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Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World

Alison Rowley


The game of tennis originated in northern France in the Middle Ages. It was played in cloisters, and players used the palms of their hands to hit the ball. Rackets were introduced only in the sixteenth century. The modern game of lawn tennis, now played outdoors, emerged in Britain in the 1870s. During the 1880s, tournaments began to be organized, rules and court size were standardized, and national associations were founded across Europe and in the United States. The game was included in the first modern Olympics in 1896, but it was dropped after the 1924 Paris games. In 1913 the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF; “Lawn” was dropped from the name in 1977, and the initials became ITF) was created in Paris. Until 1923 the annual world championship coincided with the All England Championships at Wimbledon. The Davis Cup, a men's tournament between countries with national associations, began in 1900. In 1923 the idea of a world championship was abandoned. Instead the championships of England, France, Australia, and the United States were designated as Grand Slam tournaments. Players, both male and female, competed in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. Court surfaces have also changed as the game has grown, with clay courts being built in Europe and concrete hard courts emerging after World War II.

Tennis experienced a golden age in the 1920s and 1930s. Notable players included Fred Perry, Don Budge, and Henri Lacoste. Suzanne Lenglen, who won the French Championship six times between 1920 and 1926, became a role model and fashion leader. All major tournaments were canceled for the duration of World War II.

In the 1960s the men's game was dominated by Australian players such as Rod Laver and Roy Emerson. The women's game received a boost with the introduction in 1963 of the Fed Cup, which is similar to the Davis Cup. The American Billie Jean King burst onto the scene of the women's game in the middle of the 1960s. Coverage of the sport expanded as television made the game available to a wider audience. In 1967, Wimbledon was televised for the first time in color. With this new media attention the sport became even more international, and more prize money became available. In 1968 the so-called Open Era began when members of the ITF voted to allow professionals and amateurs to compete in the same events.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the introduction of the tie-breaker system and the 1973 “battle of the sexes” match when Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs. International superstars included Björn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Ivan Lendl. The rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova dominated the women's game, although the 1980s also saw the emergence of Steffi Graf, who ultimately won twenty-two Grand Slam singles titles. Tennis returned as a full medal sport at the Olympics in 1988.

Key figures of the 1990s included Pete Sampras, the winner of fourteen Grand Slam singles titles, and Andre Agassi, one of only five men to win each of the Grand Slam tournaments. The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, also turned pro in the 1990s.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, tennis was a multibillion-dollar industry. The game continued to be governed by the ITF, whose 199-member national associations represent every continent.


Barrett, John. Wimbledon: The Official History of the Championships. London: CollinsWillow, 2001. A richly illustrated and comprehensive history of one of the game's premier events.Find this resource:

    Gillmeister, Heiner. Tennis: A Cultural History. New York: New York University Press, 1998. A meticulously researched book that dispels many misconceptions concerning the early history of the game.Find this resource:

      Alison Rowley

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