5 Things You Didn’t Know About The History Of Tennis

As Wimbledon unfolds (weather willing), let’s look back at the colourful, regal, even controversial history of tennis.

Tennis Facts

1. IT WAS POPULARISED BY A KING

The first "tennis" player we know by name was a 14th Century monarch, King Louis X of France. Nicknamed Louis the Quarreler and Louis the Stubborn, he was clearly a fiery sort of fellow and his passions extended to jeu de paume, a forerunner of the game that would become tennis, which was actually played with bare hands rather than rackets at the time. He was so devoted to the game that he became the first to construct indoor courts, but jeu de paume was to prove his undoing. After a very tiring match, he drank too much wine and died of pneumonia. (Though some wondered if he had in fact been poisoned.)

Tennis in Homburg, Germany. Engraving published by Illustrated London News in 1887.

Tennis in Homburg, Germany. Engraving published by Illustrated London News in 1887.

2. IT WAS BANNED

This early incarnation of tennis became too popular for its own good. So many people were hooked, that various religious and political leaders clearly became concerned that too much time was being spent on the indoor courts. In France, it became such a sensation among clerics that archbishops were known to actually forbid priests from playing the game. Over in England, the game was outlawed in 1388, apparently because it was distracting people from the more serious task of practising their archery skills, and in 1397 it seems Paris officials enacted a similar ban because citizens were allegedly neglecting their jobs.

3. IT HAS A RIVAL CALLED "REAL TENNIS"

What we know as tennis today is very, very different to the game which took Europe by storm all those years ago. In fact, until as late as the 19th Century it bore little resemblance to the tennis of today. That game, which evolved from jeu de paume, is still played today by a small group of passionate aficionados, and is known as real tennis. Played indoors, its rules are more complex and it looks to the layperson like a bizarre cross between tennis and squash. This is the type of tennis which would have been familiar to Anne Boleyn, who was said to have been watching a match when she was arrested.

4. IT ONCE HAD A VERY DIFFERENT NAME

The tennis of today evolved from real tennis sometime in the Victorian era. And it owns its current popularity to one man: Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, who developed and patented the rules of lawn tennis in the 1870s. The enterprising Major Wingfield released a box set including balls, poles, a net and a set of instructions. Unfortunately, he clearly didn't have an eye for good branding, giving his version of tennis the name "Sphairistike". Unsurprisingly, this mouthful of a moniker didn't catch on, and the game simply became known as lawn tennis.

5. THE FIRST WIMBLEDON WAS HELD TO RAISE CASH

Wimbledon might be the most iconic tennis tournament of them all, but its beginnings were far from glamorous. Why did the All England Club put on the very first Wimbledon tournament in 1877? To raise money to repair a roller for their lawns. Men's singles was the only event, and was won by a certain Spencer Gore, who had previously excelled himself as a cricketer. The 27-year-old from Wandsworth may have carved himself a place in tennis history, but he evidently didn't think much of the sport, saying "lawn tennis will never rank among our great games". Happily, a prediction that was not to come true...