The origins of tennis probably go back thousands of years to the Middle East. Most ball games were played as a fertility rite rather than as a pastime. Homer, the ancient Greek poet who lived in about the ninth century BCE, describes how King Alcinous’ daughter, Nausicaa, and her female servants played a game of handball. Tennis can also be traced back to an early type of polo game at the Byzantine court, where players on horseback used rackets.
Tennis was brought to Europe by the Crusaders around the 11th or 12th century. Earliest records of tennis in France date to the 12th century. The game quickly became popular with the French monks, who played against monastery walls or over a piece of rope in a courtyard. Rackets were unknown and the ball was hit with the palm of the hand. The game soon came to be called “jeu de paume,” literally meaning “game of palm,” or in other words, the game played with the palm of the hand. When some of the clerics started to regularly miss prayer sessions, the Archbishop of Rouen forbade all of them from playing tennis.
But the game had already spread to the aristocracy and the royal court. It became a favorite pastime of kings. French king Louis X died in 1316, aged just 27, after he caught a chill playing tennis. The sport came to be known as “royal tennis.” Ordinary folk soon started playing it and people gambled on the outcome. When the gambling became widespread, French king Charles V banned the game for a while in the 14th century.
Around this time, tennis began to be played in Britain, probably being introduced in Scotland before reaching England. The first mention of the sport in England was by 14th century author and poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Just as it did in France, the game became very popular in England. It was banned when archers were found to be missing archery practice and playing tennis instead. The ban didn’t stay for long. Henry VIII liked the game so much he built a court at Hampton Court Palace in 1530.
The name “tennis” may have come from the French word “tenez” meaning “pay heed” or “take this,” which the server called out to his opponent when about to hit the ball into play. It is said that Englishmen watching the game would hear the French players constantly calling out “tenez,” and used that word to describe the game. Another possibility for the origin of the word tennis is that it came from the name of an Egyptian town known as Tinnis to the Arabs and Tanis to the Greeks. The city produced fine linen and the first balls were made from this material. It is also possible that the word tennis is traced to Latin or German words. The Latin word “tenere” means “to catch” and this was a feature of the early game. Or the word may have come from the German word “Tanz” which means “dance” and may have been used to describe how the ball “danced” back and forth over a rope or net.
Until the 1500s the game was always played with bare hands. But players’ hands would get quite sore during a long match and gloves were introduced. These coverings not only protected against injury but allowed the ball to be hit harder. Sometime in the 16th century, players took off their gloves and added a handle to them, making a racket. A Frenchman named Forbet wrote the first rules for the game in 1592. By 1596, Paris had 250 courts. The popularity of tennis grew rapidly in France, Spain and Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries but didn’t do as well in Puritan England.
During Napoleon’s reign in the early 19th century, Europe’s royal families were besieged and court tennis was in decline. It would be replaced by lawn tennis because courts were cheaper to construct and due to the increasing popularity of outdoor games. The sport became known as long tennis, open tennis, or field tennis, in both France and England. In the late 18th century in England, “field tennis” is mentioned in records as a rival to cricket. By this time, the French were playing “la longue paume.” By the 1830s, there are English references to “long tennis” being played. A game of this nature was played between Major T. H. Gem and J. B. Pereira at Edgbaston in 1868.
Around the same time, Major Walter C. Wingfield developed a version he called sphairistike,” Greek for “ball play.” In 1869, he approached the fifth Marquis of Landsdowne to demonstrate the sport to him and two of his friends, Walter Long and Arthur Balfour. The foursome played many times that summer. They all thought the name too hard to remember or even pronounce. Balfour suggested it be called lawn tennis. Wingfield took out a patent on the game in 1874 and is generally credited with inventing lawn tennis. However, the Leamington Club in England claims that several English players made the transition from court tennis to an outdoor game very similar to lawn tennis by around 1860.
Wingfield’s court was hourglass shaped, being 60 feet long by 30 feet wide, tapering to 21 feet at the net. The net was seven feet high at each side and four feet eight inches at the middle. The server stood in a marked area at mid court. The game was more like badminton than modern tennis. But within a year, the court was increased in size to 84 feet by 36 feet, with a slightly lower net and the server played from the baseline.
The game was an immediate success, gaining popularity quickly. By 1877, lawn tennis was introduced at Wimbledon by the All England Croquet Club. Rules were set just prior to this championship, including a change in court size and shape to the present rectangular form and dimensions of 72 feet by 27 feet. The net was still slightly higher than today’s net. Twenty-two players entered the competition and the final, won by A. W. Gore, was watched by 200 people. Such was the success of the tournament that the club added “lawn tennis” to its name in the same year. The game we know as tennis and its most famous tournament were born.