Exploring the Rich History of Tennis and the Evolution of Its Name

What Was Tennis Originally Called?

The sport we know today as modern tennis used to be very different. If you trace it back far enough, you’ll see that there was a time when players didn’t even use racquets. And back then, the sport had a different name.  What was tennis originally called?

Key Takeaway:

Tennis was originally given its French name “Jeu de paume.” At that time, players didn’t use racquets. Instead, players hit the ball with their hands, which is why the name translates to “Game of Palms.” As the sport evolved it became known as “lawn tennis,” and finally “tennis.”

I’ll go into more detail about the naming of tennis in the rest of this article, so keep reading!

The History of Tennis Names

The oldest known version of tennis dates back to the 11th century. At that time, racquets had nothing to do with the sport. Instead, people hit a ball back and forth with their hands. That game was called “Jeu de paume,” and people played it in monasteries in those days.

The rules were simple and close to what tennis is today. Players on either side of a net hit the ball back and forth and did their best to smack a ball past their opponent.  However, I’ll get more into this, and the other forms of tennis throughout the years, in the next section.

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Jeu De Paume

As a game played long ago, it’s difficult to know exactly what it looked like in its heyday. Fortunately, we do have some artistic renderings from that time.

The sport originally was played gloveless and involved people hitting a ball back and forth, but players introduced special equipment at some point. People started wearing gloves when they played to protect their hands from the hard ball.

Eventually, they stopped hitting with their hands altogether. When racquets were introduced, the game started morphing into what we know as tennis today.

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The Birth of Lawn Tennis

As players started using racquets, tennis matches moved from the indoors to grass courts.

Because of that, the game was called lawn tennis in England and was only played by the type of wealthy people who could afford those courts. As lawns became synonymous with the sport, it added ‘lawn’ to its title. Hence the name “lawn tennis.”

Of course, these days, tennis is played on many different surfaces. Hard courts are the most common, but there are also clay courts, and players even play on carpet surfaces in different parts of the globe.

Since lawn courts have become the rarest form of court, it would be strange if the sport continued with that name. So, the game became known simply as “tennis.”

The Brief History and Timeline of Lawn Tennis

1800s – Tennis was the precursor to modern tennis, originating in medieval France as a handball game called “tennis.” The game eventually evolved into lawn tennis and spread to England, where the England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club was founded in 1877.

Late 1800s – In 1881, the United States National Lawn Tennis Association was established, later becoming the United States Tennis Association. A set of rules was created to govern the game, leading to the formation of professional tennis players and the birth of the Tennis Tour.

1900s – The International Lawn Tennis Federation was formed in 1913 to regulate the sport internationally.

1970s and Beyond As tennis continued to gain popularity, the Association of Tennis Professionals was established in 1972 to represent the interests of professional tennis players.

Fun Fact: The cultural history of tennis courts is rich, with famous venues like the Leamington Tennis Club in England and the Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club in France hosting prestigious tournaments.


Real or “Royal” Tennis

As the name suggests, this sport is close to the original form of tennis played through the centuries across Europe.

Real tennis, however, shouldn’t be confused with the tennis that most people know and love today.  Others may refer to it as “Royal Tennis”.

Some of the game is similar, but the racquets are different, with a smaller sweet spot. The ball is also much harder and more closely resembles a cricket ball.

Today, real tennis isn’t nearly as popular as tennis. You can find the world’s only courts in England, Australia, France, and the USA.

Pro Tip: Do you know how many times you can commit a fault in tennis? The answer will surprise you.

How Tennis Got Its Modern Name

As the mechanics of tennis can be traced to France, so can the name.

The word “tennis” comes from the French word “tenez,” which means something like “here it comes!” Players would shout this as they served the ball across the net.

It’s a phrase used throughout the evolution of tennis and followed the game to all corners of Europe.

Eventually, that phrase was so entrenched in the game that the two couldn’t be separated. In 1873 it made its way into the sport’s first official rulebook.

Where Did Tennis First Originate?

Tennis is a global phenomenon today, played in most countries worldwide. But like anything, it has its roots.

Tennis began under the name Jeu De Paume, a game that originated in France in the 11th century. The game was popular and eventually spread to other countries like Spain and England. Over the years, the sport morphed and moved to lawns in England, where players began using racquets.

Who First Invented Tennis?

Speaking of tennis’s first rulebook, it would make sense if the author was also the sport’s inventor. It’s a little more complicated than that, though.

Major Walter Wingfield is the first official inventor of tennis. He published the first official rulebook in 1873 and patented the sport in 1874. However, since the evolution of tennis has taken place over hundreds of years, it’s difficult to credit just one person as the inventor.

The more generous answer is that many people contributed to tennis over many years.

Who Came Up With the Word Tennis?

While Major Wingfield is credited with inventing lawn tennis, who named it remains unclear. Most people give the credit to Wingfield as the man who coined the term tennis. 

Some say Wingfield was inspired by French vocabulary and that’s where he got the name from. But in reality, the genius behind its name is a bit of a mystery.   


Real Tennis Turns Modern

By the 19th century, the term “tennis” was firmly established throughout the sporting community. Throughout the years, the game changed not only in name but the equipment used; including the tennis ball.   

In addition, the type of court we all play tennis on also changed.   Tennis tournaments and tennis championships are now played on grass and clay.  Despite the name change and court expansion, the rules of tennis never changed.

Pro tennis leagues are played on three different court surfaces but the rules remain the same. 

The First Olympics

Athens held the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. The selection of sports was much smaller than compared to what we’re used to seeing today, and tennis was among those sports. It debuted under that very name, cementing “tennis” as the common way to refer to the sport.

Only two tennis events were at those Olympics – men’s singles and doubles. John Boland won the singles event, and the tennis team of Boland and Friedrich Traun won the doubles.

1988 Seoul Olympics

Tennis took a break from the Olympics after the 1924 games in Paris. It wouldn’t return to the stage until 1968 when it was a demonstration sport. Twenty years later, it was back to full medal status at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, once again under the name “tennis.”

There were four events at that competition – men’s and women’s singles and doubles. Stefan Edberg took the men’s singles gold, and Steffi Graf won on the women’s side.

 A Brief History of Tennis Courts

The journey of tennis courts from inception to modern day showcases innovation and adaptation. Initially, tennis thrived on grass courts, echoing the game’s elite British origins. However, as tennis sought a global appeal, different surfaces entered the arena.

Clay courts, favoring the European climate, emerged, offering a slower game that emphasizes strategic play. The United States introduced hard courts, blending durability and a faster playing surface, thereby democratizing the sport further.

Innovatively, artificial grass and acrylic surfaces have also made their mark, providing consistent playing conditions worldwide. This evolution of tennis courts not only reflects the sport’s geographical spread but also its dynamic nature, catering to diverse playing styles and climatic conditions.

Thus, tennis courts have evolved significantly, mirroring the sport’s global growth and adaptability.

Related Content: Here are the differences between a tennis court and a pickleball court you never knew existed.

What Was Tennis Originally Called – Final Thoughts

The rules and equipment of tennis have undergone dramatic changes over the years, as has the name. The answer to what was tennis originally called is not as straightforward as I thought. So, you might be a little surprised like I was.

The name made less sense as the sport went from a game played with the palm of your hand to one utilizing racquets. Finally, sports organizers borrowed terms already used in the game, and that’s how we got “tennis.”

The Oringal Name of Tennis – Other FAQs

Q: What was tennis originally called?

A: Tennis was originally called “lawn tennis” to distinguish it from other forms of the game played on different surfaces.

Q: When did the game of tennis originate?

A: The origins of tennis can be traced back to the 16th century in France where it was played as a court game known as “jeu de paume” or “game of the palm.”

Q: What is the significance of the International Tennis Hall of Fame?

A: The International Tennis Hall of Fame honors the greatest tennis players and contributors to the sport, preserving the history of tennis for future generations.

Q: How did lawn tennis come into existence?

A: Lawn tennis, as we know it today, evolved from the ancient game of tennis played in the 16th century. The modern rules and format were established over time, leading to the birth of lawn tennis.

Q: What is the importance of the grand slam tournaments in tennis?

A: Grand slam tournaments are the most prestigious events in tennis, bringing together the top players from around the world to compete for titles like Wimbledon, the US Open, the French Open, and the Australian Open.

Q: Who established the first tennis club?

A: The first lawn tennis club was founded in England in the 19th century, marking the formal organization of the sport and its rules.

Q: What is the role of the International Tennis Federation?

A: The International Tennis Federation (ITF) is the governing body of tennis worldwide, setting the rules and regulations for the sport and organizing international competitions.



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