Who Invented Tennis?

A game of tennis during the time of King Henry VII. Rischgitz/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The sport of tennis has a history spanning many cultures over thousands of years, with games of balls and rackets being played in various cultures from Neolithic times. There is evidence that ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians played some version of tennis, and ruins from Mesoamerica indicate a particularly important place of ball games in their cultures. But court tennis  — called, alternately, real tennis and royal tennis in Great Britain and Australia — owes its start to a game played by French monks as early as the 11th century. 

The Beginnings of Modern Tennis

The French game was called paume (meaning palm); it was a court game where the ball was struck with the hand. Paume evolved into jeu de paume and rackets were used. By the time the game spread to England — Henry VII and Henry VIII were big fans — there were as many as 1,800 indoor courts. The Pope tried to ban it, to no end. Wood and gut rackets were developed by 1500, along with balls of cork and leather. 

But tennis in the days of Henry VIII was still a very different sport. Played exclusively indoors, tennis was a game of hitting a ball into a netted opening in the roof of the long and narrow tennis house. The net was five feet high on the ends, and three feet high in the center. 

Outdoor Tennis

While the popularity of the game had dipped by the 1700s, it was due for a major step forward in 1850 with the invention of vulcanized rubber. The hard rubber ball, applied to tennis, allowed for an outdoor game played on grass. The Londoner Major Walter Wingfield invented a game called Sphairistikè (Greek for "playing ball) in 1873, from which modern outdoor tennis evolved. Wingfield’s game was played on an hourglass-shaped court and created a sensation in Europe, the United States, and even China.

When adopted by croquet clubs, who, after all, played on acres of manicured lawns, the hourglass-shaped court gave way to a longer, rectangular one. So it was that, in 1877, the All England Club Croquet held its first tennis tournament at Wimbledon. The rules of this tournament set the template for tennis as it is played today. 

Or, almost: Women were unable to play at the tournament until 1884. Players also were expected to wear hats and ties, and service was exclusively underhand.