Tennis as we know it today originates from a medieval French game known as jeu de paume. In the earliest versions of the game players would hit the ball with their hands (hence the name, which translates as ‘palm-game’), but in later centuries rackets were introduced and a scoring system adopted. This became ‘real tennis’ (also known as ‘court tennis’ in the USA or ‘royal tennis’ in Australia) and is still played today. It gained popularity alongside a number of other racket sports including badminton and ‘fives’, the latter of which Robert Dighton recorded in a series of sporting pictures from the 1780s.

A watercolour of men in 18th-century dress playing a game of 'Fives' with racquets on an indoor court.

Fives played at the Tennis court Leicester Fields, c.1784, Robert Dighton the Elder. Image credit: Yale Center for British Art.

Modern tennis emerged as a variation on real tennis in the second half of the 19th century and was known as ‘lawn tennis’. It was popular among wealthy Victorians who played it outside on grass during the summer months. Tennis parties were elegant occasions, with informal matches taking place on the host’s property alongside croquet games, a picnic tea and other forms of entertainment.

Men and women dressed in white 19th-century dress prepare for a tennis match on an outdoor court. A picnic run is placed alongside and onlookers stand or sit on benches.

Game of lawn tennis, with inscription, 'Antelopes Thursday' Therapia Woods Khedives Gardens' and inscriptions on reverse, c.1870, C.W. Cole. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

In the 1870s, efforts were made to standardise tennis rules, scoring and equipment. Major Walton Clopton Wingfield published a first codified set of guidelines in 1874, and at around the same time the real tennis player J.M. Heathcoate designed a flannel-covered rubber tennis ball that could bounce on grass or hard surfaces and that soon became the norm. The All England Croquet Club, spotting an opportunity to diversify, repurposed one of its croquet lawns in Wimbledon and opened it up as a tennis court. It proved so popular that the club rebranded itself as the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, and in 1877 it held its first championship: Wimbledon tennis was born.

A watercolour of a woman, shown from the waist up in a wide-brimmed hat holds a tennis racquet and ball.

Drawing of a woman holding a tennis raquet and ball, between 1862 and 1890s, Richard Wingfield Stuart. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

After that, competitions were quickly introduced around the world. The first national tournaments were held in the US in 1880 (at Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club); New Zealand in 1886; Canada and South Africa in 1891; and Australia in 1905. Meanwhile, the game itself continued to evolve. Clay courts were in use by the end of the 19th century and other surfaces were introduced in later years, leading to the interesting variety in play today.

Two women in long skirts and hats play tennis on a lawn, watched by a group of people picnicking at a table and served by a member of house staff. Watercolour painting.

The Lawn Tennis Party at Marcus, 1889, Arthur Melville. Image © The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Women participated in the sport from its earliest days and played competitively at Wimbledon from 1884. For decades, they took to the courts in long skirts, hats, and even corsets; it was only in the 20th century that players such as Suzanne Lenglen pushed for looser clothing in competitive matches, which caused quite a stir at the time. Tennis fashion is still a point of controversy today, with players like Serena Williams and Ana Ivanovic pushing against traditional regulations such as Wimbledon’s insistence on all-white outfits.

Watercolour. A man doffs his hat to a party of three women and two men on a lawn tennis court. All wear Victorian dress.

Untitled (A game interrupted), 1846-1886, Randolph Caldecott. © Trustees of the British Museum

Today, the professional game has a huge public following, and Wimbledon remains one of the most popular and well-known tournaments in the world. But alongside the professionals, thousands of people take to local courts, parks and gardens around the world each summer to try their hand at the modern version of a longstanding sport.

Untitled (A Game of Tennis), c.1620-1626, Adriaen Van De Venne. © Trustees of the British Museum