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  The Zen of Tennis, by Nancy Koran



The History of Tennis

by Nancy Koran

Few scholars of the cultural world would deny that France occupies a position of international prowess, when measured by its contributions to the world of fashion, food, wine and overall elegance. It is commonplace to hear French colloquial phrases repeated throughout the global community in our everyday speech, or to find them in our English journals. Therefore, one can readily appreciate the influence of the French in the world of tennis.

  Jeu de paume court illustration
Illustration of a traditional
jeu de paume court.

Origins of the Game

We all know there are a plethora of sports where humankind has been seen batting a ball around with the hand, paddle or racquet. Some might even argue that the origins of tennis date back to ancient times — quite possibly to the Paleolithic age — when rocks were hit back and forth with a club.

Studies of Greek and Roman literature reveal evidence of a sport played with ball and paddle. One theory holds that the Greeks acquired the game from the Persians or Egyptians as far back as the 5th century B.C., and that it found its way to France as a result of the Saracen invasion. In similar accounts, the Persians played a game in the 4th century A.D. called "tchigan" which resembled "chicane", an ancient sport in Languedoc, France.

However, it is a sport which originated in 13th-century France that appears to be the true precursor of the game we know as tennis today. This game came into being in the monastery courtyards of France. As the Middle Ages drew to a close in Europe, the monastic pastime evolved into a form known as "real" or "royal" tennis, adopted enthusiastically by royalty and their court — who dubbed the new sport jeu de paume, meaning "the game of the palm."

Jeu de paume court at Versailles
Except for the carpeting and exhibits, the jeu de paume court at Versailles appears much as it did when the game was curtailed by the French Revolution.

"Real" tennis was played indoors in long narrow rooms, which made it challenging to hit the ball through the passages. Eventually, gloves were used to prevent the build-up of calluses. Over time, the game adopted the use of wooden bats, varying in size and shape, and finally racquets were invented.

The word tennis is generally attributed to the French tenez, which in context is a phrase meaning "here!", "catch!", "here you are!", or "be ready!" (I'm about to serve the ball) — an equivalent to the golfing expression "play away!" The use of the word service originates from the fact that royalty (apparently King Henry VIII, in particular) disdained it as too menial a task, and therefore had their servants place the ball in play.

The method of scoring which we use today has basically remained the same over the ages — each point being scored by fifteen, such as 15, 30, etc. The score "forty," which comes after "thirty", is actually an abbreviation of "forty-five." The word deuce (this term denotes that each player has a score of forty) is a derivative of the French words "à deux", indicating that two points must be won consecutively to win the game. There are many stories as to the origins of the score love (having zero points). Its most likely derivation is from the French word oeuf, which means egg. The oval shape of the egg is symbolic of the numeral "0."

  Tennis Court Oath stamp
Jacques Louis David painted several renditions of the Tennis Court Oath which was proclaimed in the jeu de paume court at Versailles on June 20, 1789. The Maldives Islands issued this commemorative stamp on the Revolution's Bicentennial.
(click on image to see full-sized panel)

Two kings lost their lives as a result of tennis: King Louis X of France (1314-16) and Charles VIII of France (1483-98). It is said that Louis X died of a chill immediately after playing an energetic game of jeu de paume at Château de Vincennes. Charles VIII died after striking his head on a horizontal piece of wood over the door which led to his tennis court.

Apparently, the game of tennis experienced some growing pains along the way. While its popularity continued to spread at a fever pitch, both monarchs and authorities of the Church felt compelled to ban tennis among their subjects, appalled by their growing addiction to the game. It had become so popular in the French monasteries that more than one cleric was known to have shirked his monastic duties in favor of playing. As a result, the Archbishop of Rouen in 1245 prohibited his priests from engaging in this diversion. For much the same reason, King Louis IX outlawed the sport. Such prohibitions even carried over to England, where the game was outlawed in 1388 because the people were failing to practice archery, an invaluable skill in warfare. In Paris, citizens were hit with a similar ordinance in 1397 because they were neglecting their families and jobs.

Nonetheless, these and succeeding edicts were virtually ignored, and tennis continued to flourish. Walled-in courts began to appear in France in 1368, and by 1600 there were two thousand indoor and outdoor courts throughout the country. Never losing sight of its royal appeal, the tennis ball itself was standardized by King Louis XI (1461-1483) of France. Balls were made of soft cloth sewn into a hard round shape. As to the construction of tennis courts, the Valois Kings François I (1515-1547) and Henry II (1547-1559) sought to outshine all their princely rivals, commissioning the celebrated French architect Jacques Androuet du Cerceau to design beautiful courts in the gardens of many French châteaux. Henry II was seen as one of the best paume-players of his age, and he liked to play before as many people as possible.

"When we have matched our rackets to these balls, We will in France (by God's grace) play a set Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard."

Henry V,
William Shakespeare.

During the French Revolution of 1789, tennis almost vanished throughout Europe. In France, anything which was associated with the King was abolished. The announcement of the French Revolution became known as the "Tennis Court Oath" (Le Serment du Jeu de Paume). In fact, the venue for this announcement on 20 June 1789 was carefully chosen: the Royal Tennis Court of Versailles Palace.

Following the conflict, tennis began a revival and became even more popular, with tennis clubs built to accommodate its many enthusiasts. In 1861, Napoleon III gave permission for the construction of two courts in the Tuileries Gardens of Paris. The building still stands today, though it has been converted into a famous museum for modern art, the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume.

It was during the 1870's that a new form of real tennis appeared. This new adaptation, called "lawn tennis", emerged for several reasons. First, real tennis was played indoors at the monasteries where the courts were not of a uniform size or shape. Second, it was impractical to travel great distances to play in a cloister. The aristocracy preferred to entertain their guests at home in their own backyards. They had the spacious lawns on which to set up a court, as well as the financial means for its expensive maintenance. Lawn tennis soon became the chosen sport of the well-to-do. As it was primarily played by the upper class, immense importance was placed on proper etiquette and controlled behavior.

In 1874 Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, a British Army officer, designed and patented his own version of the sport and made it portable so that people could carry all the equipment: net, ball and racquet, along with an instruction booklet. Major Wingfield called his version of the sport "Sphairistike" (a Greek word meaning "ball game"). Later the name changed to "Sticky" and then to its more descriptive name, "Lawn Tennis." Soon manufacturers began producing their own portable tennis sets.

Continued (Part 2): The Birth of the French Open


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