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A History of Tennis

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A History of Tennis


Tennis had been played in some form for many hundreds of years when, in the late 19th century, the game we know today started to emerge. Prior to that era tennis had been played with the hand or with a leather glove. Tennis with the hands had been around long before anything looking like a racquet emerged. Early tennis balls were often very hard, even wooden, with leather balls coming later. It wasn’t until the 1850s that Charles Goodyear, of Goodyear tyre fame, invented vulcanised rubber and allowed long lasting balls to be manufactured from natural rubber. Previously, natural rubber would only last a matter of days in an outside environment such as a tennis court before perishing.

The word ‘tennis’ is thought to be a derivative of the word ‘tenez’, the French vous indicative present form of tenir or ‘play’. The word ‘tenez’ would be shouted in encouragement or support during games of the original 16th century French form of the tennis known as ‘Jue de Paumme’ or ‘play with palms’. A ball game that would later evolve into modern tennis was highly regarded by French nobles and royalty, hence term ‘real’, or ‘royal’ tennis. Real Tennis is still played, although it has evolved quite different rules to modern tennis.

The tennis we know today is more accurately known as Lawn Tennis. It also takes another form as Court Tennis, where four walls surround the court. Tennis courts started to appear in America during the late 1800s. At around the same time, in 1874, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield took out a patent in London for a form of tennis with very similar rules and equipment to the modern game. Many players and observers were unhappy with Wingfield’s patented rules, even after he modified them in 1875. It wasn’t long before Wingfield stood back and decided to leave the development of the game to others.

At this time, croquet courts were a numerous feature in the gardens of the upper and middle classes as well as being found in some public parks. The smooth grass croquet courts proved easily adaptable for the game of tennis. The existence of perfectly good playing surfaces without the need for much in the way of modification or expenditure helped the game to expand rapidly in popularity. The famous All England Lawn Tennis And Croquet Club, better known simply as ‘ Wimbledon ’, was once a croquet club. Tennis soon overtook croquet as the sport of choice there and at one time the word croquet was even removed from the club’s name.

Tennis is now governed by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), originally formed in 1913 as the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF). The ILTF was first based in Paris but moved to London during WWII . The governing body was then based at Wimbledon until 1987 when it moved to Barons Court, near Queens Club . It subsequently moved again the following year, this time to the Bank of England Sports Ground in Roehampton .

A landmark event in the history of tennis occurred in 1877 when the All England Club held the first ever tournament at Wimbledon. The organising committee decided to use a rectangular court rather than Wingfield’s hour-glass style where the court narrowed at the net. At this point the net was still five feet high at the sides and the service boxes 26 feet deep. By 1882 the rules of the game had evolved into those we now recognise in tennis today. This followed the formation of the American Lawn Tennis Association (now the United States Tennis Association) on 21 May 1881. This was formed in an attempt to standardise rules to enable both national and international tournaments to be held. The first U.S. Open followed shortly, still then known as the U.S. National Men’s Singles Championship, it was held in August 1881 at Newport, Rhode Island. The U.S. National women’s Singles Championship was established in 1887. The first French Open dates from 1891 and the Australian Open was first organised in 1905.

These four events, Wimbledon , the US Open, the French Open and the Australian Open all form what has is known on the tennis calendar as the ‘Grand Slam’. These four have been the most important, most watched and most lucrative championships since the birth of modern tennis. Every professional tennis player wants to at least win a single Grand Slam, if not a Career Grand Slam where one of each four is won during a player’s career.

Steffi Graf, the tennis sensation from Germany, is the most successful tennis player of all time. Graf’s 22 Grand Slam wins seem to place her second to Margaret Courts, who has 24 wins. But Graf is the only player to have won all four tournaments at least four times. In 1998 she became the first and only tennis player to take the coveted Golden Slam title by winning all four Grand Slam titles and the Olympic Gold medal in women’s singles.

Billie Jean King can be thanked for bringing women’s tennis into the limelight. King played in the famous ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match held on September 20, 1973 with fading tennis star Bobby Riggs. The match came about when the former champion, showman and self-publicist Riggs boasted that the female tennis standard was so inferior to male tennis that even a retired player like he now was could beat any of the top female players. Riggs did indeed beat another female star, Margaret Court, before stepping up to face King. However, Billie Jean King caused a sensation by handing him a humiliating 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 defeat.

The match put women’s tennis on the map and helped make a superstar out of Billie Jean King. A host of other high-profile female tennis stars soon followed in her footsteps. Billie Jean King’s win not only helped elevate the status of women in tennis but it also kick started a massive boom in the game itself. The ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match, held at the Houston Astrodome, was watched by a television audience of 90 million people. It has been credited with putting an estimated 32 million Americans on tennis courts by 1975, within just two years of the match.

The match came towards the end of Billie Jean King’s own astonishing run of success. Between 1966 and 1979 King won a record 20 Wimbledon titles. Her haul consisted of six singles, 10 doubles and four mixed doubles championships. Billie Jean King finally bowed out of Wimbledon, aged 39, after suffering defeat at the hands of teenager Andrea Jaeger in the 1983 Wimbledon semi-finals.

Another great female tennis star to participate in a ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match was Czech born Martina Navratilova who took on Jimmy Connors at Ceasers Palace in Las Vegas. Navratilova lost the match despite some rules being modified to handicap Connors. The Czech shares Billie Jean King’s record of 20 Wimbledon titles. Navratilova won the women’s singles crown at Wimbledon a record nine times between 1982 and 1990 after 12 appearances in the final.

Since the early Seventies tennis has enjoyed a succession of pin up figures. Swedish born Bjorn Borg was one of the giants of men’s tennis who also enjoyed pop star status during his career. Borg won five singles titles at Wimbledon, helping himself to 11 Grand Slam singles titles along the way. His first Wimbledon men’s singles championship came when he was just 20 years and one month old. The win made him the youngest ever Wimbledon champion and helped him to find his way onto a poster on the bedroom wall of millions of teenage girls. He secured his fifth consecutive title at Wimbledon in 1980, defeating his arch-rival John McEnroe in what is considered the best ever Wimbledon final.

John McEnroe may have lacked Bjorn Borg’s film star looks but he wasn’t short of showmanship. McEnroe is possibly more famous for an incident involving an umpire rather than actually playing tennis. While disputing a line call at Wimbledon in 1981 McEnroe was heard shouting "You can not be serious!" at the embattled umpire. The phrase went on to pass into folk legend and was later the title of McEnroe’s autobiography. McEnroe’s various outbursts even earned him the nickname ‘superbrat’ from the British press. During their careers as adversaries Borg was portrayed as the super cool ice-man and McEnroe as the firebrand. However, while this may be generally an accurate observation, McEnroe never once lost his temper when playing in a match against Borg.

The Nineties at Wimbledon belonged to Pete Sampras. The American won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon eight times between 1992 and 2000. Sampras only failed to take the title once in that nine-year stretch, in 1996 when he was knocked out in the quarter final by surprise winner that year Richard Krajicek.

From the year 2000 on women’s tennis witnessed the rise of another phenomena in the shape of the William’s sisters. Venus Williams won her first Wimbledon title in the year 2000 and retained it in 2001 after a match against her sister, Serena WIlliams. For the next two years, 2002 and 2003, it was her younger sister Serena who was crowned the Wimbledon women’s singles champion. Venus Williams came back to be Wimbledon champion in 2005, 2007 and 2008. As if in revenge for blotting the sisters’ hitherto perfect record at Wimbledon, Venus WIlliams demolished defending 2004 Wimbledon champion Maria Sharpova on her way to the 2005 title. For the second time in just seven years, in 2008, the Wimbledon women’s singles final was once again between the two Williams sisters. It is a testament to their domination of the historic Centre Court that, in the period 2000 - 2008, one of the Williams sisters has been the Wimbledon champion for seven of eight years.

Venus WIlliams recorded an average first serve speed of 115 mph at Wimbledon in 2008. Her performance in the quarter final produced an amazing 116 mph average. By comparison, Roger Federer served at 119 mph in his quarter final and 117 mph in the semi-final and final. Swiss born Federer totally dominated Wimbledon after taking his debut title there in 2003. He followed that first men’s championship with four more successive victories there until he was defeated in the 2008 final by Rafael Nadal. It brought Federer’s 65 match winning streak on grass to an end and contributed to him losing his world’s number one crown to the Spaniard. The match was dubbed “The greatest match I’ve ever seen” by John McEnroe.

The Wimbledon final of 2008 marked a turning point in the rivalry that existed between Nadal and Federer. The battles were played out publicly on the greatest tennis courts of the world during the Grand Slam tournaments. The feud had been hard fought since the young Nadal shocked Federer by delivering the then Wimbledon champion a straight set defeat at the 2004 Miami Masters.

Britain has unfortunately failed to produce any Wimbledon men’s singles champions since Fred Perry in 1936. The women have done a little better and Virginia Wade last held that claim to fame back in the slightly not so ancient history year of 1977! Born in Bournemouth , Dorset , Virginia Wade learned to play tennis as she was growing up in South Africa. Her family returned to the UK when she was 15 and Wade attended Tunbridge Wells Girls’ Grammar School and Talbot Heath School. She graduated from the University of Sussex in 1966. By 1968 she had defeated Billie Jean King in the final at the US Open. She recorded a second Grand Slam victory when she defeated Evonne Goolagong Cawley in the final at the Australian Open. The win over Betty Stove at the Wimbledon final of 1977 completed her Grand Slam hat trick. Virginia Wade’s achievements may be modest compared to some of the great names of tennis but she still finds herself alongside great champions like BIllie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in the Wimbledon record books.

In 1998 Tim Henman became the first British player since Seventies tennis star Roger Taylor to reach the semi-finals of the men’s singles at Wimbledon. Henman appeared in three further Wimbledon semi-finals, in 1999, 2001 and 2002 but never progressed to a Wimbledon final. Despite being Britain’s most successful tennis player of the modern era, Henman has never won at any of the Grand Slam tournaments and his only major International win came at the Paris Masters during the 2003 ATP Masters Series.

Today professional tennis is a highly competitive sport, a far cry from the days of palming a ball around on a gentile Frenchman’s lawn. Tournaments are televised and beamed around the world to huge audiences. Although Tim Henman’s achievements in professional tennis were relatively modest, he still walked away with a cool $11 million in prize money alone for his efforts. The tennis legend Pete Sampras netted over $41 million, way above Andre Agassi’s $31 million and yet a little shy of the $45 million taken in prize money by Roger Federer.

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