprehensive rules set out in 1924 have remained largely stable in the ensuing eighty years, the one major change being the addition of the tiebreak system designed by Jimmy Van Alen.



Tennis at Olympics

Tennis was part of the Summer Olympic Games program from the inaugural 1896 Summer Olympics. However, the sport was dropped after the 1924 Summer Olympics due to disputes between the International Lawn Tennis Federation and the International Olympic Committee over allowing amateur players to compete.


Tennis later appeared as a demonstration sport in the Olympics Games of 1968 and 1984. The sport was the reinstated as a full medal sport at the 1988 Summer Olympics and has been part of the competition even since.