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The Origin and Evolution of the Game of Tennis

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By Edited Sep 5, 2016 4 4

Origins of the Game of Tennis

The game of tennis has been in existence since the 12th century, at least in a primitive form, when French monks played a crude game of handball against the walls of the monastery or over a rope strung across the courtyard. The ball was made of a wad of hair, wool, or cork wrapped in cloth or leather. Members of the nobility learned the game from the monks, and it became a popular diversion, even though the Pope at that time and King Louis IV tried to ban it. It soon became popular in England where Henry VII and Henry VIII loved the game and encouraged the building of tennis courts. One of these courts, built by Henry VIII at the Royal Palace of Hampton Court, is still in existence today and is used for modern competition. A legend is told that Henry VIII’s second wife Ann Boleyn was watching a game of tennis when she was arrested, and according to the official website of Hampton Court, Henry was playing a game of tennis when he was told that Ann had been executed.


Early Games

                                                                     Early Games of Tennis

 Lawn tennis was introduced in 1873 when an Englishman, Major Walter C. Wingfield played the game at a garden party in Wales. It is believed that the name of the game is derived from the French word “tenez” which means “take this,” which was said when one player would serve to another. The word “love” meaning zero has its origins from the French word for egg, which is “l’oeuf,” symbolizing “nothing.” An Americanism has arisen in more recent years when the term “bagel,” also resembling a zero, means that a player received no points in a game.

In England, tennis today is referred to as lawn tennis, whereas in the United States, it is called court tennis. Australians often use the term royal tennis to refer to the game.

Rules and Scoring

Tournament play consists of Game, Set, and Match. To win a game, a player must win four points, designated as 15, 30, 40, and game. The player also has to win by two points, called “deuce,” taken from the French word “deux” meaning two. A set is comprised of six games; whoever wins six games has won the set. Men’s tennis requires a player to win the best of five sets; women’s tennis requires the best of three sets. A commentator calls the server’s score first and his opponent’s score second.

The calling of a “let” was instituted, giving the server a second chance when his served ball hits the net cord if it falls into the correct service box. If it flies off to another space, he gives up the point.

The rules and scoring system for tennis have not changed since the 1890’s with the exception of the introduction of the tie-break in the 1970’s. Now, when two players are tied at six games apiece, they continue on until one player wins 7 points by a margin of 2 points, alternating play by a pre-set rule. This eliminates the problem of marathon matches which can last for hours. In spite of this, a Wimbledon match in 2010 lasted for 11 hours and 5 minutes over three days of play. The match was won by American John Isner who defeated Frenchman Nicolas Mahut in the longest match in tennis history.

Tennis Racket and Balls

                                                                    Tennis Racket and Balls

The dimensions of the tennis court are 78 by 27 feet for singes and 78 by 36 feet for doubles. The height of the net at the center is 3 feet, and it is supported on either side by posts that are 3.5 feet in height and placed 3 feet outside the court.

Tennis balls were originally white, but now come in several colors, with yellow being the most frequent choice. Racket frames come in a wide choice of sizes, shapes and materials which were limited mostly to wood until the introduction of metal frames in 1967. Originally, tournament players were restricted to white clothing until the 1970’s when other colors were allowed. Only Wimbledon tournaments today insist that players wear only white.

Tennis is played on grass (mostly in England), on clay (mostly in France), and on hard courts (in the U.S. and Australia). Hard courts can consist of wood, cement or other artificial hard surfaces.


Wimbledon Centre Court

                                                                  Wimbledon Centre Court

Grand Slam Tournaments

The four Majors or Grand Slam Tournaments are the four biggest competitions on the tennis court. They are Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French Open (known as Roland Garros), and the Australian Open.

Wimbledon - The championships at Wimbledon, England were founded by the All England Club in 1877 to raise money for the club. It is still the most prestigious event in tennis. A player named Spencer Gore won the first men’s singles championship there and was awarded 12 guineas ($18). Wimbledon inaugurated a Women’s Championship in 1884.

The U.S. Open - The U.S. Open, originally known as The U.S. National Men's Singles Championship, was first held in 1881 at Newport, Rhode Island. The first U.S. National Women's Singles Championships were held in 1887 in Philadelphia. In 1978, the tournament moved to the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens, where the surface was switched from clay to hard courts. In 2006, the USTA National Tennis Center was rededicated as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

The French Open (Roland Garros) - The French Open dates from 1891. It was named Roland Garros after a French aviator who fought in World War I. The tournament was not recognized as a Grand Slam tournament until it opened its doors to all nationalities in 1925.

The Australian Open -  Because of its remote distance from other tennis venues, the Australian Open did not immediately attract attendance from the top tennis players. Andre Agassi, for one, did not initially choose to travel to Australia. He eventually succeeded in winning four Grand Slam titles there. Since 1988, the Australian Open is just as popular for participants and spectators as the other three Grand Slams.


Venus and Serena Williams

                                                  Champions Venus and Serena Williams

In 1938, Don Budge became the first man to win all four major titles - the Australian, French, Wimbledon, and U.S. - in one season, a feat that came to be known as the Grand Slam.

Maureen Connelly in 1953 became the first woman to achieve the Grand Slam. Billie Jean King set a record for career Wimbledon titles, winning 6 singles, 10 doubles, and 4 mixed between 1961 and 1979.

Steffi Graf, in 1987, ended Navratilova’s five-year reign as the top-ranked woman in tennis and in 1988 won the Grand Slam, becoming the first woman to do so since Margaret Court in 1970. During the 1990s Steffi Graf collected 14 of her 21 career Grand Slam singles titles.

Bill Tilden is often referred to as the greatest player in the history of tennis. Before Tilden turned professional in 1931, he won a total of seven United States singles championships and three Wimbledon championships.

The Open Era

It was not until 1968 that the four Grand Slams allowed professionals to play, beginning the modern "Open Era.” Before that, top players established their reputations with a string of wins before turning professional and touring the world to play in a limited range of tournaments and lucrative exhibition matches. With the Open era, professional players formed the men's ATP (Association of Tennis Players) in 1973 and the women’s WTA (Women's Tennis Association) a year later. There ensued a huge increase in prize money, endorsements, and television revenues, placing tennis players among the richest sportsmen and women in the world.

The Davis Cup

The Davis Cup, an international competition, was established in 1900 with the women's equivalent, the Federation Cup, now called the Fed Cup, launched in 1963. The tournament was initially known as the International Lawn Tennis Challenge, but was renamed the Davis Cup after the death of doubles champion Dwight Davis who donated the Trophy in 1900. Today, over 130 nations have competed in the tournament. Players compete voluntarily for the honor of their country, and since 2009, they have been able to earn extra ATP and WTA ranking points by playing in the Davis Cup matches, allowing them to improve their individual ranking.


Andre Agassi

                                                             Andre Agassi - Hall of Famer

International Tennis Hall of Fame

Located in Newport, Rhode Island, the Hall of Fame honors players and contributors to the sport of tennis and includes a museum, grass tennis courts, an indoor tennis facility, and a court tennis facility. Inductees include:

Andre Agassi, Arthur Ashe, Tracy Austin, Boris Becker, Bjorn Borg, Don Budge, Jennifer Capriati, Michael Chang, Jimmy Connors, Jim Courier, Lindsay Davenport, Stefan Edberg, Roy Emerson, Chris Evert, Althea Gibson, Pancho Gonzalez, Evonne Goolagong, Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, Billie Jean King, Jack Kramer, Rene Lacoste, Rod Laver, Ivan Lendl, Suzanne Lenglen, John McEnroe, and Pete Sampras, among several others back to the year 1955.

A player must be retired for five years before he/she can be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame.

My personal favorites who play the game of tennis, a sport I love, are Andre Agassi, his wife Steffi Graf, Venus and Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, and Monica Seles, who have all conducted themselves professionally on and off the tennis courts.







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Dec 12, 2014 1:52pm
I am not a fan of tennis, but I love origin stories of popular games and this was a very good one (and now I know where the term "love" came from). Big thumb's up!
Dec 13, 2014 3:09am
Wow, I had no idea the game dated back to 1873. Fascinating.
Dec 14, 2014 11:43am
Hi: I enjoyed your article. And while I am not a tennis player, I am a devoted history buff and
love it when I learn something new. I will share this with my wife who is an avid player. Two big thumbs, a rating and a brand new follower for U.
Jan 21, 2015 11:18pm
I do watch tennis often too often and that's the reason why I read this article. The first part of your article about origins of tennis is just too good. I mean I didn't know that the word tennis derived from French word 'tenez' and what tennis referred to in Eng, Aus, and US.

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  1. "The Origins and Early History of Tennis." About.com. 14/11/2014. 14/11/2014 <Web >
  2. "A short history of tennis: Henry VIII to Federer the great." CNN Sports. 14/11/2014. 14/11/2014 <Web >
  3. "History of Tennis." icnsportsweb.com. 14/11/2014. 14/11/2014 <Web >

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