A brief history of tennis
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An adaptation of a very ancient sport, the jeu de paume, codified in England in the 1870s, tennis has become a major sport followed by millions of fans throughout the year. Present at the Games from 1896 to 1924, it made its official return to the programme in 1988, and the great Olympic stage has become a key point in the careers of the world’s best tennis players.
Spectacular, played today on all kinds of surfaces by tens of millions of people, for fun or in competition, tennis has spread all over the world. Designed and codified in England in the 1870s, it is the direct descendant of jeu de paume, invented in France in the 11th century. The developments of this mediaeval sport, originally practised with bare hands, like the invention of the racket in the 16th century and the special scoring system (15, 30, 40, game), led directly to tennis, including its name, from the French word “tenez!” (in the sense of “here it comes!”), which you said to your opponent as you were about to serve.
The popularity of tennis in England quickly overtook that of croquet. Indeed, barely three years passed between the publication of A Portable Court of Playing Tennis by Welsh Major Walter Clopton Wingfield in 1874, the defining work in terms of codifying lawn tennis, and the holding of the first Wimbledon tournament in 1877. The decisive element introduced by Wingfield was the use of a rubber ball, which could bounce on grass.
But other surfaces were quickly introduced. After grass, the end of the 19th century saw the introduction of clay, then hardwood flooring and, much later, the “hard” courts with concrete or acrylic surfaces. Women’s participation in competition tennis also came quickly: they were already competing at Wimbledon in 1884. At the time, they played in long-sleeved dresses, with corsets and hats. That was how Charlotte Cooper was dressed when she won her first Wimbledon title in 1895, at the age of 23.
Although tennis was on the programme of the first Games of the modern era in Athens in 1896, where Britain’s John Pius Boland won the men’s singles to become the first gold medallist in his sport, and then won the doubles with Germany’s Friedrich Traun, women had to wait until the tournament at the 1900 Games in Paris, contested on clay in the bucolic setting of the Ile de Puteaux in the middle of the Seine.
Charlotte Cooper, the first-ever female Olympic champion
Charlotte Cooper was one of the few female players to serve by throwing the ball up before hitting it, while most of her opponents were still serving underhand. An excellent volleyer, she was an attacking player, rushing up to the net as soon as she had an opportunity. On 10 July, she won the final of the mixed doubles with Reginald Frank Doherty, beating the pair composed of France’s Hélène Prévost and Britain’s Harold Mahony, 6-2, 6-4. Sweeping all before her in the women’s singles, on 11 July 1900, beating France’s Hélène Prevost in the final, 6-1, 6-4, she became the first woman to write her name in the Olympic history books for an individual event!
For his part, Doherty, with three medals in Paris and a doubles gold medal in London in 1908, remains the most medalled male tennis player in the history of the Games.
In 1913, tennis was growing in popularity all over the world. The national tennis associations thus decided to join forces and harmonise their structures. An international conference was held in Paris, with 12 countries represented. The International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF) was created on this occasion. Tennis remained on the Olympic programme until 1924, and then disappeared after a dispute between the increasingly powerful ILTF, which was defending its interests, and the International Olympic Committee, which flatly refused to compromise.
The evolution of tennis in the 20th century
During its absence from the Olympic programme, tennis underwent several major developments, including the concept of the “Grand Slam” in the 1930s, which means winning the four “major” tournaments, namely the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. And above all, the end of amateurism in 1968, the start of the Open era, when the sport became professional. 1973 saw the start of the ATP and WTA global and weekly rankings. The rackets changed considerably, too.
At first they were made of wood, which was used until the 1980s. Then new materials took over, offering less weight but more power, like graphite, titanium, carbon, steel, etc. In the 1970s, the tie break was also introduced, to prevent sets from going on indefinitely. If the score is 6 all, the first player to win 7 points takes the set. Only Wimbledon retains the “decisive set” (i.e. the fifth set) with no tie break, which resulted in the record score of 70 games to 68, by which America’s John Isner beat Frenchman Nicolas Mahut after 11 hours and 5 minutes of play, with the fifth set alone lasting 8 hours 11 minutes, in the first round in 2010!
The Golden Slam – the supreme goal!
Tennis was back at the Olympic Games in 1968 in Mexico City, but only as a demonstration sport; and then again in 1984 in Los Angeles, which saw a win for the 15 year-old German player, Steffi Graf. Its real return to the official programme was at the 1988 Games in Seoul. Steffi Graf won the women’s singles in the same year as winning the four major tournaments. She thereby became the only person, man or woman, ever to achieve the “Golden Slam” in a single season.
Taking part in the Olympic Games then became a vital career component for the world’s best players. Some, like Chile’s Nicolas Massu, reached the peak of their career at the Games. After winning two gold medals in Athens in 2004 (the men’s singles and doubles), he went so far as to declare: “I was so happy because this is my best memory in my sport career. If I look back in 10 more years, I look back on this, I'm gonna be so happy. Now I can die happy.”
Others, like Britain’s Andy Murray, have seen their careers really take off after an Olympic victory: an Olympic gold medallist in London, in 2012, he was world number one five years later, with three Grand Slams and a Davis Cup victory. But above all, he is the only person in 120 years of Olympic history to successfully defend his title, in 2016 in Rio.
Others, like Roger Federer, one of the greatest players of all time, have made the Games a priority. And his delight at winning the doubles gold medal with Stan Wawrinka in Beijing in 2008, and his singles silver medal in London in 2012, contrasts with his immense disappointment at “not being able to represent Switzerland in Rio in 2016” because of an injury.
Achieving a golden Grand Slam, even if over the course of a career rather than a single year, has become a particularly prized achievement for the top players. America’s Andre Agassi, Olympic champion in Atlanta in 1996; Spain’s Rafael Nadal, gold medallist in Beijing in 2008; and America’s Serena Williams, Olympic women’s singles champion in London in 2012, have done it. With her sister Venus, Serena Williams has accumulated a total of four Olympic gold medals, while her older sister has gone one better by taking the silver medal in the mixed doubles in Rio in 2016, making her the tennis player with the most Olympic medals: five. Tennis continues to write some great pages in Olympic history, with more spectacular contests doubtless yet to come!
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