The History of Tennis: From Royal Pastime to Global Phenomenon

Tennis is one of the most global and beloved sports in the world. Speaking in fact, over 80 million people around the world play tennis every single day. When it comes to the spectators, the sport is watched by 1 billion people annually. The biggest share of this number is because of the 4 Grand Slams, which alone attract around 400 million viewers. However, not many people know when tennis started, where its roots are and what is the reason why today we know athletes like Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer.

The history of tennis

Early Origins of Tennis

The early roots of tennis originated in France in the 12th century. Back then it was played without rackets, in a form similar to today's handball. The term "tennis" didn't exist, and the game was instead called „jeu de paume"("palm game"). It was played with bare hands, but with time people started using gloves. Even when paddle-like bats (also called "batoirs"), became the equipment for the game by the early 16th century, the name did not change. However, the introduction of this new equipment was a major step towards the transition to tennis we know today. Interestingly, since its origins in the 12th century, tennis has been referred to as "the game of the aristocrats" or "the sport of the aristocracy" - labels still familiar today.

The Birth of Modern Tennis

The era of "tennis" began in the mid-16th century when the King of England, Henry VIII, heard of a very popular game in France and decided to popularize it in England as well. Thus, he built the Hampton Court Palace and this was the very beginning of the so-called "royal tennis".

Hampton Court Palace

When it comes to "lawn tennis", which has different rules compared to "royal tennis", it is widely acknowledged that its founder is a British commander named Walter Wingfield. In fact, he was also the man, who made the first racket, designed for lawn surfaces.

If you want to learn more about the evolution of tennis rackets, you can check out our latest article.

The rules of lawn tennis were almost the same as the ones we know today – the game can be played in singles or doubles; you have to win at least 4 points to win a game, at least 6 games to win a set and at least 2 sets to win a match; you have to use a racket, not a bare hand, etc.

Tennis Spreads Globally

In the early 18th century, when the game was still called "royal" in England, it was slowly carried over to other major nations, where it was called slightly different – "court tennis" in the US, "real tennis" in Australia and "courte-paume" in France (which was different from "jeu de paume"). It is noteworthy, however, that it is in these 4 countries that the Grand Slam tournaments take place today. Furthermore, right now there are more than 50 original real tennis courts, which are still active and many people play the game with its original rules. Some people hold on to the original „royal" tennis, with some traditionalists even going further, saying that "what we call tennis today has nothing to do with the game of 2 centuries ago". The sport is also sponsored and managed by organizations all over the world, whose aim is to "keep the name of the royal tennis alive".

The Open Era and Professional Tennis

An exciting moment in tennis history is the transition from amateur tennis, also called the „Аmateur Еra", to the „Оpen Еra". The Аmateur Еra began its existence in the early 20th century when everyone agreed that "tennis was an aristocratic sport, a sport that gave people choice, a sport that could be played by anyone, regardless of age, race, gender, skills, etc." In short, until the 1960s, there were almost no professionals in the sport and was impossible to make a living with it. That's why, players turning pro could not compete in the major (then defined as "amateur") tournaments – Wimbledon, Roland Garros, Australian Open, US Open, and Davis Cup. However, even during the Amateur Era, there were few professionals, which are honored to this day. For example, the most notable of them was Suzanne Lеnglen (played 1921 - 1927), whose name carries one of the courts on Roland Garros.

The Open Еra began in 1968 when professional players agreed to compete against amateurs in Grand Slam tournaments. The change was initiated by the British Association, which said "action must be taken to make the game honest. For too long now we have been governed by a set of amateur rules that are quite unenforceable." The reason for the move was because the 4 major tennis federations were tired of the hypocrisy and the inequality in the game. From that point on, every single player who had any interest in tennis had the complete freedom to become a pro, pursue his own career, and make a living with the sport.

At different stages in the evolution of men's and women's professional tennis, the ATP and WTA were created. The reason for such organizations was to protect the players from the promoters and associations. This idea first came up during the 1972 US Open. The transition for women was made first, and the very next year, 1973, the WTA (Women's Tennis Association) was established. For men, this process was delayed by over 15 years, as the ATP Tour (Association of Tennis Professionals Tour) was created in 1990.

Tennis Today: A Global Phenomenon

And as we unravel the fascinating timeline of tennis' historical evolution, we come to its current state. According to official figures, tennis is the most watched sport in the world annually after football. Until the end of the first decade of the 21st century, basketball was 2nd in this ranking, but this has slowly changed. And you may be wondering what the reason for this is. The great burst of interest in tennis is mostly due to the incredible generation of great athletes this century which will forever remain at the top of the sport.

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic are often said to be interdependent, that they would not have done what they did without each other, but perhaps the greatest credit the three of them have is that they are responsible for making tennis such a magnificent sport. And despite their imminent retirement, there are new strong generations to inherit, and why not surpass the "Big Three"…?