In my mind, the true history of tennis does not begin until the 1850’s, when the first “modern” tennis balls were invented and used. Before this point, the history of tennis is the history of a completely different game – “real tennis.”
Real tennis is played on indoor courts. In fact, real tennis cannot be played outside – the players use the angled walls of a real tennis court to strategically hit and return the ball to their opponents. Yes, real tennis his 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!
That is why I choose to start my history of tennis at the point in which lawn tennis diverged from real tennis, and this happened in the 1850’s. It was in the 1850’s that Charles Goodyear, of Goodyear tire fame, invented vulcanized rubber. Vulcanized rubber is a process that prevents natural rubber from deteriorating so quickly (without the vulcanization process, natural rubber could deteriorate within just a few days.)
So, with the vulcanization of rubber came rubber tennis balls. The rubber tennis balls could be used outdoors on lawn courts. These rubber tennis balls were a nice change from the wads of wool, hair, wool, or cork wrapped in leather or string and cloth – these are what had been used in real tennis.
And because these vulcanized rubber tennis balls could be used outdoors, on lawn courts, without walls to bounce them off of, new rules had to be invented for this new game of lawn tennis.
Walter Clopton Wingfield is usually the man who is given credit for the invention of modern tennis, or lawn tennis. Around 1874, Wingfield actually patented the game. And the game became popular among the leisured classes throughout the end of the 1800s.
The popularity of tennis spread relatively quickly. Tennis clubs were set up around this time. The first tennis championships were held in 1877 in Wimbledon… a precursor to the Grand Slam tournament held in Wimbledon every year, even today.
The rules of tennis changed gradually throughout the later 1800s, changing the shape of the court and the height of net and thereby changing the history of tennis in the process!
So, as you can see, it makes sense that I choose to start the real history of tennis around the 1850’s when Charles Goodyear’s invention of vulcanized rubber made modern tennis possible.