Unlike most other sports, lawn tennis has precise origins. An Englishman, Major Walter C. Wingfield, invented lawn tennis (1873) and first played it at a garden party in Wales. Called "Sphairistiké" [Gr., = ball playing] by its inventor, the early game was played on an hourglass-shaped court, widest at the baselines and narrowest at the net. In creating the new sport, Wingfield borrowed heavily from the older games of court tennis and squash racquets and probably even from the Indian game of badminton.
Court tennis is also known as royal tennis. It originated in France during the Middle Ages and became a favorite of British royalty, including Henry VIII. The progression from court tennis, which used an unresilient sheepskin ball filled with sawdust, sand, or wool, to lawn tennis depended upon invention of a ball that would bounce.
Lawn tennis caught on quickly in Great Britain, and soon the All England Croquet Club at Wimbledon held the first world tennis championship (1877). Restricted to male players, that event became the famous Wimbledon Tournament for the British National Championship, still the most prestigious event in tennis. In 1884 Wimbledon inaugurated a women's championship. Soon the game became popular in many parts of the British Empire, especially in Australia.
Tennis spread to the United States by way of Bermuda. While vacationing there, Mary Ewing Outerbridge of New York was introduced (1874) to the game by a friend of Wingfield. She returned to the United States with a net, balls, and rackets, and with the help of her brother, set up a tennis court in Staten Island, N.Y. The first National Championship, for men only, was held (1881) at Newport, R.I. A women's championship was begun six years later, and in 1915 the National Championship moved to Forest Hills, N.Y. Since 1978 what is now the United States Tennis Association Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., has hosted the event (known as the U.S. Open). The Tennis Hall of Fame is in Newport, R.I.
In 1900 the international team competition known as the Davis Cup tournament began. Along with the Wightman Cup (begun 1923), an annual tournament between British and American women's teams, the Davis Cup helped to focus international attention on tennis. In 1963, a women's Davis Cup equivalent, the Federation Cup, usurped the prestige of the Wightman Cup. In the first decades of the 1900s tennis was primarily a sport of the country club set. The widespread construction of courts on school and community playgrounds in the 1930s (many built by the federal government's New Deal agencies) helped to make tennis more accessible to the public.
When the professional game showed itself to be profitable in the late 1920s, a number of amateur players joined the tour. One of the first to do so was William Tilden, perhaps the greatest player in the history of tennis. Before Tilden turned pro (1931), he won a total of seven United States singles championships and three Wimbledon championships.
The continued defection of amateur players into the professional ranks was one of the factors that led amateur tennis's world governing body, the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF, founded 1913), to open its tournaments to both professionals and amateurs in 1968. For many years the major ILTF-sponsored tournaments, including Wimbledon and the U.S. National Championship, had been restricted to amateurs. With the advent of open tennis, however, the great professionals were allowed to compete for the major titles. Eventually, the Davis Cup also allowed professionals.
The four major annual tournaments in international tennis are Wimbledon, the Australian Open, the French Open, and the U.S. Open. Winning all four in the same year is called a grand slam. Only Don Budge (1938), Rod Laver (1962, 1969), Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Court (1970), and Steffi Graf (1988) have won grand slams. In 1971, the establishment of a women-only professional tour gave female pros financial parity with their male counterparts. In the same year Billie Jean King became the first woman athlete in any sport to earn more than $100,000 in one year. In the 1970s a team league, World Team Tennis, operated for several years, but was unsuccessful. The professional tour remains the most visible focus for the sport, its major tournaments surpassing in prestige even competition in the Olympics, which added tennis in 1988.