This article first appeared in the May/Jun 2011 issue of World Gaming magazine.
Tennis is one of the few sports that can legitimately lay claim to being truly worldwide. It is played in every corner of the globe and tennis champions have appeared from every direction. Let’s have a look at how the game developed over the years into the ‘open era’ that we know today.
All ancient civilisations played ball games of varying kinds – so arguments could be made that the Egyptians, Greeks or Romans were involved in the initial creation of tennis. There are records of a similar Persian game that used rackets and a ball prior to the game being adopted in Europe. Like many enjoyable pastimes it appears we can again thank the French aristocracy for playing a part in the development of tennis, as it appears they had more time for prancing around and enjoying themselves than any other group in history!
There is evidence that monks were playing handball sometime around the 12th century. It was played in a specially designed courtyard and the ball was covered with stitched hard leather and had a core of cork and hair somewhat similar to a modern day baseball or cricket ball. The problem was that this hard ball took its toll on the hands of the players so gloves and eventually rackets were adopted.
This game evolved into what is now known as real tennis. Real tennis today is extremely rare, with less than 50 courts in the world. But in the 17th century there were nearly 2,000 courts in France alone. Louis IV and his good friend the Pope tried to outlaw the game but it proved extremely popular and quickly spread across the Channel to England where kings such as Henry VIII embraced and then widely encouraged the game.
Similar to many games the history of tennis is a mish mash of events that eventually saw the game develop into what we know today. The term ‘lawn tennis’ was coined by British statesman Arthur Balfour in the second half of the 19th century and in 1877 the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, London was established. The French terms and scoring system were retained in this modern version of the game.
The late 19th century saw the establishment of tennis tournaments in France, the US and Australia. As the game continued to increase in popularity it faced its biggest challenge after World War Two when a split formed between the amateur and professional game. Up to this point tennis was a sport played exclusively by the rich. After all, it was played on lawn courts, which were expensive to maintain. The question of professionalism was raised when it became apparent that for many great players it was increasingly difficult to pay their travel and other expenses without any financial reward.
The year 1968 was a major turning point for the game when the so-called ‘open era’ was born. The four ‘grand slam’ tournaments allowed professional players to compete with amateurs. This was the birth of modern day tennis and the game skyrocketed in popularity as players from all over the world realised that hitting tennis balls over a net could be their ticket to fame and fortune.
The game met turbulence in the 1970s when competing tours signed world-class players and contracted them to different leagues or competitions. Thankfully the game was buoyed by huge worldwide television ratings so this problem was soon dealt with. By the time the ATP established a united front, the best in the world had already been competing against each other for well over 15 years.
Apart from football there is no other game that is enjoyed quite as much as tennis. Outside South Africa, the African continent doesn’t have a strong tennis culture but the game still enjoys strong interest and participation nearly everywhere else. There are tennis tournaments held all over the world every week but the four grand slam tournaments are the ones every player dreams of winning.
The four grand slam tournaments are held in England, the US, France and Australia and they originated from these country’s open championships. Great tennis players are usually compared to each other by how many grand slam titles they have won.
Held in London, this is the only grand slam tournament still played on grass. The absolute pinnacle of tennis, everyone wants to win Wimbledon as its history and importance to the sport is unrivalled. The players must wear white and tickets to the tournament are the hottest items in town. From the royalty sipping champagne and eating strawberries to the polite clapping of the crowd Wimbledon remains the civilised and iconic home of the game.
Considered the second biggest tournament of them all and it is the polar opposite to Wimbledon. Fans scream and yell as the player’s scramble around the court decked out in their sponsor’s colourful clothing. As they sweat and grunt their way through the tournament the fans chomp on hot dogs and chug beer in preference to the strawberries and champagne of Wimbledon. The hard deco turf surface is as tough and as unforgiving as the tennis. The surface is slower than grass but faster than clay. The tournament’s home is at Flushing Meadows, New York and this is not a tournament for the mild-mannered.
Stade Roland Garros in Paris is the home of the French Open. The tournament is played on bright red clay and players get covered in clay dust as they slide back and forth across the court. This is mainland Europe’s biggest tournament as it is played on the surface that most big hitting Europeans learn to play on. Clay is the slowest surface of them all so it favours big hitters over gifted technicians. There is a romance to this tournament that is uniquely French. A few muffled words of thanks in French will see players garner wild crowd support.
The Australian Open
Summer time in Melbourne, Australia is hot and so is the tennis. The Australian Open used to be played on grass but changed to a hard surface in 1988 when the tournament moved to Melbourne Park. The purpose-built tennis complex is arguably the best in the world and this is a tournament that has tremendous crowd support and is superbly run. Held in the last two weeks of January, it is the first Grand Slam of the year and players are desperate to start the year off in a good way.