Ball games evolved half a millennium before Christ was born, and became popular in Egypt, Northern Africa and Asia Minor before spreading to Europe. The first ball game to be played with rackets is thought to have been 'tchigan', a Persian game whose relationship to tennis is rather obscure. A probable ancestor of the modern game was sphairistike, played in Ancient Greece.
Tennis can be traced to France, where, in the 14th century, the original game was played with the palm of the hand, and hence was called Paume. The court was divided in two by a net, with each half marked in sectors numbered from one to fifteen. The winner of an exchange counted 15 in his favour and then, successively, 30, 45 and game, so providing the basis for the scoring method of today.
The term tennis is thought to have been derived from the word tenez meaning 'hold this', called by a server before beginning a rally.
At first, gloves were used to protect the hands. Later, simple clubs similar to rounders bats were introduced, and more sophisticated bats followed in due course. The first strung racket was introduced in the 16th century by an Italian priest. This racket was strung diagonally, and was superseded in 1583 by a fore and aft version.
At this time Paume reached the height of its popularity in France, principally among the upper class and with the enthusiastic support of Louis XIV. The irregular features of the playing areas of the day, which were mainly courtyards, have influenced the game of royal tennis, or real tennis, as it continues to be played today.
Paume spread to other parts of Europe, and in England became known as sphairistike, as in the times of the ancient Greeks. Following the trend to formulate new games around the mid-19th century, the ancient game of Paume was amended and played on a rectangular grass court in the 1860's in a form similar to modern lawn tennis. The venue was Leamington Spa, England, where the world's first lawn Tennis club was formed in 1872.
In 1874 Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, of the British Army Cavalry, framed rules for the new game, and in July 1874 patented his New and Improved Court for Playing the Ancient Game of Tennis. Wingfiield's court was shaped like an hour glass, with a 12 yard baseline narrowing to seven yards at the net, which was 14 yards distant, and a modified version of badminton scoring was used.
When, in 1877, the All England Croquet Club planned to conduct the First Gentlemen's Singles Championships (the original Wimbledon Championships), there were some five versions of lawn tennis being played, and a committee was appointed to formulate official rules.
They included three major changes from Major Wingfield's rules:
The court to be a rectangle 26 yards long and 9 yards wide, and the net to be hung from 5 feet high posts, each 3 feet outside the court, to a height of 3 feet 3 inches at the centre.
- Royal tennis scoring to be adopted in its entirety.
- One service fault to be allowed without penalty.
With the exceptions that the net is now hung from 3 feet 6 inch posts to 3 feet at the centre, and the size of the service court has been changed slightly, these rules have remained substantially unchanged for a century.
In those first Championships in 1877, 22 Gentlemen competitors took part and 200 spectators paid one shilling each for the privilege of watching them. The winner was Spencer W Gore who beat W C Marshall in the final 6-1 6-2 6-4.
The Championships at Wimbledon is now the greatest tournament in tennis and is the centre-piece of a truly worldwide game, with almost 200 countries as members of the International Tennis Federation.
Further background on tennis including the rules of the game can be found at www.itftennis.com