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The Origins and Early History of Tennis

Ancient Egypt or Medieval France?

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The earliest origins of tennis are a matter of some dispute.

One side believes that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans played a precursor to tennis. Drawings or descriptions of any tennis-like games have not been discovered, but a few Arabic words dating from ancient Egyptian times are cited as evidence. The theory says that the name tennis derives from the Egyptian town of Tinnis alongside the Nile and the word racquet evolved from the Arabic word for palm of the hand, rahat.

Aside from these two words, evidence for any form of tennis preceding the year 1000 is lacking, and most historians credit the first origins of the game to 11th or 12th century French monks, who began playing a crude handball against their monastery walls or over a rope strung across a courtyard. The game took on the name jeu de paume, which means "game of the hand." Many who dispute more ancient origins argue that tennis derived from the French tenez, which meant something to the effect of "take this," said as one player would serve to the other.

Popularity Brings Innovation

As the game became more popular, courtyard playing areas began to be modified into indoor courts, where the ball was still played off the walls. After bare hands were found too uncomfortable, players began using a glove, then either a glove with webbing between the fingers or a solid paddle, followed by webbing attached to a handle -- essentially a racquet. Rubber balls were still centuries away, so the ball was a wad of hair, wool, or cork wrapped in string and cloth or leather, then in later years, hand-stitched in felt to look something like a modern baseball.

The nobility learned the game from the monks, and some accounts report as many as 1800 courts in France by the 13th century. The game became such a popular diversion, both the Pope and Louis IV tried unsuccessfully to ban it. It soon spread to England, where both Henry VII and Henry VIII were avid players who promoted the building of more courts.

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