Tennis, the game that we recognized today, only really became structured in the 1800s with London, England hosting the first ever Wimbledon Championship in 1877. The U.S. followed suit with a championship in 1880 and it wasn’t long before the French and Australians also got in on the action. Ask anyone today, even amteur tennis player Amir Landsman, to name the most famous tennis events and some of the top destinations to play and they will be sure to mention Wimbledon, as well as the U.S., Australian and French Opens. A little known fact is that the U.S. Open was actually known as the “Patriotic Tournament” back in 1917 because it took place during World War I.
Invention of Racquets
Although the sport dates as far back as the 12th century, it wasn’t until the 16th century that racquets were introduced, replacing the older method of using the palm of your hand. The thought of adults hitting a ball back and forth using the palms of their hands might sound silly to us today, but Louis X of France as well as King Charles V of France were apparently big fans of the sport.
While the French might have enjoyed their jeu de paume, which translates as “game of the palm,” it was the English that popularized the game we know today. Major Walter Clopton Wingfield introduced sphairistike, which is Greek for ball-playing, but the tongue-twisting name soon became known as “sticky.” Wingfield marketed his game, which consisted of poles, a net, racquets and balls, and it wasn’t long before the game caught on in the U.S. and France.
Early Versions of the Game
The version of tennis introduced by Wingfield differed from the traditional “tennis,” which was played indoors by hitting a ball off a wall. Henry VIII of England might have been a big fan of the older version of tennis, known as real tennis today, but Wingfield’s interpretation took the world by storm and evolved into the sport that we know today. Real tennis is still around today, and player refer to tennis as we know it as “lawn tennis” despite the fact that Wimbledon is the only major tennis tournament that is still played on grass. The rules were still all over the place with different clubs adopting different regulations, but the International Tennis Federation, known as the International Lawn Tennis Federation, laid down the law back in 1924.
Little-Known Tennis Facts
Although the rules were in place, there were still some things that modern tennis fans would have found peculiar of the games played in the early 1900s. For example, did you know that it although rectangular courts were introduced in 1875 to replace the original hour-glass shape, it wasn’t until 1986 that yellow tennis balls were first used at Wimbledon? The only reason why the color was changed to yellow was to make it more visible to the spectators! The dress code has also changed drastically since those early days, so spare a thought for the poor woman who took part in those first Wimbledon tournaments while wearing full-length dresses. Even men stepped out on the court wearing long pants back in those days until 1932 when one Henry Austin decided to wear shorts, a move which reportedly shocked Queen Mary.
Tennis is not only interesting to watch and fun to participate in, but if you dig through the history of the sport, you will also uncover all kinds of interesting tidbits. For example, Roland Garros, which the French Open is often referred to because of the venue’s name, wasn’t actually a tennis player but an aviator. Charles VIII of France died from striking his head on the lintel of a door while on his way to watch a game of jeu de paume. Thankfully, tennis is a relatively safe sport, although you won’t want to get hit by Venus Williams, who serves balls as fast as 205 km per hour. It is also a lot more animal friendly these days, as the racquet strings are no longer made from animal guts as they were during the first hundred or so years of the sport.
Tennis and Celebrities
These days, the top ranking tennis players are celebrities in their own right, with stars like the Williams twins who have both won Olympic gold medals for the sport. Back in the early days of the tennis, this wasn’t really the case. In fact, the winner of the first Wimbledon tournament was a man named Spencer William Gore, who actually preferred cricket to tennis and wasn’t entirely convinced that the sport would catch on.
Today the tournaments draw big crowds and matches are televised, so Mr. Gore has thankfully been proven wrong. Speaking of spectators, sometimes the crowds get more as well as less than what they bargained for when attending matches. For example, one of the shortest matches in history took place in 1969 between Susan M. Tutt and Marion Bandy at Wimbledon and lasted only 20 minutes. Tutt beat Brandy in straight sets and the short match is quite a contrast to the epic 1984 women’s tennis match that took place in Richmond, Virginia. Starring Vicki Nelson and Jean Hepner, the two ladies gave it their all for 6 hours and 31 minutes, setting a new record with a 29 minute long, 643 shot rally. While very impressive, it’s not the longest tennis match in history, as this honor belongs to the clash between John Isner from America and Nicolas Mahut from France. The match took over 11 hours to complete and was played out over the course of three days because it was suspended by darkness twice in a row.
Apart from the big names on the court, you will also regularly spot some famous faces in the stands, as quite a few celebrities are fans of the sport. Elton John is a devotee of the game as is Kevin Spacey. Other notable celebrities that you are more likely to spot at a tennis open than any other sport include Cliff Richard, Sir Sean Connery and Will Ferrell, which proves that the game has quite a broad appeal.