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Sphairistiké, Anyone?

June 2024
13min read

Introduced not quite a century ago under a name born for oblivion, the game of tennis promises to last forever

Miss Mary Ewing Outerbridge was unquestionably one of New York’s most respectable young ladies. Her Staten Island family was socially impeccable and correspondingly well-to-do; she was seen in the best places at the right times. It was therefore a considerable shock when the attractive Miss Outerbridge, returning from a holiday in Bermuda in March, 1874, had trouble getting through customs in New York.

Certainly she looked like anything but a smuggler, but in her luggage the inspectors found some curious and unidentifiable objects. There was a long, narrow net that did not seem to be designed for catching fish; there were several implements with long handles and webbed heads. Were they rug beaters? Snowshoes? Butterfly catchers?

Miss Outerbridge explained that these things were the equipment for a new outdoor game called sphairistiké. This was Greek to the inspectors, and it was only because the young lady’s brother, who was travelling with her, had connections in the shipping business that they were persuaded to pass her without further ado.

A few weeks later, passengers on boats sailing past the grounds of the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club were puzzled to observe a game being played on the fresh spring grass that was clearly neither cricket nor baseball. Across a net hung between two posts, gentlemen and—yes, ladies! —were hitting a bouncing rubber ball with some sort of bat, running hither and thither with little cries of exhilaration.

Tennis had come to America.

The immigration of what is today one of America’s favorite warm-weather sports occurred almost simultaneously with its birth. It was only in February, 1874, that Major Walter C. Wingficld, a British ofHccr and sportsman, had applied for a patent on “a new and improved portable court for playing the ancient game of tennis.” The truth was and Major Wingfield claimed as much—that the new “portable court’ constituted a new game. The “ancient game, which was and is called court tennis, is an indoor affair with complicated rules deriving from the fact that the ball can bounce off all four walls plus the ceiling and still be in play. It goes back some five hundred years, and there are familiar allusions to it in Shakespeare. Major Wingfield’s game, which he first introduced to liven up a house party in Wales in 1873, was far simpler. All it required was a level expanse of lawn, a couple of posts and a net, and rackets to hit the ball with. It was, in short, much like badminton, which also appeared about 1873, with the important difference that in lawn tennis a rubber ball was used instead of a feathered “bird.” This made for a more energetic contest, which was what the major was after.

It is a tribute to the intrinsic appeal of tennis that it caught on despite the name with which Major Wingficld first encumbered it. A classical scholar to the extent that became a gentleman, he based its name, sphairistikc, on a Greek word that means “ball-playing.” Arcane nomenclature may have helped convince the proper authorities that he had something patentable, but for a popular game this was, as various wits remarked, a bit sticky. “I hear,” wrote one, “that Major Wingfield … intends bringing out an indoor game at Christmas with a Latin name. … The name, I understand, will not exceed ten syllables, and may be easily mastered in six lessons.” Incidentally, badminton took its name from Badminton Manor, where the game was first played in England. As the major’s family were the possessors of Wingfield Manor, it may have been by a narrow miss that tennis was not christened wingfield. In any event, since the new game was clearly descended from court tennis, the nickname lawn tennis was quickly taken up, and sphairistike soon forgotten.

One thing that did seem to be a kind of subliminal tribute to Major Wingfield’s family name was the shape of his original court, for it was in fact wing-shaped that is, narrow at the net and wide at the two base lines. There was no evident advantage to this. The net was high and sagging, ranging from seven feet at the posts to four feet eight inches at the middle. Since the court was just sixty feet long, it is obvious that the only way to get a ball over the net and still keep it within the lines was to pop it up in a gentle parabola. Even at the net’s low point anything distantly related to a drive carried the ball across the base line and out. It is thus not surprising that lawn tennis at first was looked upon as something of a lady’s game, or at best a diversion for mixed company that would not derange a lady s costume or composure. Its evolution into the fast and gruelling competition that is seen at any modern championship match was, however, rather rapid.

By the time the first All-England championship matches were held at Wimbledon in 1877, the court had become a sensible rectangle with the same dimensions it has today: seventy-eight by twenty-seven feet for the singles game. The net was now down to five feet at the posts and three feet three inches in the middle. These changes apparently were arrived at by judicious trial and copious error, the end in view being always a livelier game.


Sphairistiké, as played by Major Wingfield and his cronies, was scored like badminton, points accruing only to the server and counting one each up to the winning total of fifteen or twenty-one. But there was something about the game—its ambiance of green lawns, pretty ladies in long dresses, gentlemen in sports jackets, tea and lemonade—that made the old court-tennis scoring system more attractive. The first point scored counted fifteen; the next made thirty; then forty; then game. If you got no points, your score was “love”; if you tied the score at forty-all it was “deuce”; after that you had to make two points to win—advantage and game. The origin of this dreamy terminology is lost in the mists of time, but there arc rival schools of thought, particularly about “love.” A favorite theory holds that this is an anglicization of the French L’oeuf , an egg of course being equivalent to zero; another theory sees “love” as meaning “nothing” in the sense of, “She did it for love, not money.” (Shakespeare may have been of this camp: note Much Ado About frothing , which is about love.) Etymology unfortunately offers little support to either speculation, but whatever its genesis, the romantic scoring system has persisted, with its somewhat dubious logic, since its official adoption in 1877.

In America, as in England, tennis remained for its first quarter century largely a game for the affluent and elegant few. A suitably fine lawn was not likely to be found except on a private estate or on the grounds of an exclusive club. Only four people could play at one time, moreover although it seems that a few bold and brief experiments were made with three or four on each side. The Outerbridges’ Staten Island club soon became a leading center for the game, as did clubs in Newport, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia, both of which had courts as early as 1876. A distressing lack of uniformity with regard to courts, nets, and balls led to the establishment of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association in 1881 still the national arbiter of the game today, although the word national has since been dropped from the title.

Newport, in the i88o’s and go’s, was the most fashionable summer resort in America, with the consequence that the national championship tennis matches were played there from 1881 until 1915, when they were moved to the more accessible West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills, New York. At Newport’s famous Casino, play on the beautiful grass courts was usually not taken too seriously. Henry W. Slocum, Jr., who was to become the second national singles champion, listed the Casino’s advantages as well-kept courts, good accommodations for the players, and “the most beautiful women of the country” among the spectators. They were there as much to be seen as to see; courtside conversation was often brisker than the play, and many a point was lost because a player had his eye on a belle instead of the ball.

There were, of course, a few young men who concentrated on the new sport with all the fervor they were wont to devote to baseball or bicycling. Such a one was Richard D. Sears, of Harvard, who won the first official national championship at Newport in the summer of 1881 and continued to win every year thereafter until 1888, when he retired from competition because of a neck injury. A diligent student of the game, he kept up with every innovation of style and technique, contributing several himself. His record of seven consecutive U.S.L.T.A. singles championships has never been matched, although two other famous players compiled a total of seven wins each—William A. Larned, between 1901 and 1911, and William T. “Big Bill” Tilden, in the 1920’s.

During Sears’s reign in the 1880’s tennis assumed its modern and presumably permanent form, having reached maturity in only one decade. The net was officially set at its present height, three feet at the center and three feet six inches at the posts, in 1882. With the base lines thirty-nine feet from the net, a nice balance had now been achieved—a balance, it should be said, that makes tennis nearly unique among leading competitive sports.

In baseball the harder a man can clout the ball the better; and if he knocks it out of the stadium, he has a home run. In hockey a hard-slung puck is usually prevented from going out by the sides of the rink. In football, soccer, and basketball, a ball projected out of the playing area temporarily halts the game but does not change the score. In tennis, if you hit the ball out, your opponent gets a point. Yet the subtle balance between net height and length of the court means that you can hit the ball with all your strength and still see it fall inside the lines—if you have the skill to hit it correctly. A ball with an off-the-racket velocity of a hundred miles per hour, struck from one base line at a height of just over four feet and with an initially level trajectory, will skim the net and strike the ground about a half second later, well within the court on the other side. Few, even among the experts, have the power and control to make such a shot consistently. But the game has a beautiful self-adjusting character. The more gently the ball is hit, the more generously it can be allowed to soar above the net with plenty of margin for error and still no danger of its going out. Serious beginners are almost automatically accommodated, yet reckless incompetence is severely penalized.

As the years went by, the peculiar ballistics of tennis led the top players to startling new ploys. The first British champion, Spencer W. Gore, discovered that if he moved up close to the net, he could dispose of the ball as it came over and before it could hit the ground. In other words, he discovered the volley. This was regarded as ungenteel by some players, notably those whom Gore had beaten; but a close search of the rules turned up nothing against it. The countervailing weapon was soon introduced: the controlled pop-up, or lob, which sailed neatly over the volleyer’s head to land near the base line. Then a fierce competitor named William Renshaw—another Englishman—learned to run back under a lob and hit it on the way down, like a serve, thus producing an ungettable shot known admiringly as a Renshaw smash. Renshaw fought a series of verbal and court duels with another ranking player, H. F. Lawford, who had developed an enormously powerful drive and who disdained the volley. For a while, that is. As a commentator observed in 1885, Lawford finally came over to the volley game himself, “finding that Mr. W. Renshaw invariably beat him.”

The volley had come to stay, but its use among the better male players unfortunately widened the gender gap and turned mixed doubles into a game avoided by anyone who played tennis seriously. It was simply taken for granted that ladies had neither the wit, the strength, nor the agility to volley, and the instruction manuals of the 80’s and go’s are full of admonitions to the effect that, as Dick Scars put it, “the volley game is not made for ladies.” “With a few exceptions,” declared a book on lawn tennis in 1885, “ladies never seem to know where the ball is going.”

Part of the problem, as Sears gallantly recognized, was not innate inferiority but feminine styles of dress. Right to the end of the century, few ladies ventured out upon the court in anything but lawn-sweeping skirts, and hats were de rigueur . Sears hopefully recommended short skirts—that is, just above the ankle—and “a nice small hat” rather than “a great big hat that waggles about,” but apparently it never occurred to him, or to anyone else, that such superficial adjustments could do much to offset what was assumed to be a natural deficiency. Ladies habitually served underhand until well after 1900, and anyone who broke that custom could expect to be regarded as a hussy.

Tennis dress for men started out on the casual side, and early pictures show a broad variety—knickers, tam’o-shanters, long trousers of varied hues, colorful cravats, and bright blazers. Gradually, white became the favored color, and by the go’s fashionable players were seldom seen on the court in anything else. The regulation costume of long white trousers and a white shirt was to prevail for nearly a half century, giving way finally —in the igßo’s—to the more practical shorts only after a considerable struggle between the innovators and the critics, who felt that the Lord clearly meant calves, knees, and thighs to remain covered on tennis courts. (Nobody has yet dared to appear in an important public match stripped to the waist, although the nature of the game would seem to make that as appropriate for tennis as it is for swimming or boxing.)

Despite the fact that the official name of the game has never changed from lawn tennis, good grass courts have always been scarce, and only a tiny percentage of players have ever played on one. Such a court is devilishly difficult to establish and maintain, and the advantages of less pleasant alternatives—clay, asphalt, and concrete—became obvious before the game was ten years old. In California, where the sport began to be highly popular around the turn of the century, concrete for some reason was the preferred material; elsewhere clay was the more usual substitute for grass. The last decade or so has seen increasing use of rubber or plastic composition.

The other appurtenances of the game —nets, balls, and rackets—evolved slowly during the early years of tennis, with relatively little change in the net, a bit more in the ball (which grew steadily more uniform and more lively), and the most of all in the racket. In this connection it probably is news to many players today that the rules of the game have nothing whatever to say about the racket. It can be of any size, shape, or material, and the “standard” model is purely a convention. Nothing would prevent a player from entering a tennis tournament armed with a Ping-Pong racket or a baseball bat, if that suited his whim, although he might not do too well in the competition. In actuality, of course, the search has been for a well-balanced, more resilient racket that would impart more speed to the ball with less effort, and this has led to tighter and tighter stringing and—recently—to metal frames. Catgut (made, paradoxically, from sheepgut) is still preferred by most good players to the more durable nylon, which first made its appearance in tennis rackets shortly after World War II .


Everything considered, tennis changed far more in the first twenty-six years of its existence in America than it has in the seventy-one years since 1900. As the new century began, the game was being played much the way it is today, and it is altogether likely that the male champions of 1900 would give a good account of themselves were they to appear in a modern tournament. It was in that year, by the way, that regular international competition was launched in the name of what is now called the Davis Cup. Dwight F. Davis, of St. Louis, a well-fixed Harvard senior in 1900 and (with his classmate Holcombe Ward) a United States doubles champion, donated the now-famous silver bowl to the U.S.L.T.A. It was officially known as the International Lawn Tennis Challenge Trophy, and it was to go to whichever nation successfully challenged the current holder in a series of matches. Davis, Ward, and Malcolm D. Whitman, also a Harvard man, were the first American Davis Cup defenders, and they easily beat Great Britain, which made the mistake of sending over something less than its top-ranking players. (The British won the cup in 1903, however, and it was ten years before America won it back. Australasia had become a tennis power in the meantime, holding the cup from 1907 through 1911.) Dwight Davis later was prominent in government circles, serving as Secretary of War under Calvin Coolidge and as governor general of the Philippines from 1929 to 1932. He went right on playing tennis.

One thing that did change after 1900 was ladies’ tennis, but this was more a part of the women’s liberation movement, early phase, than it was a development of the game itself. In 1904 there appeared from California a fourteen-year-old girl named May Sutton, who proceeded to win every women’s tournament in sight. Her tactics were not very ladylike, but they were highly effective: she ran hard for every ball that was out of easy reach; she served overhand; she volleyed whenever she got the chance; and she put every one of her approximately hundred and ten pounds behind every drive. May went on in 1905 to win the ladies’ singles at Wimbledon the first American of either sex to take the British championship. It was the beginning of the end of patball, underhand-serve tennis for women. Henceforth the aim would be to play as nearly like a man as possible—although another generation would go by before women shed enough layers of clothing to put them on an equalopportunity basis with their male counterparts. The fact that in 1971 any man rated among the top ten in the country could probably beat the first-ranked woman player, however, is something for women’s lib to explain if it can.


Notwithstanding what evidently is a built-in difference of ability between the sexes, it is doubtful that tennis has any close rival as a first-rate spectator sport that is also superbly suited to the strictly amateur weekend player. The game is a bouncy reproach to the millions of sedentary sports fans who get a little fatter even week as they watch professional athletes perform on the baseball diamond or the gridiron. It has been estimated that four out of five spectators at the national championship matches at Korest Hills are tennis players themselves. It only takes two or four to play, and nowadays there arc courts everywhere. The game is strenuous increasingly so as one’s skill improves - but if you keep at it, you can play safely, with great benefit to your health, from eight to eighty. Golf palls beside it, as far as exercise goes, and swimming ordinarily lacks the competitive element. Skiing is more difficult, more dangerous, and more expensive.

Tennis is also an exceedingly satisfying game psychologically and emotionally. By tradition it is polite a courtly game. You do not haze your opponent or try to hit him with the ball, and you give him the benefit of the doubt on close calls. At the same time you may work off a great deal of aggression by swatting the ball as viciously as you can and in one match of just ordinary duration, a tennis player hits the ball more times than a professional baseball player is likely to from May to September. Dramatic reversals are common, and there is no such thing as being hopelessly behind in tennis. Many a player has saved himself at match point by a cool or desperate maneuver and then gone on to win game, set, and ultimately match.

All in all, tennis is the great international game, and it shows every sign of attracting more followers each year. Despite some disconcerting innovations, such as the synthetic “turf” that has displaced real grass at a number of eminent clubs, it has been essentially the same game for nearly a century, and Major Wingfield and Miss Mary Outerbridge would seem to deserve a modern salute: Right on!



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