Who Invented Tennis?

How the Sport Evolved From Its Early Origins to the Modern Game

A game of tennis during the time of King Henry VII

Rischgitz / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Games using some form of ball and racquet have been played in numerous civilizations dating back as far as Neolithic times. Ruins in Mesoamerica indicate a particularly important place for ball games in several cultures. There's also evidence that ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians played some version of a game that resembled tennis. However, court tennis—also called "real tennis" and "royal tennis" in Great Britain and Australia—owes its beginnings to a game enjoyed by French monks that can be traced back to the 11th century.

The Beginnings of Modern Tennis

Monks played the French game of paume (meaning "palm") on a court. Rather than a racquet, the ball was struck with the hand. Paume eventually evolved into jeu de paume ("game of the palm") in which racquets were used. By the year 1500, racquets constructed of wood frames and gut strings had been developed, as well as balls made of cork and leather, and by the time the game spread to England—where both Henry VII and Henry VIII were big fans—there were as many as 1,800 indoor courts.

Even with its growing popularity, tennis in the days of Henry VIII was a very different sport from today's version of the game. Played exclusively indoors, the game consisted of hitting a ball into a netted opening in the roof of a long, narrow tennis house. The net was five feet high at each end and three feet high in the center. 

Outdoor Tennis

By the 1700s, the game's popularity had seriously dwindled but that changed dramatically with the invention of vulcanized rubber in 1850. The new hard rubber balls revolutionized the sport, making it possible for tennis to be adapted to an outdoor game played on grass.

In 1873, Londoner Major Walter Wingfield invented a game called he called Sphairistikè (Greek for "playing ball"). Played on an hourglass-shaped court, Wingfield's game created a sensation in Europe, the United States, and even China, and is the source from which tennis as we know it today eventually evolved.

When the game was adopted by croquet clubs that had acres of manicured lawns, the hourglass shape gave way to a longer, rectangular court. In 1877, the former All England Croquet Club held its first tennis tournament at Wimbledon. The rules of this tournament set the standard for tennis as it's played today—with some notable differences: service was exclusively underhand and women were not allowed to play in the tournament until 1884.

Tennis Scoring

No one is sure where tennis scoring—love, 15, 30, 40, deuce—came from, but most sources agree it originated in France. One theory for the origin of the 60-point system is that it's simply based on the number 60, which had positive connotations in medieval numerology. The 60 was then divided into four segments.

The more popular explanation is that the scoring was invented to match the face of a clock with the score given in quarter-hours: 15, 30, 45 (shortened to the French for 40 quarante, rather than the longer quarante cinq for 45). It wasn't necessary to use 60 because reaching the hour meant the game was over anyway—unless it was tied at "deuce." That term may have derived from the French deux, or "two," indicating that from then on, two points were required to win the match. Some say the term "love" comes from the French word l'oeuf, or "egg," a symbol for "nothing," like a goose egg.

The Evolution of Tennis Attire

Perhaps the most conspicuous way tennis has evolved has do do with the game's attire. At the end of the19th century, male players wore hats and ties, while pioneering women wore a version of street clothing that actually included corsets and bustles. A strict dress code was adopted by the 1890s that decreed tennis wear must be exclusively white in color (with the exception of some accent trim, and even that had to conform with stringent guidelines).

The tradition of tennis whites lasted well into the 20th century. Initially, the game of tennis was for the rich. White clothing, although practical because it tends to be cooler, had to be vigorously laundered, and so it wasn't really a viable option for most working-class people. The advent of modern technology, especially the washing machine, made the game more accessible to the middle class. By the swinging ’60s, as societal rules relaxed—nowhere more so than in the realm of fashion—more and more colorful clothing began to make its way onto tennis courts. There remain some places, such as Wimbledon, where tennis whites are still required for play.