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History of Tennis: From Origin to Modern Tennis

From the hand version of tennis to today’s modern tennis, it’s a long history. The game which was initially confined to the upper class of Europe, mainly in Victorian England and France, now is one of the most popular sports in the world.

Its popularity is growing year by year and is currently ranked 4th position behind Soccer, Cricket, and Hockey. Before going into the history of tennis, let’s remind what tennis is.

What is Tennis?

Tennis is a racket sport that is played following certain rules between 2 players or 4 players to hit a ball to cross over a net and land on a court with specified dimensions.

Tennis History Timeline

Tennis history timeline

What is the Origin of Tennis?

The origin of tennis is “jeu de paume” (game of the palm). It was a popular sport in France in the 12th century where the hand was used to hit the ball instead of a racket. Later gloves took the position of hands and in the 16th century, gloves were replaced by rackets. This game was played with distinct rules where the players had to say “Tenez!” at the time they wanted to serve their opponent.

This game was still enjoyed with the name “real tennis” in England, “royal tennis” in Australia, and “Court Tennis” in the United States. Later in the 18th century, “real tennis” turned into lawn tennis where the game was played on the grass court by the gentlemen and ladies of Victorian England.

Birth of Wimbledon

In the year 1868, the All England Club was established outside London, to promote “Croquet”, a game played on a lawn. But the growing popularity of tennis forced them to incorporate it into the facilities. 

Wimbledon in the year 1883
Wimbledon in 1883

In 1877, the All England Club organized a lawn tennis tournament for the amateurs on a court of 78 feet long by 27 feet wide. The organizers followed the scoring rules of real tennis i.e. first to win 6 games wins a set and point system in a game in the order of 15, 30, 45, and game with the provision of only one service fault.

The final of the very first Wimbledon was held on July 19, 1877, between William Marshall and W. Spencer Gore. Gore showed his impressive serve and volley game to win the match 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 in the presence of 200 spectators.

 In the year 1884, there was the inclusion of the ladies’ singles in which Maud Watson won the first championship.

History of U.S Open Tennis

US tennis championships semifinal in 1890
Photo: Semifinal of U.S tennis championship

The first U.S. Open was held in August 1881 on the grass court in Rhode Island, Newport. At that time, only the club members of the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Association were allowed to participate in the tournament. From 1884 to 1911, a challenge system was adopted where the previous year’s winner automatically qualified for the next year’s final.

Six years later, in 1887, the first U.S. women’s national singles championship was held at the Philadelphia cricket club. This game was also under the challenge system from the year 1888 to 1918, except in 1917.

In 1968, when the professionals were allowed to participate, this grand slam tournament was organized at the West Side Tennis Club. Arthur Ashe won in the men’s singles category while Virginia Wade defeated Bille Jean King in women’s singles.

French Open

The French Open often called Roland-Garros was first held in 1891. At that time the competition was restricted to French citizens only. The first true french open when the door opened for all amateur international competitors was held at the Stade de Roland-Garros in 1925.

In 1968, French Open played on clay court became the first grand slam tournament to allow both amateurs and professionals. Rafael Nadal, an all-time great is the king of the French Open winning it 13 times from 2005 to 2020 except for 2009, 2015, and 2016.

Australian Open

The first Australian Open took place at the Warehouseman Cricket Ground, Melbourne in 1905. At that time it was known as Australasian Championships, which became the Australian Open in 1969 when both amateur and professional international competitors were allowed to participate.

Melbourne Park, the venue of the Australian Open, changed the playing surface from a grass court to Hardcourt in 1988. Prior to Melbourne Park, Melbourne, the championship was held in 5 Australian cities and 2 New Zealand cities. 

History of Modern Tennis

The era of modern tennis started in the 1970s when both amateurs and professionals were allowed to participate in the championships.

In this period tennis gained huge popularity with the evolution of many superstars. Television broadcasters showed their interest in professional tournaments and their passion for tennis spread all over the world. Tennis clothes that were only restricted to black and white came in various colors and styles, making this game more glamorous. The yellow balls came in place of white balls and the most important part is the emergence of metal rackets. 

Over a time period, new rackets with improved metals like graphite, carbon, and titanium came in place of previously used wooden rackets. These rackets brought the concept of power tennis.

The introduction of the tri-break came in the 1970s to decide the fate of the game at tied (6-6) conditions. The only exception is Wimbledon, where there is no tie-break in the fifth or the last set.

Mahut and  Isner Made History for  the Longest Match in Tennis

In 2010, Nicolas Mahut, a Frenchman, and John Isner, an American confronted in a 1st round match in Wimbledon. Each player took 2 sets each and the match came to a decisive 5th set. But due to the rule of no tie-break in the decisive set, the game lasted for three days. Finally, after 11 hours and 5 minutes of play, Isner defeated Mahut in a record-breaking result of 6-4, 3-6, 6-7(7), 7-6(3), 70-68. The final game itself took 8 hrs. 11 minutes to enter into the history of tennis for the longest match played ever.

International Tennis Federation and Ranking System

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) which is the governing body of tennis, was formed in 1913 as the International Lawn Tennis Association by twelve associates.

ITF organizes the big four grand slam events, Davis Cup, Fed Cup, and the Hopman Cup. Davis Cup is the international men’s team event in tennis, Fed Cup is the international women’s team event and the Hopman Cup is the international team event on a hardcourt surface for mixed genders of country basis.

In the year 1973, the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) ranking was introduced in the men’s singles category to determine the seeding in the tournament which was also incorporated with the men’s doubles category in 1976.

In 1975, WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) ranking was introduced in the women’s category by the ratings defined by the Women’s Tennis Association.

History of Tennis in the Olympics

History of tennis in Olympics
Photo: Matthew Mayer/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The first appearance of tennis in the Olympic games was in 1896 but after the 1924 Paris Olympic games, it was excluded from the list of sports. It came back after 64 years when Steffi Graf won the gold medal in Seoul in 1988.

Andy Murray of England is another great who is the only man to defend the gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics and 2016 Rio Olympics.

Wrapping Up

The fan following of tennis has grown up significantly. It is the utmost effort of ITF that turns tennis into a very exciting game to watch with a fan following of 1 billion.

I have tried to give you a glimpse into the history of tennis. If anything is left, please mention it in the comment box below.

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