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 the indoor courts. In fact, real tennis can’t be played outdoors – players use the sloping walls of a real tennis court to strategically hit 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 start my tennis history at the point where lawn tennis diverged from real tennis, and it happened in the 1850s. It was in the 1850s that Charles Goodyear, renamed of the 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 the vulcanization of rubber came from rubber tennis balls. 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 – these are the ones that had been used in real tennis.
And since 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 recreational classes throughout the late 1800s.
The popularity of tennis has spread relatively quickly. Tennis clubs were created at this time. The first tennis championships were held in 1877 at Wimbledon … a precursor to the Grand Slam tournament held at Wimbledon every 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 start the true history of tennis around the 1850s when Charles Goodyear’s invention of vulcanized rubber made modern tennis possible.