From Medieval Monasteries to "Real Tennis" and Stately Home Lawns

As is the case with many sports, the origins of Tennis are somewhat controversial. Archaeologists have discovered a depiction of a game resembling Tennis on Egyptian pyramids thought to have been built before 1500 BC. Similarities have also been noted between modern Tennis and numerous games popular in Europe before and during the Middle Ages.

However, Tennis’ most likely genuine ancestor appears to be a game popularised by Europeans monks in the 12th Century. This initially entailed hitting a ball around the courtyards of the monasteries with the palms of their hands. Once hitting a hard ball with only a bare hand began to take its toll, leather gloves were introduced (which then resembled the modern game of Fives). In subsequent years, someone had the idea of adding lengths of wood to the leather gloves, and the first racket was born.

The monks’ pastime evolved further in France, where the name ‘Tennis’ originated. The word is thought to have been derived from the French word "Tenez," meaning "take this", a common mid-match exclamation. The unusual scoring system used in modern Tennis is also thought to have originated in France. The word ‘love’ which means that a player has no points, is thought to have come from the French word l’oeuf; a reference to an egg-shaped zero. The scores used to describe a score of one, two, or three points, 15, 30 and 40 respectively, are thought to have been derived from the quarters of a clock, with 40 being an abbreviation of 45. The word "deuce," meaning an equal score of three points each (40-40) is thought to have come from the French "a deux le jeu" meaning literally, "to both is the game."

The popularity of the game soon spread to England, where Henry VIII is said to have become an enthusiast of the sport which would soon become known as ‘Real Tennis.’ Henry had a court constructed at Hampton Court in the 15th Century, although it bears little resemblance to a modern court. Instead, Real Tennis courts such as the one constructed at Hampton Court had walls, three of which had sloping roofs. As the vulcanized rubber which later allowed bouncy Tennis balls to be made had not yet been invented, balls of cork were used, which were hit with long, wooden rackets. The rules of Real Tennis were also very different to the rules we are familiar with today. Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly Real Tennis which inspired the sport we are familiar with today.

The game appears to have remained popular throughout Shakespeare’s time, as he made reference to Real Tennis in his play King Henry V. In fact, the sport, which also became known as ‘Royal Tennis’ in Australia and ‘Court Tennis’ in the United States, appears to have remained popular until the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars distracted aristocrats across Europe.

The Tennis renaissance and the rise of the professional game

The sport was revived during the 19th Century, when Major Walter Wingfield introduced Lawn Tennis to the British upper classes. Aided by Charles Goodyear’s invention of vulcanized rubber, Goodyear discovered that a ball able to bounce on grass could be used to play a sport he called Sphairistiké (Greek, meaning "playing ball"). He made a number of adjustments to the rules during the 1870s, but was soon selling kits to wealthy patrons for five guineas each. By 1877, the All England Club in Wimbledon had built a court very similar to that used for the modern game of Tennis.

After Major Wingfield introduced England to Sphairistiké, a number of clubs began to spring up across the country, introducing more people to the game. As the membership of these clubs grew and players began to increase their skills, the demand for a tournament increased. The first major Tennis tournament was held at Wimbledon in 1877. The U.S. Open followed in 1881 and the French Open in 1891. By 1905, when the first Australian Open took place, each of the four Grand Slam tournaments had begun.

Players began to take pride in participating in tournaments, and the desire for some sort of international competition was addressed by Harvard student Dwight D. Davis in the early 20th Century. As a member of the Harvard Lawn Tennis club, Davis was interested in arranging a tournament which pitched American and British players against each other. The subsequent tournament, held in Boston in 1900, was a resounding success and soon led to the introduction of other countries. The International Lawn Tennis Challenge later became known as the Davis Cup in memory of the Harvard man, who passed away in 1945.

Despite these developments though, professional Tennis as we think of it today did not really begin to develop until the 1920s. It was then that certain players began to turn professional and take part in exhibition matches. Public interest was drawn to early Tennis stars such as Fred Perry and Daphne Akhurst in the first half of the 20th Century. Wimbledon and the other major tournaments became popular and began to attract increasingly large audiences. With the rise of television in the post-war years, Tennis completed its transition from a past time of the upper middle classes to the universally popular sport it is today.