HOW TENNIS BEGAN
THE ORIGINS OF AND HISTORY OF TENNIS
Ball sports like tennis can be traced back a long way and the earliest representations can be found in carvings dating from 1500BC. The 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!
Monks became interested in the religious rites of the Moors and were the first Europeans to play the ball game that was to become known as 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.
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 recognized 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.
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.