Ancient Beginnings

Ball games can be traced back to ancient times and the earliest representations can be found in carvings in Egyptian temples dating from 1500BC. The Ancient Egyptians and the people that followed actually played ball games as part of their religious ceremonies. These traditions and the whole concept of the ball game spread into Europe in the 8th century, the influence spread by the Moors whose Empire reached into Southern France. As strange as it may seem, it was the meeting of this eastern culture with Christianity which eventually gave rise to tennis!

Christian Monks became interested in the religious rites of the Moors and were the first Europeans to play the ball game that was to become tennis. The earliest version of the game was called 'La Soule' where players would hit a ball to each other using either their hands or a stick. The game became very popular in Monasteries all over Europe, so much so that the Church of the day even considered prohibiting the game!

This very early version of tennis, where the ball was often hit against courtyard walls, soon made it out of the monasteries and during the 12th and 13th centuries it was to develop further. Players found that they had more control over the ball using just their hands, so the natural development was to create a leather glove. It was only a matter of time before the glove was supplemented with a wooden handle - creating the very first tennis racket! The balls were refined too, moving from solid wood to much softer designs made of leather stuffed with bran. The game soon became very popular, particularly in France where it was adopted by Royalty.

Wimbledon Championship 1877

Real Tennis

It was in France that the game as we know it today really came into being. During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries it became the highly fashionable sport of kings and noblemen and was called ' Jeu de paumme' - the game of the palm. Early French players would begin a game by shouting 'tenez' i.e. 'Play!' and the game soon became known as Royal, or Real Tennis.

Real tennis was actually very different to the game that we know today. It was played indoors, in large galleries with jutting roofs and points were won according to how the ball was played off of the gallery walls. This is very different to today's Lawn Tennis, where the rectangular court is laid out on a grass surface and the play is within marked boundaries, not off of the walls. Another key difference is that Real tennis used a system of chases. In today's game if a ball bounces twice it is dead. In Real Tennis however, a marker would mark the point of the second bounce. This was known as the chase. In addition to playing for points, opponents would compete by trying to put their chase as close as possible to their opponents back wall. A player who had lagged behind in the points could come from behind to win the match by being more skilful at the chase.

After its initial rise in popularity with the French nobility, tennis spread throughout Europe, becoming particularly popular in England. As in France the game became recognised as the sport of kings. Henry VIII was a very keen player and built a court at his palace in Hampton Court, still used today by Real Tennis enthusiasts. Tennis wasn't just confined to France and England though, and the game also spread to Spain, Italy, Holland, Switzerland and Germany. In the 18th century however, the game went into decline, the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars virtually eliminating it across most of Europe.

First US Tennis Championships, Newport, Rhode Island, in 1881

Lawn Tennis

This was to change in the 19th century when Victorian prosperity in England prompted a significant revival. Courts were built in many famous country houses and the first tennis clubs providing facilities for members began to appear. In was during this period that the game of Lawn Tennis began to emerge. Enthusiasts had been trying for some time to adapt the game into an open-air sport and as strange as it may seem this was largely brought about by the development of vulcanized rubber. This enabled the production of balls that were soft enough so as not to damage the grass, but which still retained the elasticity and liveliness of rubber.

Another important factor was the ease and simplicity of Lawn Tennis. All that was needed was a flat grass surface and Lawn Tennis courts became commonplace in the rolling estates of the wealthy. Real Tennis had always been the domain of royalty and nobility but in Victorian England the sport was soon embraced by the upper classes.

The term Lawn Tennis was coined by Arthur Balfour, a British Statesman and it didn't take long before lawn surfaces were replaced with various turf derivatives and eventually clay and concrete. Within a very short time Lawn Tennis began to replace croquet as the summer sport. The biggest boost for tennis however came in 1875. The All England Croquet Club, formed in 1869 had failed to attract enough visitors and in 1875 they decided to offer Lawn Tennis as an added attraction. The new game was an instant success, so much so that in 1877 the name of the club was changed to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club. Rising rents at their four-acre site in the London suburb of Wimbledon however, meant that the club had to raise additional funds. Later that year the first ever Lawn Tennis tournament was organised. A committee was established to draw up a set of rules the first tournament went ahead with 22 players, watched by some 200 spectators. The Wimbledon Championship was born

1897 Wimbledon Championships
Wimbledon Championships in 1897


Historians believe that the game's ancient origin lay in 12th century northern France, where a ball was struck with the palm of the hand. Louis X of France was a keen player of jeu de paume ("game of the palm"), which evolved into real tennis, and became notable as the first person to construct indoor tennis courts in the modern style. Louis was unhappy with playing tennis outdoors and accordingly had indoor, enclosed courts made in Paris "around the end of the 13th century". In due course this design spread across royal palaces all over Europe. In June 1316 at Vincennes, Val-de-Marne and following a particularly exhausting game, Louis drank a large quantity of cooled wine and subsequently died of either pneumonia or pleurisy, although there was also suspicion of poisoning. Because of the contemporary accounts of his death, Louis X is history's first tennis player known by name. Another of the early enthusiasts of the game was King Charles V of France, who had a court set up at the Louvre Palace.

It was not until the 16th century that rackets came into use and the game began to be called "tennis", from the French term tenez, which can be translated as "hold!", "receive!" or "take!", an interjection used as a call from the server to his opponent. It was popular in England and France, although the game was only played indoors where the ball could be hit off the wall. Henry VIII of England was a big fan of this game, which is now known as real tennis. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, as real tennis declined, new racket sports emerged in England.

The invention of the first lawn mower in 1830, in Britain, is believed to have been a catalyst, for the preparation of modern-style grass courts, sporting ovals, playing fields, pitches, greens, etc. This in turn led to the codification of modern rules for many sports, including lawn tennis, most football codes, lawn bowls and others.

Margaret Court Wimbledon 1971
Margaret Court, Wimbledon in 1971

Origins of the modern game

In the U.S. in 1874 Mary Ewing Outerbridge, a young socialite, returned from Bermuda with a sphairistikè set. She became fascinated by the game of tennis after watching British army officers play. She laid out a tennis court at the Staten Island Cricket Club at Camp Washington, Tompkinsville, Staten Island, New York. The first American National championship was played there in September 1880. An Englishman named O.E. Woodhouse won the singles title, and a silver cup worth $100, by defeating Canadian I. F. Hellmuth. There was also a doubles match which was won by a local pair. There were different rules at each club. The ball in Boston was larger than the one normally used in New York.

On 21 May 1881, the oldest nationwide tennis organization in the world was formed, the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (now the United States Tennis Association) in order to standardize the rules and organize competitions. The U.S. National Men's Singles Championship, now the US Open, was first held in 1881 at the Newport Casino, Newport, Rhode Island. The U.S. National Women's Singles Championships were first held in 1887 in Philadelphia.
Tennis doubles final at 1896 Olympic Games

Tennis also became popular in France, where the French Championships dates to 1891 although until 1925 it was open only to tennis players who were members of French clubs. Thus, Wimbledon, the US Open, the French Open, and the Australian Open (dating to 1905) became and have remained the most prestigious events in tennis. Together these four events are called the Majors or Slams (a term borrowed from bridge rather than baseball).
Lawn tennis in Canada, ca. 1900

In 1913, the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF), now the International Tennis Federation (ITF), was founded and established three official tournaments as the major championships of the day. The World Grass Court Championships were awarded to Great Britain. The World Hard Court Championships were awarded to France; the term "hard court" was used for clay courts at the time. Some tournaments were held in Belgium instead. And the World Covered Court Championships for indoor courts was awarded annually; Sweden, France, Great Britain, Denmark, Switzerland and Spain each hosted the tournament. At a meeting held on 16 March 1923 in Paris, the title 'World Championship' was dropped and a new category of Official Championship was created for events in Great Britain, France, the United States, and Australia – today's Grand Slam events. The impact on the four recipient nations to replace the ‘world championships’ with ‘official championships’ was simple in a general sense: each became a major nation of the federation with enhanced voting power and each now operated a major event.

Mens Tennis