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Origins of Tennis and Tennis Equipment

Tennis EquipmentThere is no arguing that tennis is one of the most popular, widely spread, easily recognizable sports. Despite its international and well-learned reputation, the earliest origin of the sport is still a matter of dispute. Many believe that the ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians played the actual precursor of tennis, while others credit the French for inventing the game. There have been few Arabic words discovered and cited as evidence indeed, but drawings and descriptions of the game have not been found in any old manuscripts or other media from ancient Egyptian times. The theory is based on the assumption that the word “tennis” derives from a town of Tinnis located alongside Nile, while the word “racket” (or “racquet” by some) originated from the Arabic word “rahat” which translates into palm of the hand.

Most historians, however, agree that the first tennis-like game was played by French monks in the 11th to 12th century. It was a crude handball against monastery walls or over a rope that resembled a net. That game was originally called jeu de paume or game of the hand. French also has the word tenez which translates into “take that”, an expression used by the player who does the serve.  [More tennis background information here]

Popularity of Tennis

As the game grew more popular many courts were made indoor but the ball was still struck by bare hands. When players realized that hands were too uncomfortable, they started to wear glove for protection. It was the simple glove that actually developed into our modern rackets. As a start, the players modified gloves by adding webbing between fingers or even using a solid paddle. Soon the webbing was attached to a handle instead of  a glove; this was essentially a racket. To make the ball a wad of wool or hair was wrapped in string or leather. It developed into hand-stitched balls that looked like the modern day baseball.

Because it was popular, Louis IV and the Pope thought it was a diversion and tried to ban the game in vain. The game, in fact, spread to England where it had warmer welcome from both Henry VII and Henry VIII. Besides being avid players they were also proposing to build more courts. It took about four more centuries before rackets came into existence and people started to call the game “tennis”. This early game developed into  the modern tennis of today. England’s Hampton Court, built in 1625, was one of the original tennis courts used until now. Other original courts also still exist in Cambridge and Oxford.

Major Walter C. Wingfield patented rules and equipment for a game similar to modern tennis in 1874. The first courts appeared in the United States in the same year, too. Equipment sets were sent to other countries including India, Russia, China, and Canada by the following year. The popularity of tennis was aided by another popular game at that time, croquet. The smoothness of croquet courts made them easily adaptable for tennis. Wingfield’s version of the tennis court was shaped like an hourglass with the net as the narrowest area. The length was also shorter than the modern court. There were criticisms to such court and Wingfield revised his rules in 1875. After that, he left the development of the game to others. Standards for courts and rules used in modern tennis were based on the regulations used during the first Wimbledon tournament hosted by All England Club.

Evolution of Tennis Rackets

Starting in 1874 until 100 years later there was not any major change in racket design. Wooden rackets did see a lot of improvements during the course of that century particularly in laminating technology and string. The most noticeable changes were the use of thin layers of wood glued together and smaller heads measured around 65 square inches. The biggest problem was that they remained heavy at about 13 ounces to 14 ounces. Compared to modern rackets, even the most advanced wooden racket at that time is just too cumbersome and weak.

In 1889 the evolution of metal rackets began. During their early years of development, however, they were not popular. Wood was still the material of choice to construct frames of rackets but it ended in 1967 when Wilson Sporting Goods introduced the T2000, the first steel tennis racket which was lighter and stronger than wood. It easily became the top selling tennis equipment. Dimensions of the head remained the same until 1976 when another major change in the tennis racket took place.

In 1976, Howard Head, who was then working with the Prince brand, came up with oversized racket called the Prince Classic. This racket used an aluminum frame and string area of more than 50% larger than the standard 65 square inches in wooden racket. It also started the introduction of rackets with no standard head sizes. Aluminum was lighter than steel and the large head size meant a huge sweet spot as well. Oversized rackets including the modern ones make it easy for beginners because of the increased power. For professionals, such  a design could introduce too much power and therefore inaccurate. The frame was also quite flexible leading to unpredictability on where the ball would land.

A stiffer frame material was needed and it turned out that the best material was a mixture of carbon fibers bound together by plastic resin; it was called “graphite”. Starting in the 1980s rackets have been easily divided into two major categories: inexpensive ones made of aluminum and expensive ones made of composite materials or graphite. Modern professional-grade rackets probably weigh between only 10.5 ounces and 7 ounces. Tennis ackets have undergone innovation after innovation until today. One of the latest rackets by Head even has the ability to absorb vibration and convert it into energy which amplifies the stiffness or strength of the frame.