The Complete History of Tennis: Part 1

This is going to be the first article in a series of posts looking at the history of tennis. I will walk you through its evolution as a sport and through the years to the modern day looking at the evolution of everything from equipment and dress, to rules, playing styles and the technology that drives it today. 

Hands Up If You Know The Answer

Did you know that tennis began in France? It did, way back when in the twelfth century. There are some who claim the link to be Ancient Roman or Ancient Egyptian, but this is based around nothing more than a similarity between place names and the name of the sport as it is now known

No, while the game of tennis may be old, it is not quite as old as that.

First played by Monks some one thousand years ago It was played with either a net or funnily enough, against the monastery wall. Now, how many of us started playing tennis in that very same way?

Old tennis equipment

Real Tennis was the Real Beginning

Of course, it took a little while before the game began to bear the resemblance of the sport we know today. The early forms of the game saw people playing tennis using nothing but their bare hands to beat the ball back towards their opponents. Something tells me that there were not too many aces hit back then.

It took close to eight hundred years for the game to finally introduce rackets and start resembling the game we now know.

Many people reading thing will probably guess this next bit, but the game was played predominantly inside, with the ball being beaten against the walls and points scored by hitting the ball into wall mounted nets. Real Tennis, as it is now called was the first game that truly resembles the game we play today. But that, is a post for another time. 

Who Created the Tennis we Play Today

Real tennis continued to grow in popularity for many years, but it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that we finally find the game of tennis beginning to resemble what we know and love today.

It was in 1873 that Major Walter Clopton Wingfield designed an outdoor court and a laid the foundation for a game played with real rackets rather than gloved hands. While the court removed the walls of real tennis and introduced the net, there were still several differences between the tennis we know now, and the game of Sphairistike as it was known back then. The main ones being:

  • The court was shorter than a modern tennis court
  • The early tennis court had an hourglass shape – when played outside.
  • The ball needed to bounce beyond the service line not before it.
Playing Real Tennis

The Other Founders of Tennis

While Major Wingfield had an influence on the game, there were two fellows about twenty years earlier than him who also introduced a racket based sport based around the Spanish game of Pelota.

The duo of Major Harry Gem and the Spanish merchant Augurio Perera certainly have a right to lay claim to being the founders of modern tennis, not only because of their earlier involved in a racket based sport, but because in 1874, the same year that Major Wingfield published his rules and regulations for Sphairistike, Messrs Gem and Perera founded the world’s first tennis club in Leamington Spa.

None Of It Would Have Happened Without Goodyear

While I shall leave it to you to decide whose side you wish to stand on when discussing the founding fathers of tennis, one fact that cannot be overlooked is that there is one man whose contribution to the sport – and who knows how many others – is invaluable.

Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanisation treatment for rubber which meant that the bouncier balls allows for a transition from indoor venues to outdoor tennis courts. This is again a story for another time. 

1874 Was a Very Fine Year

The one thing that can be said for certain was that when it comes to tennis and the art of playing tennis, 1874 was a very fine year indeed. It saw the introduction of the first rule book – even if Major Wingfield did fail in his patent request – as well as the inception of the first tennis club in Leamington Spa, but it also saw the first tennis match playing in the United States. Incidentally, on an hour-glass shaped court. 

Old Tennis Poster

Many Hands Make Light Work.

When it is all said and done, I don’t think the impact of either the Major’s Gem and Wingfield, Perera or the American Mary Ewing Outerbirdge can be placed above or below the other. A game does not stem from one single source, but evolves over time. Much like any living creature a sport is not forged from a single moment it is grown, it evolves. It is the result of many things. From the monks of Ancient France to the courts of Henry VIII and the gardens of upper class England, tennis has a rich history.

This is just the beginning and I hope you enjoyed it and are interested in reading more. 


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