Tennis: Origin and evolution of the sport

Author : Yash Asthana
A game of real tennis, Raquet sport

A game of real tennis, Raquet sport

From the royal courts in medieval France and Britain to Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and from King Henry VIII to Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, the amazing sport of tennis has come a long way while maintaining its tradition and charm.


The earliest origins of the sport are still disputed with a set of historians believing that the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians were the first to play a game that would go on to evolve as tennis. While descriptions to suggest such a sport have been discovered, there have been pictures which depict a game where a ball was stroked above a net.

The theorists believe that “tennis” derives its name from Tinnis, the Egyptian town on the banks of the Nile, and “racquet” is derived from “rahat”, Arabic word which means palm of the hand.

Records show that in fifth century, villagers in Tuscany, Italy would play a sport on the streets which involved striking the ball up and down with their hands.

However, most historians believe that the earliest origin of the sport was played by French monks in the 11th and 12th century, who would play with a crude handball against the walls of their monasteries, or over a rope which was strung across their courtyards. This sport was referred to as “jeu de paume”, which translates as “game of the hand”. The word “tennis” is believed to have originated from the French word “tenez” which loosely meant “take this”, which would be told by the player to the other while serving.

Growth in popularity

The game grew in popularity, and soon courtyard playing areas began to be converted into indoor courts, where ball was played off the walls. Playing with bare hands was found to be uncomfortable, which led to the use of gloves, which further evolved into a webbing with a handle attached (similar to a racquet). The ball used was either wool or cork wrapped in cloth or leather with string.

The monks passed on the game to the nobility in the 13th century, and its increasing popularity initially saw opposition when the Pope and Louis IV attempted (unsuccessfully) to ban it. It later spread to Britain, and Henry VII & Henry VIII actively played the game, built many courts. The game, now enjoying the patronage of the royals, was referred to as royal tennis or real tennis.

Henry VIII famously built the court at Royal Palace of Hampton Court in 1625, which is still used for modern competition. It is a narrow, indoor court where ball is played off the walls. The walls include many openings and oddly angled surfaces which could be used for game strategy. The net is 3 feet high in the middle, and 5 feet high at the ends.

Advent of rubber balls and outdoor game

The game saw its popularity dwindle to almost zero in the 18th century after the French Revolution. But in the 1850s, after Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization process for rubber, players started experimenting with bouncier rubber balls on grass, which was played outdoors. Since the outdoor game was different to the indoor game which was played off the wall, a new set of rules was formulated for it.

circa 1890: The first National Lawn Tennis tournament at Staten Island, USA.

circa 1890: The first National Lawn Tennis tournament at Staten Island, USA.

Birth of Modern Tennis

Major Walter C Wingfield patented equipment and rules for a game that was quite to similar modern tennis in London in 1874. Croquet, which was very popular at that time, provided easily adaptable courts for tennis. Wingfield’s court was in the shape of an hourglass, which was narrowest at the net. He revised some of the rules in 1875, but later left the further development of tennis to others.

The first tennis courts were set up in the United States in 1875, and soon equipment sets were available for sale in India, China, Russia and Canada.

The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, refined Wingfield’s effort and held their tournament in 1877 on the lawns on Wimbledon. Spencer Gore won the men’s singles event and received a grand sun of 12 guineas (approx. $18).

Wingfield’s original court was modified into a rectangular court and set of rules were framed, most of which are still prevalent in modern tennis. The net used, however was still similar to Wingfield’s version and depth of service boxes was 26 feet. By 1882, these specifications had also evolved into the current form.

Scoring system

It is believed that the origins of the scores of 15, 30 and 40 are from medieval France. A clock face was used to keep track of the score, and a quarter would move at each point to indicate 15, 30 or 45. The game would get over when the clock hand moved to 60.

To ensure that a game had to be won by a point difference which was more than one point, deuce was introduced. The score of 45 was changed to 40 to make the score within 60 before the game got over. In case both players reached 40, the player winning the next point had his clock moving to 50. In case he won the following point, the clock moved to 60 to signify him winning the game, and in case the opponent won the following point, the player’s clocked moved back to 40 and another deuce would be established.

One of the most celebrated puzzles in tennis is the usage of “love” for zero. It is believed that it is derived from French word “L’oeuf” which means “egg”, as an egg resembles the number zero. Another theory states that the usage of “love” is because at the beginning of a game, the players’ scores are zero and there is “still love for each other” between them.

A “let” was introduced to give the serving player a second chance in case his service hit the net and fell into the correct service box.

The rules of tennis have hardly changed since the 1890s, and the only exception has been the adoption of the tie-break rule in the 1970s. The tie-break was introduced to come into play when both players have six games each, to shorten the potential of having a marathon match.

Tennis as we know it today

In August 1881, the US National Singles Championship for men was organized. It was the first open lawn tennis tournament and was held at Newport Casino at Rhode Island. The US National Men’s Doubles Championship was first played in 1900, while the US Women’s National Singles Championship began in 1887 at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, and the US Women’s National Doubles Championship was first organized in 1889.

The first Davis Cup was played in 1900, between teams comprising of Americans and British tennis players. Tennis was played in the first Olympics in 1896 (it was withdrawn in 1924 due to charges of lack of professionalism, and made a re-entry in 1988). In 1968, the “open era” was announced, which allowed players to play in all tournaments.

The International Lawn Tennis Federation (ITF) was established in 1912, and had 13 member nations. The Association of Tennis Players (ATP) was formed in 1973 by professional players, and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) was set up in the following year and they introduced the concept of computerized players’ rankings. The ITF controls the Grand Slams, and the other tournaments are handled by the ATP and WTA.

The professional era has caused an explosion in prize money, television revenues and sponsorship and players like Roger Federer are ranked among the richest sportsmen in the world. However, for all the money that is on offer, it is still the thrill of competition and quest for success which motivates the players, and in this aspect, probably little has changed from the medieval era, where the kings’ egos were at stake.