Tennis is an ‘odd’ entity when it comes to exploring the background of it all, and how tennis became a sport in the first place. In fact, historians believe that tennis originated way back in France in the 12th century, but the ‘ball’ at that time was simply struck with the palm of someone’s hand against a wall. It actually wasn’t until the 16th century when those racquets came into use, and the game took on the title of “tennis.”
This sport was not so much America’s game. In fact, America doesn’t speak at all about tennis until it comes to the ‘fun’ rivalries like John and Jimmy. England and France were the locations of tennis aficionados where, at that time, the ball could only be hit against a wall (just like our handball is today, yet much calmer).
Tennis was only played on a ‘court’ when the King of the COURT – the randy King Henry VIII – wanted to observe. He was a huge fan of the game. Of course, as with all things, he is also the one who decided there should be opponents and a net. He liked the fact that two people would make war on the court and Henry, as always, got his way!
Between 1859 and 1865, along came a man by the name of Harry Gem and, with his friend, he developed a game where racquets were combined with the brand new “Basque ball game” that people were calling pelota. This game was played on croquet lawns in England. And then, when the game became something absolutely everyone wanted to be a part of, these same gentlemen founded the world’s first tennis club in a location called Leamington Spa.
In December 1873, a Major Walter Wingfield took all of this ‘tennis nonsense’ one step further and patented a similar game called sphaieistike . Yes, he was a Greek lover apparently – because this word came from the Ancient Greek and meant “skill at playing at ball” – I know…very creative. Soon though, this fun game became known the English countryside over as simply, “sticky.” This was played at all of the famous garden parties, and ended up combining the ever-evolving sport of tennis.
Now, yes, there are tennis historians who say that all tennis terminology (love, etc.) came from this period of having fun at “sticky,” and the first championships at the ‘home of tennis,’ Wimbledon, were played in 1877 to bring tennis to the forefront of sports.
Where does the old U.S. of A come into play in the world of tennis? Actually, through a very bright young woman. In 1874, Mary Ewing Outerbridge, who was a young socialite returning from Bermuda, had come back home after meeting the intensely humorous Major Wingfield. As fate would have it, Mary laid out a tennis court at the Staten Island Cricket Club in New Brighton Staten Island, New York. (The exact location of the original club was under what is now the Staten Island Ferry terminal). Here, Mary brought about the tennis infusion into the States. The first American National tournament in 1880 was played at Mary’s court. Although an Englishman won the singles match, a local American pair did win the doubles.
In 1881, the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (now the U.S. Tennis Association) was formed to standardize the rules and organize competitions. And, the U.S. National Men’s Singles Championship, now called the U.S. Open, was first held in 1881 at Newport, Rhode Island. The U.S. National Women’s Singles Championships were not far behind when, in 1887, the women hit the court with fervor!
Tennis remained popular in its ‘birthplace’ of France, where the French Open dates back to 1891. Thus, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French Open, and the Australian Open (1905) have remained the most prestigious events that tennis has to offer – and they can thank two people for it all: a socialite and a man who simply loved the game of “sticky!”
Now, who claims the ‘first’ title? Vinnie Richards was a top American tennis player in the early 20th Century, and went down in history as being the perfect ‘volleyer. Richards won the National Boys Outdoor Singles Tournament in 1917, and became a protege of Bill Tilden – after being defeated by the much older man in a match. Vinnie teamed up with him to win the United States doubles championship in 1918 at the age of only fifteen, and he remains the youngest male to have ever won a major championship. Amazing news? Twenty-seven years later, in 1945, he and Tilden won the United States Pro Doubles title. This team refused to die!
Photo Credit: WikiMedia Commons
Vinnie won so many matches, his professional career went on forever. It was at the end of 1930 when he announced his retirement from professional tennis, and by that time he had won the United States Pro Championship three times. He only re-appeared from retirement once in his life when he and Tilden proved that their team was still invincible. Richards was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1959.
There have been many, many careers over the history of tennis – and some of the most amazing and best-loved ‘characters’ have hit the court and brought the crowd to their feet. And who would ever have thought, as they threw their racquets into the stands and screamed at the ref for their awful calls, that their entire lives and futures rested on a game that would go down in history as simply, “sticky.”