The History & Evolution of Tennis

Instructor: Joanne Abramson

Joanne has taught middle school and high school science for more than ten years and has a master's degree in education.

What do French monasteries, British royalty, croquet and the invention of rubber all have in common? Believe it or not, they were all essential to the evolution of modern tennis. Read on to find out how!

A Game 1000 Years in the Making

What we call the game of tennis took about a millennium to evolve into the game we know today. Although there is some evidence that early forms of tennis were played in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, most historians agree that the sport originated in French monasteries around the year 1000. The monks played a game called name je de paume, 'game of the hand,' in which they used their hand to hit a wooden ball over a rope stretched across the courtyard. Historians believe that the name 'tennis' came from the French term tenez, meaning 'take this!' During the game, the monks would shout, 'tenez!' as they served the ball.

Over the next several hundred years, the game spread throughout Europe, becoming extremely popular with the nobility. By the 13th century, there were as many as 1800 courts in France. By this time the sport had moved inside and was played with bouncier, leather balls and a paddle with webbing. The game soon came to England where Henry VII and Henry VIII directed the building of courts throughout the country. The one constructed in Hampton Court Palace in 1625 is still used today.

Court tennis in Paris, France
Drawing of court tennis in France.

The Birth of Lawn Tennis

Court tennis, as the sport is called today, was played in narrow, indoor courts with a drooping net. The ball bounced off the walls and the players scored points by hitting the ball into openings behind their opponent. Despite the game's huge popularity in the preceding centuries, by the 1700s the game had been all but abandoned.

An invention in 1850, however, would breathe new life into the sport. Charles Goodyear, the namesake of Goodyear tires, created a process that made natural rubber much more durable and thus more applicable for everyday use. This breakthrough allowed for the creation of bouncier balls that could be used outside on grass.

In 1874 Walter Clopton Wingfield created the rules, balls and racquets for an outdoor version of tennis that he called sphairistike, Greek for 'playing ball'. Wingfield's court was shaped like an hourglass and his rules were highly criticized, but the framework for modern tennis had been set. In the same year, courts showed up in the United States, and by the following year the game had spread to Russia, India and Canada.

Sphairistike as designed by Walter C. Wingfield
Diagram of a sphairistike court.

Three years after the invention of sphairistike, the All England Croquet Club needed to raise money to fix some broken equipment. Since the croquet field could be easily modified into a tennis court, the club decided to hold the first tennis tournament, in a suburb of London called Wimbledon. The tournament committee rejected Wingfield's hourglass-shaped court and rewrote many of the rules. Their version became lawn tennis and quickly developed into the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club has hosted the Wimbledon Championships every year since.

Modern Tennis

The rules developed by the All England Club remain largely the same to this day. The court is rectangular, divided by a net 3.5 feet high. The game can be played one-on-one (singles) or two-on-two (doubles). Players use racquets, generally made of a light metal strung with synthetic fibers, to hit a hollow, rubber ball covered in felt. The object of the game is to hit the ball in such a way that the opponent cannot play a legal return. If a player is unable to return the ball, the opponent is awarded a point.

One player serves for an entire game. The first player to score four points (with at least a two point lead) wins the game. Tennis has a unique scoring system with the points starting at 'love' (zero) and progressing to 'fifteen', 'thirty' and 'forty'. To win the set, a player must win six games with at least two more games than the opponent. And, finally, the match is determined by the best two of three sets or three of five sets depending on where the game is played. Phew! As you can imagine, this scoring system can lead to some very long matches. At the 2010 Wimbledon Championships, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played for eleven hours and five minutes over the course of three days and 183 games.

Scoreboard showing the fifth set with Isner leading Mahut 51-50. It was 8:03pm and they had been playing for 8 hours and 53 minutes.
Scoreboard of the Isner-Mahut match.

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