The History of Tennis and the French Open

May 20, 2009

Every sport has its roots, and tennis is no exception.  As most origins of sports, they are a bit bizarre. Tennis, apparently, began as a pass time for 12th century French monks who found themselves with a ball, a long empty room, and a bit too much time on their hands.

The word ‘tennis’ is viewed amongst historical circles as deriving from the French verb ‘tenez’, as in ‘take this’. Not quite as violent as it sounds; the monk who threw the ball into play would have shouted this to announce he was about to do so. There were no racquets in 12th century tennis; just your hand and a ball, a glorified version of handball.

It wasn’t long before the game was picked up as a form of procrastination for royals. French kings enjoyed whacking the roughly sewn balls around with big wooden bats for hours on end (the bats being the first racquets, created earlier on in the 13th century). Their servants were the first ball boys, and were responsible for throwing the ball into play so the likes King Henry VII would not be inconvenienced by doing it himself (many argue this is the origin of the idea of a player’s ‘service’ and ‘to serve’). Two kings lost their lives playing the game; one from over-exhaustion and one after hitting his head on the doorframe as he walked into the room.

Despite being potentially fatal if played by royals, it become such a popular sport that the whole of France seemed to be abandoning their duties and turning to tennis. Some accounts even tell of 1800 courts by the end of the 13th century, with sheep intestines used to string the racquet, and the ball now made from cork. Like any craze, it could not just be contained to the royal halls. Monks were still playing tennis from their original conception of the game, and there was concern amongst the religious body as a whole that they should be praying rather than hitting balls at each other.

But another fact about crazes are that they aren’t easily contained. No order or authoritative concern was going to stop people from having a part of this brand new sport. It was new and exciting, and the very roots of the game we love today.

There was a brief interlude where tennis suffered a blow; the French revolution put a stop not only to the French Royal family but anything associated with them. The announcement of the revolution itself took place on one of the first tennis courts at Versailles.

But the sport of tennis was tenacious. It clawed its way back into popular demand; people still had a taste for the game and it wasn’t long before it began to be played widely once again. Lawn courts in the 1800s soon became popular; the upper-class did not have to trek to a cloister to play on an indoor court. They could entertain their friends in their own back gardens.

This was the true catalyst to make tennis what we know today. This was when it was picked up in true form by the English, who first started to make the rules and requirements we recognise in the game today. When Wimbledon first showed off the new and exciting sport it was soon shot up there with croquet in the British affections.

It’s apt to talk about the origins of tennis this week; the French Open is mere days away. On the 24th May the sport returns to its home and the best players of the day fight on the courts at Rolland Garros. It gives it that wonderfully historical ring to it. That the history of the French Open and tennis itself extends beyond that 1800s mark and well into France’s history.

There must have been hundreds and thousands of home-made games throughout history – by bored kids, factory workers on their breaks, women entertaining themselves at home – but only a fraction of them have ever caught on to become sports in the way we understand them today. You wonder what we may be watching and blogging about if the monks had thought to do something else with that ball, that long narrow room, and all that time on their hands….


-          SophieG

Written by: SophieG

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