Tennis has a long and illustrious history. Read all about the origins of this game such as the origins of the sport as it evolved from a pastime to a competitive sport.
“To see Good Tennis! What divine joy
Can fill our leisure, or our minds employ?
Let other people play at other things;
The King of Games is still the Game of Kings”
– from Parker’s Piece by J.K. Stephen
If you turn back the pages of the history of tennis, you will discover that ball games have been played since ancient times and the first depictions can be seen in Egyptian temple carvings that date from 1500 BC. It is said that ball games actually formed a part of the religious ceremonies of the ancient Egyptians. This tradition was taken to Europe by the Moors in the 8th century. In fact, it was this meeting of cultures, between the Moors’ religious rites and Christian monks, which in due course gave birth to tennis.
It was the Christian monks, influenced by the Moors’ religious customs, who would be the very first Europeans to play the crude form of tennis. In the earliest version of this game, which was known as ‘La Soule’, the players hit the ball across to each other, either with their bare hands or by using a stick. The game grew in popularity in monasteries all across Europe, to the extent that the Church even contemplated forbidding the game.
This early form of the game, wherein the ball was usually hit against the walls of a courtyard, soon began to be played outside the monasteries, with it developing further in the 12th and 13th centuries. Players soon discovered that they could control the ball better with just their hands, which soon led to the creation of a leather glove. It wasn’t much longer before the glove began to be affixed with a wooden handle, thus creating the first tennis racket. The balls too underwent several refinements, changing from being of solid wood to bran being stuffed into leather. The game soon grew very popular, especially in France where it was taken up by royalty.
Growth of Tennis
The game, as it is known by us today, actually came into being in France. Named ‘Jeu de paumme’, or ‘the game of the palm’, it became a highly fashionable sport played by the kings and the aristocracy, in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. In those days, the French players would call out ‘Tenez’, or ‘Play’, at the start of a game, and it soon came to be referred to as Royal, i.e. Real Tennis.
Real Tennis was in fact quite different from the game that is played today. It used to be an indoor game, played in large galleries that had jutting roofs. Players won points according to how they played the ball off the walls of the gallery. Another way in which Real Tennis was different from today’s game is a system of chases that were used. In the game that is played today, the ball is considered dead if it bounces twice. However, in Real Tennis, the point where the ball would bounce a second time would be marked by a marker, which was referred to as the chase. Therefore, apart from playing for points, the players would compete by attempting to place their chase as close to their opponent’s back wall as possible. Hence, a player who had scored fewer points could actually win the match by using the chase more skillfully.
After its popularity with the French aristocracy, tennis began spreading all across Europe, getting especially popular in England. Here too, the game was quickly adopted by the royalty, thus becoming known as the sport of kings. Henry VIII, who was a keen enthusiast of the game, had a tennis court built at Hampton Court, his palace, which is still in use today by the aficionados of Real Tennis. But, tennis did not remain confined to England and France, as it soon spread to Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Italy, and Spain. However, with the Napoleonic wars and the French Revolution, the game was almost eliminated across practically all of Europe in the 18th century.
Emergence of Lawn Tennis
By the 19th century, with the advent of Victorian prosperity which came about in England, the game was revived again. Several notable country houses had courts built in their premises along with the first appearance of tennis clubs that provided facilities for their members being made. It was in this period that saw the emergence of Lawn Tennis. The enthusiasts of the game, in fact, had been trying to modify the game into an open-air sport for quite a while, which was finally facilitated with the advent of vulcanized rubber. This made it possible to produce balls which were soft enough not to cause damage to the grass, and yet retain the liveliness and elasticity of rubber.
Another contributing factor for the revival of the game was the simplicity and ease of the outdoor version. A grassy, flat surface was all that was required, and soon it became a commonplace feature to have Lawn Tennis courts in the estates of the rich. While Real Tennis had been a sport of the royalty and the aristocracy, in Victorian England, it was the upper classes that embraced this sport in the form of Lawn Tennis.
It was Arthur Balfour, who was a British statesman, who coined the term ‘Lawn Tennis’, and soon various other turf derivatives began replacing lawn surfaces, eventually leading to concrete and clay surfaces. Soon, Lawn Tennis began replacing croquet as the sport played in summer. However, it was in 1875 that tennis got its biggest boost. This came about because the All England Croquet Club, which had been formed in 1869, had not succeeded in attracting enough visitors, and hence, the club decided to provide Lawn Tennis as an additional attraction. This new game was an immidiate success, to such an extent that the club’s name was changed, becoming the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, in 1877. With the increasing rents at the four-acre site, located in Wimbledon, a suburb of London, however, entailed the club having to raise more funds. Hence, that led to the first Lawn Tennis tournament ever being organized, later that year. A committee was set up to devise a set of rules, and the first tournament was held with 22 players participating, with 200 spectators watching the games. Thus was born the Wimbledon Championship.
The Wimbledon Championships
One of the most important developments in tennis history was the birth of the Wimbledon Championship. The tournament caught the public’s imagination and before long the first champions began emerging, the first of them being William Renshaw. He won the title eight times from 1881 to 1889, being the runner-up in 1887, which is a record that has remained unbeaten to date.
In the following years, the sport became tremendously popular, not only in England bu all across the world. May Sutton of the US became the first international player of the tournament in 1905, which was the year that Wimbledon drew in 71 players.
The tournament continued to grow with the game becoming highly fashionable in the 1930s, led by British players like Don Budge and Fred Perry and international stars like Henri Lacoste. The photographs of the tournaments held in those days reveal tennis fashions that seem quaint to us these days, with men wearing long pants and women playing with long dresses worn over stockings.
The Championship not only became a center of the sport of tennis but also of tennis fashion, with Bunny Austin of the US shocking the spectators in 1933 by stepping out on to center court with shorts on. The 1930s were boom time for Wimbledon, with the championship being broadcast for the first time on radio in 1937. This marked an important event in the history of tennis, with the game being truly introduced to a worldwide audience.
However, there was a sudden end to all this with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, which saw the closing of the championships until 1946. The sport went on to be transformed by the post war generation, with technical improvements added to it, turning it into a sophisticated recreation for the increasingly prosperous middle classes. Australian players like Roy Emerson and Rod Laver dominated the sport in the 1960s. And with the increasing spread of television, the game was introduced to an even wider audience, making tennis a money-spinning international sport. Wimbledon was first televised in color in 1967.
Throughout the 70s and 80s the sport came to be dominated by a new legion of players of international fame, and the crowds were captivated by tennis greats like the graceful Bjorn Borg, the brattish antics of Jimmy Connors, and the tempestuous tantrums of John McEnroe. The women’s tournaments produced stars like Sue Barker, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, and Martina Navratilova. Virginia Wade was Britain’s foremost women’s player, who was the last British who won the championships in 1977. The prize money of the tournament kept going up along with the hemlines of the players’ costumes. In 1986, yellow tennis balls were adopted for the first time, so that the speeding ball could be more easily visible for TV cameras.
The US Open Tennis Championship
The US Open tennis tournament is considered the richest in the world, with the biggest in prize money. The idea about creating the US Open tennis championship came about when the US Lawn Tennis Association, which was established in May 1881, offered to conduct a national championship.
The introductory contest, which took place in Newport Island, Rhode Island, had 26 players, and it was known as the US National Singles Championship. In order to be eligible to play in the competition, the player had to be a member of the US National Lawn Tennis Association. Richard Sears was the first winner of the championship, and he continued be the reigning winner for the following six years.
Since the championship began moving all over the country, with 9 places holding the event, it gave rise to the men’s doubles event, which was split into a West and East competition. W.F. Taylor and Clarence Clark won the first doubles title in 1900.
The establishment of the ‘open era’ in 1968, which meant that the players could participate in all the tournaments, resulted in the creation of the modern championship that we are familiar with at present. Five different tournaments were combined into a single US Open Championship, which was held in New York, at the Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens. The prize money amount was $100,000, which was shared by 63 women and 96 men who took part in the event. The tie-breaker system was first introduced by the US Open, in 1970. The tournament was moved to its present home, the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, in 1978.
The Australian Open
This tournament was first held in the year 1905 and was played at the Warehouseman’s Cricket Ground in Melbourne. It was called the Australasian Championships then. In 1927 the tournament was called the Australian championships and thereafter the Australian Open from the year 1969.
It is presently held in Melbourne where it was shifted from Kooyoong in the year 1988. The tournament has been held at various locations since 1905, namely Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth, Christchurch and Hastings.
Due to its geographical remoteness, few people attended the tournament when it was started. A ship journey from England would take 45 days, making the travel very cumbersome. Hence very few past champions have played the tournament. It was only in 1946 when the first players traveled by air to participate in the Davis Cup.
The tournament presently is held at the Melbourne Park, and has a very good attendance record, second only to the US Open. But being geographically separated, it is the least seen grand slam on television because of the huge time difference present.
There have been proposals to change the venue of the Australian open, but the tournament managers at Melbourne have invested almost $350 million to renovate and expand the Melbourne Park, thus extending their contract of hosting the tournament till 2026.
Australian Open is a hard court tournament. It was played on grass till 1988, after which they switched to a surface called Rebound Ace. In 2008, they switched to a surface called Plexicushion Prestige. The surface is a bit similar to the hard court surface of the US Open.
This tournament was first held in 1891 on a national scale. It was however open to only members of french tennis clubs. The winner of the first tournament was a British player named H. Briggs. The first women’s singles tournament was held in 1897.
The tournament was open to only the French professionals till 1924. In 1925 they started accepting amateurs from all across the world.
The tournament was held in the following locations:
- Stade Francais – 1912-1914,1920,1921,1923,1925,1927.
- Racing Club De France – 1926
- Brussels – 1922
- Roland Garros – 1928 onwards till present.
There was no tournament held in the year 1924. The French Open became the first grand slam to be open, that is it became open for participation by amateurs and professionals alike. This was in the year 1968.
The tournament is famous because it is played on clay, as it has been played for the last 80 years, hence keeping with the traditions like the Wimbledon Championships. The clay provides a platform for healthy competition and a welcome change for players who have primarily defensive games.
The Sport Today
Tennis today has become a highly competitive, world-class sport which captivates thousands of players as well as fans all over the world. There is a continuous program of events and tournaments that takes place all through the year and top tennis stars have become the game’s icons for the new generation. A game that used to be the pastime of royalty, has turned into a sport enjoyed by all today.