The history of tennis goes all the way back to ancient Egypt and Persia where pictures indicate a type of game in which in ball was stroked over a net was played. The history of modern tennis officially began in 19th century Britain with a man named Major Walter Wingfield.
What a Name for a Game
“Hey, how about a game of sphairistike?”
Fortunately the game survived but the name did not. Major Wingfield chose sphairistike, a Greek word meaning “ball game,” for the game he sought to patent in 1874. Much of Wingfield’s “invention” was based on a game played in 13th Century France called jeu de paume—literally “game of the palm.” This game was played indoors by hitting a ball over a net with a bare hand. The game was a popular recreation among monks in their monasteries.
Jeu de Paume evolved into a game called real tennis or royal tennis that became popular among French royalty. In the early 1500s, the French monarch, Francis I even had a royal tennis court built on his personal battleship.
By the time Major Wingfield introduced his friends to sphairistike at a Christmas party, there is evidence that similar games were already being played in England. Major T.H. Gem of Britain and J.B. Perera of Spain had marked out a tennis court on a lawn as early as 1858. But they were not the one’s who wrote down what they had done and sought a patent, so today it is Wingfield who is considered the father of the game. (Note to self: be sure to write down all those games you’re dreaming up.)
The name “tennis” apparently also goes back to jeu de paume. The French would yell, “Tenetz!” before they hit the ball. The word means, “Take heed.”
You’d Recognize it If You Saw It
Major Wingfield’s game looked much like the tennis we know today. Two or four players with rackets (click here to learn more about the history of the tennis racket) played on a court that was shaped like an hourglass—narrower in the middle at the net and wider along the baselines. Historians report the height of the net as being from five to seven feet in Wingfield’s version of the game. Today, the top of the net is three feet high in the center of the court. Courts now are rectangular and measure 78 feet long and 27 feet wide for singles play and 36 feet wide for doubles.
Lawn tennis, as it soon came to be called (the name sphairistike was quickly ditched even after it was shortened to, “sticky”) spread quickly through the upper and middle class of Britain. It was a popular party game. British army officers began to take the game to other parts of the world. Mary Outerbridge learned tennis from a British officer in Bermuda. In 1874, she brought the game, including the equipment, back to the New York where her brother set up a court at the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club. Tennis had come to America.
Not Just for Fun Anymore
Lawn Tennis was invented a social activity but it quickly evolved into a highly competitive game. The first United States tennis tournament dates back to August 1876 in Nahant, Massachusetts. Dr. James White, who owned the court, was the winner. The first tennis championship in England took place in 1877 sponsored by the All England Croquet Club at a little place called Wimbledon. In that first championship, only men’s singles were played. Spencer Gore won the tournament and took home the Silver Challenge Cup and a Gold Championship Prize worth 12 guineas (about $22). By comparison, Roger Federer, the 2004 Wimbledon champion won more than $1.08 million. The first recorded women’s tournament was played in Dublin in 1879 and won by May Langrishe. In 1884, women began to compete at Wimbledon.