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Home   News   1,000 years in the making: The evolution of tennis

1,000 years in the making: The evolution of tennis

Feb 27, 2016
written by: Heather Marrin
written by: Heather Marrin
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Long, long and even longer before stadium seating and radar guns, it is thought by many historians that monks in french monasteries were the first to play what they coined, jeu de paume; English translation: palm game. Using their hand and a wooden ball over a rope that divided a courtyard, text books agree that they would yell “Tenez” (translation: “take this!”) while serving the ball. And so the story goes, “Tenez” was born; as was the grunt.

As centuries passed, European nobility took a liking to the sport and the game received a few upgrades which included indoor venues, leather balls, and of course, a paddle!  And then centuries after that, “Tenez” became “Tennis,” balls got fuzzy, and paddles were replaced with carbon fibre graphite racquets.  Of course, that’s not all that happened.

To woo your guests at your next dinner soirée, here’s a list of fun facts and dates that have lent to the 1000 year evolution of our favourite sport: 

1100s – Give me a hand

As mentioned, historians note handball in the 1100s as the precursor to Tennis. Can you imagine hitting a wooden ball repeatedly with the palm of your hand? No wonder, the sport evolved to include a paddle!

1300s – Early racquets

While some tested out webbed gloves to protect their hands from injury, by the 14th century, history saw the birth of what could be considered the first legit wooden racquet, strung with animal guts. (Yes! Animal guts!)

1625 – Indoor courts were born

Indoor courts became all the rage in the UK thanks to the likes of Henry VII and Henry VIII who commissioned the construction of courts across the country. Most notable on that list: the Hampton Court Palace in the London Borough of Richmond established in 1625.

1850 – Balls need bounce!

Thanks to Charles Goodyear who invented a process for rubber called “vulcanization,” balls got more bounce and the game no longer had to be played indoors. Naturally, grass courts were on the not-so-distant horizon. Amen!


1874 – Wingfield: A tennis forefather

Good day, Major Walter C. Wingfield! A tennis forefather, historians consider London-native Wingfield to be the first person to patent the wooden racquet and tennis’ first set of rules and regulations. However, it should be noted that his idea of a tennis court was shaped like an hourglass. A little weird, but hey, so was smacking a wooden ball with your hand across a rope in a courtyard; you gotta start somewhere!

1875 – The beginning of Babolat

In 1875, Major Walter C. Wingfield took a vacay to see Pierre Babolat (Babolat ring any bells?), known for crafting natural gut strings for musical instruments. Lending similar tech and expertise to the frame of a racquet upon Wingfield’s request, he created the first set of natural gut strings. The family owned and operated Babolat business is still alive and thriving today!

Pierre Babolat

Pierre Babolat

1877 – Wimbledon

Ladies and gentlemen, take your seats, Wimbledon has commenced! On a sunny day (we assume) in 1877, the All England Club Croquet decided to hold a fundraiser to raise money for a broken roller at the club.  Making their own tweaks to Wingfield’s blueprint — they traded his hourglass design for a rectangle and wrote down a new set of rules — they hosted the first ever Wimbledon Tennis Tournament, realized how awesome the sport was, and added a little more flair to their name becoming the “All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club.”


1940s – Hardcourt brings the bounce

Hello hardcourt! Now a grand slam fan favourite, the 1940s paved the way for acrylic blend hardcourt surfaces. “Look at the bounce on that ball,” said Everyone.

1967 – The Wilson T2000

All hail the Wilson T2000. A Jimmy Connors fave, while it wasn’t the first metal racquet — historians argue that the first one debuted in 1889 but wasn’t widely accepted — it was definitely the one to shock the nation and garner the most popularity.  The design, actually by Rene Lacoste in 1953, brought the idea of a metal racquet to fruition by manipulating stainless steel into the shape we know and love today: long neck, wider head.

1972 – Fuzzy balls

Balls got green and fuzzy, except at Wimbledon. Wimbledon chose to maintain their allegiance to a white ball and didn’t introduce the more easy-to-see balls until 1986.


1980s – Graphite, clay and infra-red

Straight-up stainless steel proved to be fairly heavy and pros needed something light, yet fierce. With heavy-hitters like Prince, Head, and Wilson all at the drawing board, the 1980s introduced players the wonderful world of graphite.

Within this decade, courts also got a makeover, and the game was now being played on clay in parts of Europe, and a system of infra-red beams called a “Cyclops” became used within pro arenas to determine whether a served ball was in or out.

1989 – Measuring speed with radar

Thanks to the new light, yet fierce racquets, the game continued to speed up. Shots and serves sped up so quickly that naturally everyone wanted to put a time-stamp on them. Enter the radar gun! Giving birth to performance statistics outside of just points earned, the radar gun gave precise readings allowing us to rank players in a seemingly more accurate light.

1990s – Tennis fashion heats up

Racquet? Check. Court? Check. Fashion? Now check! The best of the best gear changes happened in the 1990s and can be observed by flipping through magazine clippings of Andre Agassi during his reign. Thanks to lightweight and breathable fabrics like nylon, both men’s and women’s fashions took a turn for the more comfortable and airy, and also became a little more hip with players’ saying yes to bright neons.    


2001 – The Hawk-eye brings line-call precision

Bidding farewell to line-call controversies, the sport welcomed Paul Hawkins’ Hawk-Eye to the game! Utilizing a number of high speed cameras within an area to track visual data into a computer, mathematician and computer expert Hawkins designed a way to monitor ball paths and landing spots with a margin of error of 3.6 millimetres.  

2008 – Plexicushion makes an entrance

Rocked at the Australian Open since its inception, hardcourt got an update that was arguably physically easier on the body: plexicushion, a material blend of latex, rubber and plastic particles.

(AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

2012 – The Slamtracker brings us the data

In the era of data collection, tennis coaches rejoiced as IBM took it upon themselves to analyze eight years worth of data, 41 million data points, to provide on-going player assessments. Designed with a number of aggregating data collection features, the program SlamTracker became a go-to for instant illustrations of a match in progress, point by point.

Present Day – Tennis tech rules the scene

As a spectator you can now watch a match, at home on your 3D television, observing point-by-point data, with instant replays from various vantage points, all while chatting with friends about the match within your online social community in real-time. Crazy, right?

As a player, you can now find a racquet frame that suits your weight with a complementary string tension, monitor your own shots and serve speed with state of the art apps, all while playing on a surface of your choice in shoes especially designed to boost your agility and overall performance.

Now go on and say it, “Tenez!”