A History of Tennis: From Monks to Modernity

Pierce Barnett, Section Editor

What is tennis? Where did it come from? These are a few of the questions that we will explore. Tennis originated in the 12th century as a game played by French monks. These monks were bored in their monasteries and wanted to create a game to pass the time, thus tennis was born.

When the monks started to play the game, they hit a wooden ball. Hitting this ball was painful to do with their hands, and they sought to find a solution. The monks had to hit this ball a fair distance across a string spanning the distance of the monastery’s courtyard. 

These monks decided to wear leather gloves and then attached a handle to the gloves to make hitting the ball less painful. They called this paume (palm).

After the monks developed a primitive wooden paddle, they made a ball called a bouncier, a leather ball that was easier to hit. This new game spread to monasteries all over Europe.

Players would shout Tenex (take this) before they hit the ball. The popularity of tennis grew in places such as England and France. King Henry VIII of England loved to play this sport. Monarchs in these countries grew fond of the sport and adopted it into their countries’ culture.

In 1437 King James the I of Scotland died because of the popularity of tennis. When tennis balls kept rolling down the drain, the drain was blocked, through which he hoped to escape assassins using this drain but was unsuccessful and assassinated.

Despite its humble beginnings, tennis prospered in Europe, and in 1571 King Charles IV created the first “pro” tennis tour, and in 1599 the first book of tennis rules was published. Because so many monarchs played tennis, it is no surprise that it is called the sport of kings.

Many tennis courts in France were decommissioned. Why? Because there was the Tennis Court Oath during the French Revolution. The Tennis Court Oath was when a group of representatives from the Third Estate in France decided to make decisions on what they seemed fit for France. 

They formed this group because The Estates General only gave them one vote. The Clergy and Nobility received one vote as well even though they were vastly outnumbered by the Third Estate. This was viewed as unfair to the Third Estate. That’s why The Tennis Court Oath was formed.

Partly because of the Tennis Court Oath, tennis declined in the 18th and 19th centuries. As tennis declined, this gave way for other racquet sports to pop up, including squash, racquet, and lawn tennis. 

In 1872 the first tennis club in the world was founded! Walter Clopton Wingfield modernized the game of tennis by making new rules and even used a patent of what he had created. 

He invented it using croquet courts as make-shift tennis courts and wanted a portable court to have at parties. In 1881 the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (United States Tennis Association) was created.

Dating to 1905, Wimbledon in Great Britain, The U.S. Open in the U.S., The Australian Open in Australia, and the French Open in France are the biggest tournaments in tennis. These tournaments are now called grand slams, and winning one is considered quite prestigious.

In 1913 the International Lawn Tennis Federation (International Tennis Federation) was formed. Back in 1900 hundred, the Davis Cup was instituted. The Davis Cup is a competition between countries in a format similar to the Olympics.

Speaking of the Olympics, tennis withdrew from the games after 1924 but was reinstated later in 1984 to the Olympics. In 1954 Van Alan founded the International Tennis Hall of Fame. 

After this, the racquets and balls for the sport began to change. Racquets evolved from wood, then to metal, and finally to graphite. The balls are now made of rubber and felt. These balls are much better than the old ones stuffed with hair and wool.

Tennis soon evolved into what we see today, with the stadiums, courts, racquets, and balls, but remember that once tennis was some bored French monks hitting a wooden ball over a string of twine.