Tennis History

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Tennis History

Tennis has a long, long history, but its establishment as the sport we know today can be dated. In 1859 Major Thomas Henry Gem, a solicitor, and his friend Batista Pereira, a Spanish merchant, who both lived in Birmingham, England played a game they named "pelota", after a Spanish ball game. The game was played on a lawn in Edgbaston. In 1872 both men moved to Leamington Spa, and with two doctors from the Warneford Hospital, played pelota on the lawn behind the Manor House Hotel (now residential apartments). Pereira, joined with Dr. Frederick Haynes and Dr. A. Wellesley Tomkins to found the first lawn tennis club in the world and played the game on nearby lawns'. In 1874 they formed the Leamington Tennis Club, setting out the original rules of the game which form the basis of the modern ones. The Courier of 23 July 1884 recorded one of the first tennis tournaments, held in the grounds of Shrubland Hall (demolished 1948).

Also in December 1873, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield devised a similar game for the amusement of his guests at a garden party on his estate at Nantclwyd, Wales. He based the game on the older sport of indoor tennis or real tennis ("royal tennis"), which had been invented in 12th century France and played by French aristocrats down to the time of the French Revolution.

According to most tennis historians, modern tennis terminology also derives from this period, as Wingfield borrowed both the name and much of the French vocabulary of royal tennis and applied them to his new game:

  • Tennis comes from the French tenez, the imperative form of the verb tenir, to hold: it thus means "Hold!" This was a cry used by the player serving in royal tennis, meaning "I am about to serve!" (rather like the cry "Fore!" in golf).

  • Racquet comes from raquette, which itself derives from the Arabic rakhat, meaning the palm of the hand.

  • Deuce comes from à deux le jeu, meaning "to both is the game" (that is, the two players have equal scores).

  • Love may come from l'oeuf, the egg, a reference to the egg-shaped zero symbol; however, the phrase "un oeuf" is more commonly used and the etymology is in question.

  • * The convention of numbering scores "15," "30" and "40" comes from quinze, trente and quarante, which to French ears makes a euphonious sequence.

Seeing the commercial potential of the game, Wingfield patented it in 1874, but never succeeded in enforcing his patent. Tennis spread rapidly among the leisured classes in Britain and the United States. It was first played in the U.S. at the home of Mary Ewing Outerbridge on Staten Island, New York in 1874.

In 1881 the desire to play tennis competitively led to the establishment of tennis clubs. The first championships at Wimbledon, in London were played in 1877. In 1881 the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (now the United States Tennis Association) was formed to standardise the rules and organise competitions. The U.S. National Men's Singles Championship, now the U.S. Open, was first held in 1881 at Newport, Rhode Island. the U.S. National Women's Singles Championships were first held in 1887. The Davis Cup, an annual competition between national teams, dates to 1900.

In 1926 a group of American tennis players established a professional tennis circuit, playing exhibition matches to paying audiences. For 40 years professional and amateur tennis remained strictly separate. Once a player turned pro he or she could not compete in the major (amateur) tournaments. In 1968 however, commercial pressures led to the abandonment of this distinction, inaugurating the Open era, in which all players could compete in all tournaments, and top players made their living from tennis.

Tennis was for many years predominantly a sport of the English-speaking world, dominated by the United States, Britain and Australia. It was also popular in France, where the French Open dates to 1891. Thus Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French Open and the Australian Open (dating to 1905) became and have remained the most prestigious events in tennis. Together these four events are called the Grand Slam (a term borrowed from bridge). Winning the Grand Slam, by capturing these four titles in one calendar year, is the highest ambition of most tennis players.

In 1954 James Van Alen founded the International Tennis Hall of Fame, a not-for-profit museum in Newport, Rhode Island. The building contains a large collection of tennis memorabilia as well as a hall of fame honoring prominent members and tennis players from all over the world.

With the beginning of the Open era, the establishment of an international professional tennis circuit, and revenues from the sale of television rights, tennis has spread all over the world and has lost its upper-class English-speaking image. Since the 1970s great champions have emerged from Germany (Boris Becker, Steffi Graf), the former Czechoslovakia (Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova), Sweden (Björn Borg), Brazil (Gustavo Kuerten), Russia (Yevgeni Kafelnikov), and many other countries. Recently African American players such as Venus and Serena Williams have become a force in the game.

Among the greatest male players of the Open era are Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, John Newcombe, Stan Smith, Björn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Jim Courier, Mats Wilander, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Roger Federer. Among the women are Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Serena and Venus Williams, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Lindsay Davenport,and Martina Hingis.

Many great players played in the days before Open tennis. Most of them are unknown by modern sports fans. Among them are Bill Tilden, Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, Don Budge, Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer, Pancho Segura, Frank Sedgman, Pancho Gonzales, Ken Rosewall, and Lew Hoad. For many years observers considered Tilden to be the greatest player who ever lived. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was general agreement that Gonzales had replaced Tilden as the best ever. Any one of these eleven would be competitive in today's game. Other fine players of the pre-Open era include Maurice McLoughlin, "Little Bill" Johnston, the "Four Musketeers" (Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet, and René Lacoste), Vinnie Richards, Jack Crawford, Vic Seixas, and Tony Trabert.

Who is the greatest male player of all time? It is impossible to give a clear answer, as new techniques and improved equipment have changed the game greatly in the last thirty years. Many authorities feel that the 1920s Bill Tilden, for instance, who was noted for his intelligence, adaptability, and athleticism, would be able to change his game and strokes to rival the modern players. Evidenced by the frequent upsets of top seeds by lower-ranked players in today's major tournements, there is relatively little difference in the quality of play among the top hundred players. If one believes that past stars would rank in the top hundred today, they also might fare as well against today's top players.

A listing of the six greatest players of all time might include, in chronological order, Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver, John McEnroe, and Pete Sampras. A study of their records against other players could support an argument for any one of them as the best player of all time. A similar case could perhaps be made for Jack Kramer or Björn Borg. Kramer himself, who became a top player in the early 1940s, believes that Ellsworth Vines was the greatest of all time ... and so it goes -- an interesting topic for speculation.

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