In my mind, the true history of tennis does not begin until the 1850s, when the first “modern” tennis balls were invented and used. Before this point, the history of tennis is the story of a completely different game – “real tennis”.
Real tennis is played on indoor courts. In fact, real tennis can’t be played outdoors – players use the sloped walls of a real tennis court to strategically strike and return the ball to their opponents. Yes, real tennis is very similar to today’s modern tennis, or “lawn tennis”, but only in the same way that handball, badminton, croquet and racquetball are similar to lawn tennis!
This is why I chose to begin my tennis history when lawn tennis diverged from real tennis, and it happened in the 1850s. It was in the 1850s that Charles Goodyear, the famous Goodyear tire, invented vulcanized rubber. Vulcanized rubber is a process that prevents natural rubber from deteriorating so quickly (without the vulcanization process, natural rubber could deteriorate in just a few days.)
So, with the vulcanization of rubber, rubber tennis balls appeared. Rubber tennis balls can be used outdoors on grass courts. These rubber tennis balls were a nice change from the wads of wool, hair, wool or cork wrapped in leather or twine and fabric – this was what had been used in real tennis.
And because these vulcanized rubber tennis balls could be used outdoors, on grass courts, with no walls to bounce them off, new rules had to be invented for this new game of lawn tennis.
Walter Clopton Wingfield is generally the man credited with inventing modern tennis, or lawn tennis. Around 1874, Wingfield actually patented the game. And the game became popular among recreation classes throughout the late 1800s.
The popularity of tennis spread quite quickly. Tennis clubs were created at this time. The first tennis championships were held in 1877 at Wimbledon … precursor to the Grand Slam tournament held at Wimbledon each year, even today.
The rules of tennis gradually changed throughout the 1800s, changing the shape of the court and the height of the net and thus changing the history of tennis in the process!
So, as you can see, it makes sense that I would choose to begin the true history of tennis around the 1850s, when Charles Goodyear’s invention of vulcanized rubber made modern tennis possible.