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How old is tennis? Origin and history of the sport

The inventor of modern tennis has been disputed, but the pioneer was the British Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, with his first published game rule book.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - NOVEMBER 08: A general view of the match between Yulia Putintseva and Katie Boulter during a Billie Jean King Cup match between Kazakhstan and Great Britain at the Emirates Arena, on November 08, 2022, in Glasgow, Scotland.  (Photo by Rob Casey/SNS Group via Getty Images)
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The majority of historians believe that tennis originated in the holy monasteries in northern France in the 12th century; the only difference is that the ball was then hit with the palm; therefore, the name jeu de paume (“game of the palm”). The word tennis came into use in English in the mid-14th century from Old French via the Anglo-Norman term Tenez, which can be translated as “hold!”, “receive!” or “take!” a call from the server to his opponent, indicating that he is about to serve.

Not until the 16th century when rackets came into use, and the game began to be called “tennis.” It was popular in England and France, and Henry VIII of England was a big fan of the game, now referred to as real tennis.

Many original tennis courts remain, including at Oxford, Cambridge, Falkland Palace in Fife, and Hampton Court Palace.

We mentioned Major Walter Clopton Wingfield and his first book of rules, published in 1873, who took out a patent on his game in 1874. However, historians have figured that similar games were played earlier and that the first tennis club was founded by the Englishman Harry Gem and several associates in Leamington in 1872.

Wingfield introduced ‘the hourglass shape’ court and promoted it in his booklet “Sphairistiké, or Lawn Tennis.” This shape was developed from badminton, but some historians suppose it was adopted for patent reasons since it distinguished the court from ordinary rectangular courts.

Official competitions

After All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club adopted the official Rules of Lawn Tennis, it was a moment for the first official tennis competition to arise - the first Lawn Tennis Championship, The Championships, Wimbledon in 1877.

In 1884 a women’s championship was introduced at Wimbledon, and women’s national championships were held in the United States from 1887.

Davis and Fed Cup

The first international team competition was the Davis Cup, officially called the International Lawn Tennis Challenge Trophy, which U.S. doubles champion Dwight Davis donated in 1900. Only Great Britain challenged the first year; it was defeated by the United States, Davis himself playing on the victorious team.

The idea of a Davis Cup-style tournament for national women’s teams is surprisingly old—it was first proposed in 1919 by Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman. After being turned down, she donated a trophy in 1923, known as the Wightman Cup, awarded in an annual match between the two strongest women’s tennis nations of the time, the United States and Great Britain.

The equivalent competition for women’s national teams, the Fed Cup, was founded as the Federation Cup in 1963 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the International Tennis Federation, also known as the ITF.

The Open era

In 1967 a British bid for a limited timetable of open tournaments was voted down by the international federation, but the British LTA refused to accept the verdict. In December 1967, despite the threat of expulsion from the ILTF, the LTA voted to abolish the distinction between amateurs and pros in their tournaments. The Open era was born.

The first open tournament was the British Hard Courts at Bournemouth in April 1968, where the champions were Ken Rosewall and Virginia Wade. The first open Wimbledon was a joyous occasion, as many past champions who had been stripped of membership in the All England Club when they turned professional were welcomed back.

The transition years from amateur to professional tennis were rampant with political controversies and lawsuits for custody of what had become a big-money sport. Both male and female players formed guilds—the men’s Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) that, later in 1986, became the Women’s International Tennis Association (WITA).