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An Introduction to the Game of Tennis (History)

by: Paul Duxbury

For any future athlete that intends to start a new activity, knowing a little bit of history about the sport is always a good idea.

Ball games can be traced back for hundreds and thousands of years. Usually played for entertainment or during religious ceremonies, ball games became highly popular in countless civilizations worldwide. European monks probably created the game of tennis. The players quickly found out that instead of hitting the ball off walls they had better control using their hand. A leather glove was soon created, and not long after, an adapted handle completed the first racquet. As the racquets evolved, so did the balls that were used. A bouncier type stuffed with bran material soon replaced the first primitive wooden balls. The game became highly popular amongst monasteries all around Europe during the 14th century. At one time, the church considered forbidding the game.

In 1874, Major Walter C. Wingfield patented in London the equipment and rules for a game fairly similar to modern tennis. In the same year, the first courts appeared in the United States. By the following year, equipment sets had been sold for use in Russia, India, Canada, and China. Croquet was highly popular at this time, and the smooth croquet courts proved readily adaptable for tennis. Wingfield’s original court had the shape of an hourglass, narrowest at the net, and it was shorter than the modern court. His rules were subjected to considerable criticism, and he revised them in 1875, but he soon left the further development of the game to others.

In 1877, the All England Club held the first Wimbledon tournament, and its tournament committee came up with a rectangular court and a set of rules that are essentially the game we know today. The net was still five feet high at the sides, a carryover from the game’s indoor ancestor, and the service boxes were 26 feet deep, but by 1882, the specifications had evolved to their current form. The growth of tennis continued and the 1927 Championship saw the first ever radio broadcast of a tennis event. This increased its popularity further and in the 1930s the game became highly fashionable, led by British stars such as Fred Perry and Don Budge and International Champions such as Henri Lacoste. You’ll notice from the photographs that tennis fashions were somewhat different in those days! Long trousers were the order of the day for men, and for women it was long dresses and stockings.

Fashion trends became a development in their own right and Bunny Austin from the USA shocked the crowds in 1933 when he became the first player to step out on to centre court wearing shorts! The 1930’s became Wimbledon’s boom time and in 1937, the championship was broadcast on the radio for the first time. This was a significant event, truly introducing tennis to the world.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the game became dominated by the new legion of international players and crowds became captivated by the likes of Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe. In the ladies game stars such as Sue Barker, Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova filled the courts with fans. Britain’s foremost ladies player was Virginia Wade, the last Brit to win the Championships in 1977. The prize money went up, as did the hemlines of players clothing! In 1986 the Championships adopted yellow tennis balls for the first time – partly to make the speeding balls more visible for television cameras.

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