Technological advancements and television coverage have transported tennis greats like Bjorn Borg, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Roger Federer from courts around the world into our living rooms. But tennis still existed before the sports broadcasters and constant media attention — just not a version of the game that you would recognize today.
The Creation and Evolution
Tennis began around the 11th century, as French monks used the palms of their hands to hit a ball against monastery walls or over a rope that was strung across the church’s courtyard. The monks called the sport jeu de paume, or "game in hand," and eventually adopted gloves in order to make the game more comfortable for the competitors.
Racquets and rules were instituted roughly 700 years after the monks first played jeu de paume, when Major Walter Wingfield introduced his idea of a netted sport to the United Kingdom’s upper echelon in 1874. Wingfield’s pastime was based on similar concepts used by the French monks, except instead of their palms, competitors used wooden racquets and played on grass courts. Major Wingfield named the sport sphairistikè, a Greek word meaning "ball game," and implemented official rules to regulate play.
Sphairistikè soon took on the name "lawn tennis" and spread quickly throughout the British Empire. The sport reached the United States in 1874, the same year that Wingfield popularized the game. A young woman named Mary Ewing Outerbridge brought it home to New York after playing a match while on vacation in Bermuda. The sport continued to thrive, and tennis moved beyond the direct influence of the United Kingdom into countries like Russia, France and Spain.
The Scoring System
The official origin of the scoring system used in tennis is not known. However, the most notable and credible theory of how the scoring system came into play involves the French denominations for silver coin pieces. During the time when the French monks developed jeu de paume, the most common silver piece was worth 60 sous, often made after combining four 15 sous pieces.
Since tennis was initially played for money, the French used the sous to mark the points, all worth 15, 30 or 45 sous. Forty-five sous was shortened to 40 after coin denominations were no longer significant in France. The most recognized term in the tennis scoring system is "love," a derivative of the French word l'oeuf, meaning "the egg" or "zero".
Setting the Standards for the Sport
For every organized sport, a set of standard rules is developed in order to maintain a level playing field. The United States Lawn and Tennis Association established the first set of rules pertaining to court dimensions, scoring and equipment in 1881 using a system similar to Major Wingfield's method, but with a few distinct changes: the court was no longer shaped as an hour-glass and racquets had to meet certain measurement requirements. Today, the United States Lawn and Tennis Association is known as the United States Tennis Association (USTA). The USTA now abides by the rules and regulations set forth by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
The Open Era
Tennis can be divided into two distinct periods: before 1968 and after 1968. Before that date, only amateurs were allowed to enter world-class tournaments and the top professional players were not allowed entry into the sport's most prestigious events. The governing body of tennis, the ITF, eventually saw the error of this system and in 1968 introduced tennis to the Open Era, which allowed professionals and amateurs to compete in the same tournaments.
The introduction of the Open Era revolutionized the sport by improving the quality of major tournaments, expanding the popularity of tennis, and increasing the prize money for the players. Amateurs looking to compete at the highest level could play in qualifiers and, if victorious, earn a spot to compete at the professional level. With the inauguration of Open tennis, the game became more diverse, popular and accessible to any who dreamed of making it on the big stage.
Tennis is a global sport, with an estimated 60 million participants worldwide. The continued development of tennis academies and facilities has introduced a new generation of young players who grow up with a racquet in hand. The game’s future stars certainly have options for inspiration, as Switzerland (Roger Federer), Spain (Rafael Nadal), Great Britain (Andy Murray), and America (Serena Williams) boast some of the greatest modern-day players. And tennis legends who helped shape the game, like Boris Becker (Germany), Bjorn Borg (Sweden), Steffi Graf (Germany), Rod Laver (Australia), and Martina Navratilova (Czech Republic) also proved that the sport’s talent pool has extremely wide boundaries. These players are heroes in their respective nations, but they're also international superstars who children and tennis fans alike look up to and admire.
Media coverage has also grown over the years, adding to the number of fans who follow the sport on a regular or even semi-regular basis. As tennis garners more worldwide attention and international participants, the game has reached outside of country clubs and into the masses.
Tennis in the 21st Century
Tennis is constantly changing thanks to new technology, retiring and developing players, and interactive media. The game is no longer about who can hit the ball the hardest or who has the smoothest strokes. Instead, the game relies on distinct player matchups, styles of play, and racquet control. Strategies and methods that were once effective, such as the serve and volley, are all but extinct in today's game of strength and power. Tennis is a physically demanding sport. However, as the game continues to develop and players are able to hit harder and more accurate shots, mental strength can be the deciding factor among such an evenly-matched playing field.