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The History And Traditions Of Tennis

By Angelia Chirichigno

As one of the oldest sports in the world, and certainly one of our favorite pastimes, it’s great to embrace not only innovation, but to also celebrate critical moments in tennis history, as well as some of our most enduring traditions.

A Holy Beginning?

While the game we play now mostly resembles “real” or royal tennis, most historians believe tennis actually originated in the cloisters of 12th century monasteries in Northern France. The French monks actually used the palm of their hands to strike the ball, calling it jeu de paume or “game of the palm”. Racquets didn’t come into use until the 16th century, when “real” tennis began. The origination of the word was a derivation of the Arabic word, rakhat, which not ironically meant “palm of the hand”.

What came first? The bagel or the egg?

Tennis scoring is a bit odd and how we got to 15, 30, and 40 is largely unknown. Many historians think, however, that original scoring was 15, 30, and 45, with 45 being simplified to 40 over the years. They also believe the original numbers were based on the quarters of the clock. Deuce came to us from the French phrase “a deux le jeu” or “to both the game”, meaning each player has an equal score. Lastly, while sometimes disputed, the origin of love is believed to have come from l’oeuf, which means egg in French, and of course resembles a zero. So the next time your friend comes off a rough match and says they got bagel-ed, just tell them they got egged instead. Less carbs, more protein, right???

All Dressed in White

With the exception of Wimbledon, wearing all white has essentially gone by the wayside in professional tennis. There’s still the occasional private club out there which requires it, or the more traditional player who makes it a personal preference. But in the past it was the norm and not the exception. While tennis is now available to everyone, it used to be a very elitist sport, and white clothing was used as it was more expensive to keep clean. There were more practical reasons as well. White reflects light better than other colors so it does not absorb heat as easily. This was especially important in the days of playing in full length attire!


We all know that dreaded feeling. You’ve played your heart out. You had a few too many unforced errors. Perhaps your opponent made some questionable calls. It was a battle, and things got tense. But in the end you came up a little short. And now it’s time for the… DUH, DUH, DUH!!!!….handshake!! You walk to the net, force a smile, say “great match”, shake your opponent’s hand, and walk back to your bench. You know in a few hours you’ll be ok and look back on the match as a good one. It was a loss, but you played well, and fought hard. In this moment though, that handshake is tough. But we do it. We always have and we always will. It’s tradition, and it’s a good one. It shows respect for our opponent and respect for our sport. Win or lose, in that moment we are thanking our opponent for their time and for the opportunity to play the sport we love.

The Champion of all Tennis Tradition

I would be remiss to write an article about tennis tradition and not discuss the oldest international tennis event in world – Wimbledon. Having been played since 1877, it’s the only Grand Slam still played on tennis’ original playing surface, grass. All players must adhere to a strict all white dress code, which has only gotten stricter over the years, with new rules being added as late as 2014. One of the “sweeter” traditions Wimbledon has to offer is strawberries and cream. Signaling the start of summer, nearly 9,000 servings are prepared each day. Lastly, while you’ll frequently see car, bank, airline, and other advertisements plastered across the back walls or even the sides of the nets at the other Grand Slams, the All England Club has made it a policy not to do so in order to protect the image and character of the Championships.

This is obviously just a quick glance into the history and tradition highlight reel for one of the greatest sports ever played. We’ve got over 800 years behind us and no signs of slowing down. So the next time you see a French monk, give him a little nod, and tell him we all said, “Merci!”

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