Millions will watch the game of tennis being played out on the grass courts of Wimbledon today but what are the origins of this popular game?
- Games involving hand and ball have been played across many parts of the world since the earliest times. The Greeks and Romans recorded a game known as hand ball played in a stone court. The ball of course would have had little elasticity being made possibly of cloth and leather or maybe wood covered in leather.
- It is thought that as the Roman legions moved into other parts of the continent, including Gaul, they took the game with them.
- Certainly by the early Medieval period the game was being played with great fervour in the ecclesiastical and noble households in France
The game was played in the streets against the walls of town buildings and keeps of castles, and, in particular in and outside monasteries and ecclesiastical buildings.
It was thought to be an excellent form of recreation for monks, whose physical confinement meant that exercise was perhaps lacking and the discipline of such a game was thought to be good for the soul. High ranking members of ecclisiastical society played the game as did noble men of bourgeoise families. The game developed in the great houses and courts of France with such fervour, that, quite astonishingly, tithes of tennis balls were even received by some bishops! Courts sprang up in all the major towns.
It took no time to cross the channel to the British Isles and be played by nobles here.
- Nothing is known about the rules for this early game of tennis, that it involved some kind of hard surface and a wall and a ball is about the extent of our knowledge, the name of the game, ‘tennis’ is thought maybe to have originated from the Anglo Norman word ‘tenetz’ meaning ‘ready, play!’
- By the C14th and C15th, the game in England has started to evolve into something with which we are familiar and rules of engagement begin to emerge. For example the dimensions of the ‘court’ have been arbitarily established at 90ft in length and 30ft in width. This compares with todays court of 96ft in length and 36ft in width.
- Quite how and when the hand became protected by the tennis ‘mit’ is uncertain but it appears in early drawings as a glove covered in vellum, which of course would have been available to the clerics of the time. This glove then appears to have had strips of cat gut stitched across it, the strings of the current racket. The glove then seems to have acquired a short handle.
References to the game start to appear in English literature by the C14th.
In one of the Wakefield Mystery plays, “The Second Shepherd’s Play” which was used to educate medieval people on Biblical matters, the game of tennis is referred to and this in itself is interesting, as it is being used in a story which is meant to bring the message of Christ to the people and uses familiar things to help make that connection to ordinary people. Tennis therefore, must have been a well known, important and respected part of Medieval life.
“I bring the bot a ball:
Have and play the withall,
And go to the tenys”
The Second Shepherd’s Play
The first rules of tennis ever published- Hulpeau’s Ordonnance du Royal et honourable Jeu de la Paulme, Paris, 1592, began;
”You gentlemen who desire to strive with another at tennis must play for the recreation of the body and the delectation of the mind, and must not indulge in swearing or in blasphemy against the name of God”.
Shakespeare includes references to tennis, in his play, Henry V, the hero, having been insulted by the Dauphin with a gift of tennis-balls, threatens to;
“Strike his father’s crown into the hazard” warning him that “he hath made a match with such a wrangler that all the courts of France will be disturbed with chases”.
Samuel Pepys, in a diary entry of April 4th, 1668, writes;
“how my Lord of Pembroke says he hath heard the Quaker at the tennis-court swear to himself when he loses”.
After a visit to the new tennis court at Whitehall, Pepys wrote of Charles II;
“but to see how the king’s play was extolled, without any cause was a loathsome sight, though sometimes he did play very well and deserved to be commended, but such open flattery is beastly”.
At some point, tennis becomes the sport of Kings.
- Charles II of France was painted with a racket in his hand at the age of two.
- The game was accessible to the common man, even if their version of it could only be played crudely, as long as they had a wall, a ball and a hand or some kind of racket, they could play.This so annoyed the nobility they tried to enact measures to stop the game being played by anyone barring the nobility but this was only marginally successful.
- Henry II of France was an excellent player.
- In England, James I’s son, Henry who sadly died at eighteen, was reputed to have been a brilliant performer.
- English royalty played in courts at Windsor, Whitehall, Westminster, Wycombe and Woodstock.
- Henry VII and Henry VIII were both keen supporters and excellent performers, the latter being responsible for the building of the Royal Court at Hampton Court Palace.
- Charles I and Charles II were devotees of the game all their lives and both used to rise at five or six in the morning to play.
- James II, was also a fine player.
- The untimely death of Frederick Prince of Wales in 1751 was due, according to that inveterate gossip, Horace Walpole, to a “blow upon the stomach from a tennis-ball” – one of a number of royal casualties resulting from tennis.
The game of ‘real tennis’ or ‘court tennis’ still has a healthy following although the game of tennis we are all familiar with has superseded it’s parent.
There are a number of historical tennis courts in Britain, the earliest ones at Hampton Court Palace (built 1529, renovated 1661), Falkland Palace, Fife in Scotland built in 1539 and Oxford University built in 1800.