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History Of Tennis

Henry VIII's tennis court at Hampton Court Palace

In 1415 Charles D'Orleans, grandson of Charles VI of France, was taken prisoner at the Battle of Agincourt. Imprisoned in Wingfield Castle he taught a version of tennis to the family of his jailers. At this time tennis was a game linked with royalty, usually played indoors. Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries tennis was played in royal courts all over Europe. Henry VIII had his own court at Hampton Court Palace, which survives today as the world's oldest tennis court.


Into the eighteenth century society had begun to go through the unprecedented transformation of the Industrial Revolution. People reacted to the loss of their rural way of life by dreaming up a romanticised rural past. This was seen in naturalistic gardening styles which aimed to create areas of idealised countryside. It was also seen in the games people liked to play. Golf was played in what are effectively huge Capability Brown landscaped parks. Cricket idealised what was seen as a rural village game. Other city and town dwellers tried to find their rural dream with a fishing rod beside a river or canal. For the middle classes tennis developed in the same way, by moving outside onto the lawn. Outdoor tennis, or "lawn tennis", is referred to in The Sporting Magazine of 29th September 1793, as a possible rival to cricket (see Helen Walker's article on lawn tennis in Sport in Britain, a Social History ed Tony Mason). In 1872 a Spaniard named Perrara and two local doctors set up the first lawn tennis club at the Manor House Hotel in Leamington Spa. In December of the following year Major Walker Clopton Wingfield, a direct descendent of the jailer of Charles D'Orleans, published a book of tennis rules. In July 1874 Wingfield produced a kit containing all the equipment needed to play lawn tennis. After experimenting with the name sphairistika - a Greek word meaning ball game - he settled on the much more sensible name of lawn tennis. Incidentally it is possible that the strange scoring system of tennis comes from Wingfield's military background. The names for the three points, 15, 30 and 40 might have been inspired by the calibres of various sized guns on Royal Navy ships, 15 calibre on the top deck, 30 calibre in the middle and 40 calibre on the lower deck. Alternatively it might have more to do with a French scoring system which used a clock face, placing a hand at fifteen, thirty and forty minutes past the hour for each point won. Whatever the background, Wingfield had now made an important step towards codifying tennis, and had produced an outdoor game which was fitted, like the outdoor games of golf and cricket, to the sentiments of the time.


The first Wimbledon championship was held in 1877, organised by the All England Croquet Club as a hopefully profitable sideline to its croquet activities. The championship immediately gave tennis a sense of status, and clarified conflicting sets of rules. The club's tennis committee decided on a modified set of rules, rejecting for example the hour glass shaped court used in Wingfield's game. Instead it was stipulated that a rectangular court be used, twenty six yards long by nine yards wide, the net being suspended from posts three feet outside the court. This remains the size of a tennis court today. Tennis scoring in its current form was adopted in its entirety. Essentially the game as it is now played had come into being, aside from modifications such as tie break rules to deal with over extended games. With the help of Wimbledon, tennis now became the middle classes way of achieving their little piece of a romanticised rural dream. This ideal was expressed by a Robert D. Osborne who wrote in 1881: "The scene should be laid on a well-kept garden lawn. There should be a bright warm sun overhead... Near at hand, under the cool shadow of a tree, there should be strawberries and cream, iced claret mug, and a few spectators who do not want to play but are lovers of the game... If all these conditions are present an afternoon spent at lawn tennis is a highly Christian and beneficent pastime." (Lawn Tennis, It's Players And How To Play 1881 - quoted in Sport In Britain, a Social History)


Suzanne Lenglen, with 1920s men's champion Bill Tilden. This image is copyright free

Part of the romanticism of tennis, and nearly every other sport in nineteenth century Britain, was that it should be played as an amateur game without regard for profit for the competitors. This strange ethos began within the group of Oxford and Cambridge university rowers and athletes in the 1860s. The idea was to keep sport "pure" in its pursuit of excellence. It was a notion that fitted the prevailing mood for sport to be an escape from the demands of life in a new industrial society, and it caught on. And of course the result of taking away any form of monetary gain from sport effectively excluded anyone who didn't have wealth. While we still enjoy the strawberries and cream, and echoes of a peaceful lawn at a country house, the amateur part of the nineteenth century vision slowly gave way to economic realities. In the first Wimbledon Championship of 1877, players responding to an advertisement in Field magazine, paid one pound and one shilling to play, and had to provide their own rackets and shoes. Spencer Gore who won that first championship doubted whether the game would catch on. Nevertheless by the 1880s the popular Renshaw twins were attracting crowds of up to 2000 people to watch their matches. A ladies championship beginning in 1884 added to the game's popularity. And of course where there was popularity there is expense, and opportunities for profit. In 1926 the first professional tour was organised by promoter C.C. Pyle, with a group of French and American players staging exhibition matches. One of the most notable early professionals was the French champion Suzanne Lenglen. By 1926 Lenglen had already had a career in which she symbolically broke with the past, causing shock at her Wimbledon debut in 1912 by discarding traditional corsets and adopting more comfortable and practical sports clothes. In the turning point year of 1926, at the very end of her career, Lenglen once again heralded the future by playing professionally. Tensions surrounding the issue of amateurism grew until the late 1950s when a splitting of talent between various amateur and professional competitions caused attendances to fall. Reacting to this situation it was announced in December 1967 that distinctions between amateurs and professionals would be removed. Even the greatest bastion of tradition in tennis, Wimbledon gave in. The first Wimbledon Championship with monetary prizes followed in 1968, Rod Laver winning £2000 as men's champion, and Billie Jean King winning £750 as ladies champion. Very quickly players' earning potential rose, particularly through corporate sponsorship. The women's champion Chris Evert earned around $60 million through endorsement deals in her career during the 1970s and early 1980s. Professionalism by this time had been fully embraced.


Tim Henman at Wimbledon in 2005 - this image is copyright free

But even with top players making millions of dollars, tennis undeniably continues to act as a sport rather than a business. This is seen in the characteristic sense that profit is not the top priority. In 2009 the Wimbledon Championships generated a surplus of £25,667,000, but the official position regarding these funds is as follows: "Funds generated by the Championships, less tax, are to be used by the LTA (Lawn Tennis Association) to develop tennis in Great Britain. In December 2008 the Club and the LTA agreed that the LTA is to benefit from receiving 90% of any distributable financial surplus resulting from the Championships until at least 2053" (see Finance AELTG plc role of LTA 2009). Wimbledon gives 90% of its profits away to develop the game in Britain. Sport does not work to the same economic rules as other businesses. People put their hopes and dreams into their sports. Even now it seems, with the amateur ideal a distant memory, tennis still puts sport above profit. Bizarrely an echo of a game on the lawn with strawberries and cream still seems to survive. Apparently 2000kg of strawberries are eaten every day at the Wimbledon Championship! ( 22nd June 2008)