The most commonly quoted story of the origin real tennis is that it was first played by monks in monasteries in France, which is a pity, because it’s not true.  
While it is known that the medieval clergy did play various forms of handball, forms of handball were played by everyone in the medieval world from peasants to royalty, including the clergy.  
It is also questionable whether the game can be said to have originated in France.  It is true that the French played the game and took it to Britain, but the ball games that preceded real tennis were played all over medieval Europe.
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The development of lawn tennis is well documented and quite straightforward.  In 1873 Major Walter Clopton Wingfield patented (it is arguable whether he invented it) a new game.  It was a simplified form of real tennis that could be played on people’s lawns and it was sold in kit form.  
In one of the worst implementations of a branding strategy in the history of marketing, he named the game Sphairistikè, which is Greek for “ballgame”.  It soon became known as “lawn tennis” and eventually just “tennis”.
In 1877 the All England Club in Wimbledon revised the rules of the game and held the first Lawn Tennis Championships.  The winner of those championships - first Wimbledon champion - was 27 year old Spencer Gore, whose main sports were real tennis and rackets.
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Not all sports, however, were invented.  Some – like cricket, baseball and real tennis – evolved over centuries.  The origins of these games are so old that no-one knows where or how they began.  All we have are fragments of information – occasional historical references – from which writers have done their best to flesh out the games’ histories.
The development of real tennis occurred over a very long period, the most important part of which was the Middle Ages.  This is when the modern court evolved from makeshift playing areas. Unfortunately, very few of the buildings and records from this period of history are still in existence so there are many gaps in our knowledge of the development of the game.  Writers on the subject have tended to fill these gaps with assumptions, suppositions, speculation and best guesses.
By the time of the Renaissance, there is more documentation and some of the courts from this period have survived.  We know, for instance, that by around 1550 the ball, the rules, the net, the racket and the “modern” real tennis court were much the same as they are today.  What we do not know - what we really want to know - what we can only guess at - is how they evolved to that state.
The best way to look at the history of tennis is to examine each of its components.  The game that is played today is the combination of a number of elements which evolved, independently, over very long periods of time, roughly in this order:
   The Ball
   The Net
   The Racket
   The Court
The adoption of the core elements of scoring - the four point game, to be won by a two point margin, scored in units of fifteen, with chases - in my view, marked the beginning of tennis.  Before that time, people were just hitting a ball around. Tennis’s unique scoring system could have been invented at nearly anytime in the history of human civilisation and no-one knows when - even to the nearest century - so we can’t give the game a start date.
The adoption of the net and the invention of the racket followed, centuries after the system of scoring came into being.
It wasn’t until the last of these elements, the design of the court, became settled - probably some time around 1500 - that the “modern” game can be said to have been established.
It is therefore misleading to talk about the origin or invention of tennis. There was no seminal event. It is much more useful to think about the development of each of the elements that make up real tennis and that is what we do in the following sections of this web site.
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The history of real tennis suffers from a paucity of information, particularly in the Middle Ages and earlier, and a shortage of historical analysis. By way of comparison, there is an entire literary industry based on the life and works of William Shakespeare.
Two relatively recent books on the history of tennis, Tennis, A Cultural History by Heiner Gillmeister (1990) and Tennis, the Development of the European Ball Game by Roger Morgan (1995), uncovered a vast amount of information on the history of the game and made great steps in advancing our thinking on the subject. Unfortunately, what we don’t know is still a great deal more than what we do know. Now that these histories have been read and digested, it is a good time to re-examine some of the theories which have been put forward.
It is also a good time to consider what further research could be done to advance our understanding of the game’s history. Two thoughts are:
  People who are associated with a University or College which is involved in Medieval Studies or Art History could donate a research grant for students to write a thesis on tennis in medieval times or the incidence of early tennis courts in art.
  Tennis tourism, whereby every time you visit an old town or castle in Europe, ask for the location of the ancient tennis court.  If you find one, take photographs and measurements.
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This website is being published despite being incomplete but, like the second Death Star, it is fully operational.  Some pages may be in draft form, incomplete or empty but they will be completed in the course of time.
Monk’s head from the grille at RMTC