While evidence is thin on the ground, the game of tennis is believed to hark back thousands of years, with several indicators suggesting the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans played precursors to tennis. For example, the Arabic word for the palm of the hand is rahat, similar to the word racket, while the Egyptian town Tinnis again bears a resemblance to tennis. More substantial evidence emerges from around 1000, when French monks began playing a crude courtyard ball game. This sport, played against their monastery walls or over a rope hung across a courtyard, took on the name je de paume – ‘game of the hand.’ According to this theory, the word ‘tennis’ was coined by these monks, who would shout the word ‘tenez’, the French for ‘to take’, while they served the ball.
Over the next few centuries, the game grew in popularity exponentially, with its reach spreading beyond the monastery walls to become adopted by the nobility throughout Europe. Some accounts claim that by the 13th century there were as many as 1,800 indoor courts. Indeed, the game became so popular that several members of the Church, including the Pope, as well as King Louis IV, tried to ban the game, although to no avail.
It soon spread to England, with both Henry VII and Henry VIII being avid fans, who commissioned the building of many courts across the country. The one built in Hampton Court Palace in 1625 survives to this day.
The more popular tennis became, the more it also evolved. Courtyard playing areas began to be modified into indoor courts, and the balls, which were initially wooden, gave way to bouncier, leather balls filled with cellulose material. In its infancy it was played using the hand, but over time people began wearing a glove, either with webbing between the fingers or a solid paddle, and eventually a webbing attached to a handle - a forerunner to the racket. By 1500, a wooden frame racquet laced with sheep gut was in common use, together with a cork ball weighing approximately three ounces.
However, despite all this innovation, the game of ‘court’ or ‘real’ tennis, as it is referred to today, was incredibly different to the global sport we now know as tennis. Games took place in narrow, indoor courts, where the ball was played off walls with rooved galleries and a number of openings. Players won points by hitting the ball into netted windows beneath the rooves, with the net being five feet high on the ends and three feet in the middle, which created a pronounced droop.
The game’s popularity dwindled during the 1700s, but experienced another revolution in 1850: Charles Goodyear invented a process for rubber called vulcanisation, which made the material used to make tennis balls significantly bouncier. As a result, tennis could now be played outdoors on grass. The foundations for modern tennis had been paved.
A few decades later, in London in 1874, Major Walter C. Wingfield patented the rules and equipment for a game which he called Sphairistike, the Greek for ‘playing at ball.’ Wingfield’s court was shaped like an hourglass and much shorter than the modern court. His rules were both criticised and modified, but their impact cannot be understated; in 1874 the first courts appeared in the United States; a year later equipment sets were sold for use in Chine, India, Russia and Canada. The ubiquity of croquet at the time meant there was a ready supply of smooth outdoor courts, which proved easily adaptable for tennis. Indeed, the marriage between croquet and tennis was properly cemented when the All England Club Croquet decided to hold the first Wimbledon tennis tournament in 1877. The organising committee ditched Whigfield’s odd-shaped court, opting for a rectangular one instead, and introduced a set of rules that are essentially the game of now. The event, which was initially held to raise money to fix a broken roller at the private club, soon evolved into the most prestigious tennis event in the entire world. The club quickly changed its name to the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club.
During that first year of Wimbledon Championships, it only consisted of men's singles; women were not allowed to play until 1884. Players were also clad in hats and ties and were reproached if they wore shoes without heels. Serves were underarm and tennis balls were hand-sewn. The Championship also took place at a private club situated just off Worple Street; it did not move to its current location on Church Road until 1922.
These issues aside, Wimbledon - and tennis - has not undergone a huge amount of change since this first tournament. The rules have remained virtually the same, with the only major change being the introduction of the tiebreak rule in 1971. With Charles Pyle recognising the commercial possibilities of promoting tennis and introducing a professional tour in 1926, it is now not only one of the most widely played sports in the World, but amongst the most lucrative too.