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The Ancient History of Tennis

The person who is credited with bringing tennis to the United States is Mary Outerbridge.  But she didn't invent the game. Neither did Major Walter C. Wingfield, who tried to get a patent for the game. But we'll get back to those two in a second. Just who invented tennis?

Back in ancient Greece, they played a game using the palms of their hands to whack a ball  made of wound-up leather back and forth over a net. The Greeks called this game Spharistike which means "Let's play." The British Army officer, Major Walter C. Wingfield read about life in ancient Greece and heard about this game. But, he wanted to improve upon it some.  So, instead of your hands, he said players would use a racket to hit the ball over the net.  And the balls were made of rubber.  The court, Major Wingfield decided, was going to be shaped like an hourglass, making it narrower at the net than the backcourt area.  The net was also hung as high as in badminton (a game the Major had learnt while in India).  He also added additional nets called "side curtains."

Major Wingfield's  friends played this game and loved it except for those side curtains. So they came down.  But the popularity of this new game he (thought) he created motivated him to go to the patent office for his Spharistike game.  Unfortunately, Major Wingfield learnt that although he might have invented a game that was unique to him, it wasn't well unique to the rest of the world. It was just called by other different names.  In fact, the French had really already invented tennis by the time he went for the patent. And not only was it a popular pastime in France, but in many other parts of Europe.  Major Wingfield was upset about not getting to patent his game.  But that didn't fizz out his enthusiam for it.  He spent years helping to standardize the rules and spread it's popularity.  First in his own country of England, then to the Bristish colonies.  And one of those colonies was you guessed it...Bermuda!

This is where on March 20, 1874 Mary Outerbridge returned from vacationing in Bermuda with some very strange sports equipment in her luggage.  While in Bermuda, Mary learnt this sport played with rackets and a fuzzy felt-covered ball.  She set up the equipment in her backyard and her girlfriends were at first a little reluctant to play.  They claimed the game was a bit "unladylike."  After a while they didn't think so.  In fact, Mary's two brothers watched from the sidelines and soon tried the game. They enjoyed it also, but their friends teased them that it was a "girlie game."  A bit miffed, the Outerbridge boys challenged the teasers to play. Once these boys realized how much skill it took the jokes stopped. Soon both males and females were playing tennis in the New York area.  Soon it spread across the USA.

As I said, the French are credited with creating tennis from the Greek game of Spharistike. And so, this is the reason that a lot of the tennis terms are French in origin.  The French actually called the game "Jeu de paum" or Game of the Palm.  Originally the ball was hit back and forth over the net with an open hand.  But this got painful.  So players began to use gloves.  The gloves not only helped prevent injury, it helped the players to hit the ball with a greater force.  So little by little the gloves got bigger as people wanted to win.  Finally, the gloves got so big they looked more like paddles.

Finally, around the 17th Century someone in France came up with the idea of making a new type of tennis glove that had a rounded inward palm with a crisscross mesh of hardened leather strings over it.  This evolved into taking the mesh over-sized glove OFF the hand and securing it to a handle.  And so the tennis racket was born!

Actually the word "racket" comes from the Arabic word rahat meaning "the palm of the hand."  So the name of the racket today is representative of the fact that it replaces the open hand.

The term "tennis" actually comes from the French word tenez which means "Get ready, I'm going to serve." 

Speaking of the word "serve", it goes back to the time of Major Wingfield's day when his friends played and well a servant delivered the first ball.  And he also started the game by tossing it into play. So the tennis terms "serve" and "service" started from the real servants.

One of the most commonly asked questions is about the tennis term "love" which means zero or nothing aka no score at all. So how did Love come to represent nothing many ask?

The shape of the numerical digit for nothing is a zero and is well rather egg-shaped to the French (who are into using a lot of eggs for their cooking).  So in French the word l'oeuf means both egg and zero.  As with all translations from one language to the next, well the sounds etc. get lost.  So to the English l'oeuf sounded more like "loooof" and evolved into "love."  So a game score that is say 5 to nothing is stated as "5-Love."

As with many sports going back thousands of years, there is a lot to say.  And each year, tennis creates more history, facts, stats, player popularity etc.  Since it's impossible for me to cover this sport on one web page, I only meant to provide the historical foundation.    

Please visit our History of Wimbledon page to learn how this competition began.  Also, we have a Free Golf Handicap Calculator and Golf Jokes below.  And visit The International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. 

In 1245 the Archbishop of Rouen, France outlawed monks from playing tennis.
True or False?

(Place your cursor over the dot)
True.  The Monks neglected their duties they were so involved with playing tennis.

Check out some other Sports Fun at our Main Entry Page.

Visit our History of Wimbledon Page
with a tennis cartoon also.

Source: "When Human Heads were Footballs"
By Don L. Wulffson
Aladdin Paperbacks (Simon and Schuster) © 1998

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