Tennis is one of the world’s most popular sports, with over a billion fans cheering on their favorite pro players. The distinguished four grand slam tournaments—Wimbledon, the French, Australian, and U.S. Opens—are graced with ample talent each year from the likes of Roger Federer to Venus and Serena Williams. However, the tennis that we know and love today is much different than what it used to be. Thanks to major developments in equipment, technology, rules, and regulations, this sport has experienced a multitude of changes since it was first played in the 11th Century.
Peter Nyberg, chief financial officer of the Camino Community Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, shares major milestones in the evolution of tennis.
Despite evidence of early versions of tennis played in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, historians have widely accepted that Monks in French Monasteries were first to pioneer the sport circa 1000. This form of tennis was called jeu de paume meaning “game of the hand,” as players used the palm of their hand to hit a wooden ball over a stretch of rope suspended across the courtyard. Historians believe that the name “tennis” is derived from the word tenez meaning, ‘take this.’ Throughout the match, monks would yell “tenez!” as they served the ball over the net and towards their opponent.
While the sport has been subject to much advancement over the years, the object of the game has largely remained the same, notes Peter Schieffelin Nyberg. Players aim to hit the ball in such a way that their opponent cannot legally return the play. If a player is unable to deliver a valid return, their opponent is awarded a point. Today, tennis courts are rectangular in shape, divided evenly by a low net. Games consist of two players in a singles match or four in a doubles match. The racquets used by players are typically made of graphite, fiberglass, and other synthetic materials while the ball is hollow rubber. However, this was not always the case. To truly appreciate modern tennis, we must take a look at how players in previous centuries advanced the game.
Real Tennis or Court Tennis (16th to 18th Century)
While medieval tennis players used their bare hand to hurdle the ball forward, gloves with webbed fingers were soon invented as a less painful alternative. This invention was short-lived, as a solid paddle, one of the earliest versions of the modern-day tennis racquet, quickly replaced it. At the same time, tennis balls were normally made of hair, string, wool or cork, and encased in cloth or leather. By the 1500s, racquets evolved once again to comprise of wooden frames strung with sheep guts. However, players would immediately experience the disadvantages of a wooden racquet, including its weight and tendency to warp in humid temperatures.
The early version of tennis developed into “court tennis,” which was played in narrow indoor courts. Tennis balls were strategically maneuvered to bounce off walls and oddly angled surfaces. As tennis gained vast popularity in Europe, both Henry VII and Henry VIII commissioned more courts to be built throughout England. Remarkably, the one constructed in Hampton Court Palace in 1625 is still used today.
Lawn Tennis is Born (19th Century)
While the sport took on immense popularity in previous centuries, by the 1700s, the game had been left behind by most. Nevertheless, Charles Goodyear invented a process called “vulcanization” in 1850, which made rubber significantly more durable. This discovery led to the manufacture of bouncier balls that could be used outside on the grass—paving the way for “lawn tennis.”
In 1874, Walter Clopton Wingfield created an outdoor version of tennis called sphairistike, or “playing ball.” He established a new set of rules and regulations and designed a court with an hourglass shape. Despite some criticism, his version of tennis made its way around the world, with outdoor courts being built in countries like Russia and India. The All England Croquet Club hosted the first-ever Wimbledon Tennis Tournament in 1877 as a means to raise funds to replace some damaged croquet equipment. Leading up to the tournament, their rectangular field was converted into a tennis court, eliminating Wingfield’s original hourglass design. The club also chose to change several of the game’s rules, leading to the birth of “lawn tennis”
Peter Nyberg on Modern Tennis (20th & 21st Century)
In the 1940s, hard court surfaces started to appear on the pro tour. Today, hard courts are typically made from asphalt and concrete and include a synthetic coating to soften the court. Hard courts are considered fast and allow for a predictable ball bounce. They are also designated the most democratic of courts, providing a fair game for all types of playing styles. More recently, the Australian Open has started using courts made of plexicushion to increase shock absorption and diminish leg fatigue. Although metal racquets came into existence as early as 1889, they never managed to reach wide-scale popularity. However, in 1967 Wilson Sporting Goods introduced the T2000 racquet, which was an instant success. Still, pro players required a stiffer frame material leading to the construction of graphite racquets. By the 1980s, most professional and expensive racquets were made of graphite.
Advancements in technology have perhaps had the greatest impact on tennis in recent years, notes Peter Schieffelin Nyberg. In 1989, radar guns were used to measure players’ serves, which allowed spectators to more accurately rank an individual on their performance. In 2001, Paul Hawkins developed the computerized ‘Hawk-Eye’ system, which used high-speed cameras to monitor ball paths and touchdown spots, eliminating frustrating line-call controversies. Finally, IBM produced the SlamTracker in 2012, providing interested parties with continuous player assessments and match-in-progress data. The sport of tennis has experienced many variations over the years, directly impacting where the game is played, how it is viewed, and a players’ ability to perform. While we have witnessed major improvements over the centuries, one can only imagine the changes that are yet to come.