The Origins and Early History of Tennis

Ancient Egypt or Medieval France?

Tennis ball on tennis court
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The earliest origins of tennis are a matter of some dispute.

One side believes that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans played a precursor to tennis. Drawings or descriptions of any tennis-like games have not been discovered, but a few Arabic words dating from ancient Egyptian times are cited as evidence. The theory says that the name tennis derives from the Egyptian town of Tinnis alongside the Nile and the word racquet evolved from the Arabic word for palm of the hand, rahat.

Aside from these two words, evidence for any form of tennis preceding the year 1000 is lacking, and most historians credit the first origins of the game to 11th or 12th-century French monks, who began playing a crude handball against their monastery walls or over a rope strung across a courtyard. The game took on the name jeu de paume, which means "game of the hand." Many who dispute more ancient origins argue that tennis derived from the French tenez, which meant something to the effect of "take this," said as one player would serve to the other.

Popularity Brings Innovation

As the game became more popular, courtyard playing areas began to be modified into indoor courts, where the ball was still played off the walls. After bare hands were found too uncomfortable, players began using a glove, then either a glove with webbing between the fingers or a solid paddle, followed by webbing attached to a handle -- essentially a racquet.

Rubber balls were still centuries away, so the ball was a wad of hair, wool, or cork wrapped in string and cloth or leather, then in later years, hand-stitched in felt to look something like a modern baseball.

The nobility learned the game from the monks, and some accounts report as many as 1800 courts in France by the 13th century.

The game became such a popular diversion, both the Pope and Louis IV tried unsuccessfully to ban it. It soon spread to England, where both Henry VII and Henry VIII were avid players who promoted the building of more courts.

By the year 1500, a wooden frame racquet strung with sheep gut was in common use, as was a cork-cored ball weighing around three ounces. The early tennis courts were quite different from the modern "lawn tennis" court most of us are used to. The early game matured into what is now called "real tennis," and England's Hampton Court, built in 1625, is still used today. Only a handful of such courts remain. It's a narrow, indoor court where the ball is played off walls that include a number of openings and oddly angled surfaces toward which the players aim for various strategic purposes. The net is five feet high on the ends, but three feet in the middle, creating a pronounced droop.

1850 - A Good Year

The game's popularity dwindled almost to zero during the 1700s, but in 1850, Charles Goodyear invented a vulcanization process for rubber, and during the 1850s, players began to experiment with using the bouncier rubber balls outdoors on grass. An outdoor game was, of course, completely different from an indoor game played off walls, so several new sets of rules were formulated.

1874 - The Birth of Modern Tennis

In 1874, Major Walter C. Wingfield patented in London the equipment and rules for a game fairly similar to modern tennis. In the same year, the first courts appeared in the United States. By the following year, equipment sets had been sold for use in Russia, India, Canada, and China.

Croquet was highly popular at this time, and the smooth croquet courts proved readily adaptable for tennis. Wingfield's original court had the shape of an hourglass, narrowest at the net, and it was shorter than the modern court. His rules were subjected to considerable criticism, and he revised them in 1875, but he soon left the further development of the game to others.

In 1877, the All England Club held the first Wimbledon tournament, and its tournament committee came up with a rectangular court and a set of rules that are essentially the game we know today.

The net was still five feet high at the sides, a carryover from the game's indoor ancestor, and the service boxes were 26 feet deep, but by 1882, the specifications had evolved to their current form.