From the beginning of this beautiful game, dated in the 12th century, in northern France when the game was played only with the hands, so its name ‘jeu de palm’, ‘game of palm’ the tennis did evolve a lot. It took 4 centuries to be used with the racquets as we know nowadays and it was very popular in France and England. Henry VIII was passionate about it and helped to spread the knowledge along with the nation. Some of the original courts are still present around England, in Oxford, Cambridge, or the historical Hampton Court Palace located south of London.
So, few centuries ahead of 1300 when the game of palm and a glove was transformed with real racquets the whole royalty around Europe was turning into it. The population who was composed of doctors, peasants, and people working in commerce couldn’t play as they lacked spare time for such activities and the racquets were rare, nonetheless expensive.
The game was also mentioned by Shakespeare and by Tiepolo, the Venetian painter who replaced the old disc of the Greeks in a painting with tennis balls and a racquet in a painting ordered by a German aristocrat. The game was thriving along with European courts with Italy, Spain, and Germany to be among the countries where the sport was played for the majority. In 1872 the first Tennis club in the world was founded by Harry Gem, a solicitor and his Spanish friend, a merchant, and four doctors, the Leamington Tennis Club.
How has the Grand Slam born?
They didn’t start altogether if you might think so. Wimbledon was the first as we’ve said before tennis was very much spread around Europe and mostly England so the first major was in 1877 while the US Open started in 1881 but it was not till 1924 that it was recognized as one of the four Majors. A very unusual detail is that the first Us Opens were played on the grass to imitate the first surface as the English one was doing, nowadays we all are aware that the Us Open is played on hard court.
Following it the next one to come was the French Open, in 1891 but also this tournament was recognized as one of the top 4 Majors only in 1925 when all nationalities were admitted to play in the tournament ( before it was only for English speakers).
In the down, under instead it was in 1905 the first Australian Open to be played with however the opportunity to be included in the Grand Slam tournaments only in 1925. In the first decades due to its remoteness and difficulty to reach for the best European players, the Australian open was not recognized as one of the major tournaments. Only recently, starting in 1988 when the tournament was permanently moved to Melbourne Park it gained the same appeal as the other 3 majors.
How tennis evolve as a game?
In the latest 30/40 years, tennis is one of the games with most changes, not solely on the players but also on the style of playing. Nowadays the service is getting more and more important and some big-serve players can still manage to get through the first stages of tournaments even without a great technique behind them. But let’s go back into the early ’70s to understand why this huge change.
First and foremost 3 of the 4 Majors were played on the grass so the main aspect to dedicate other than the train was to avoid bounces of the ball which become naturally irregular after the grass is used for some time. So the most obvious way of playing was the serve and volley to not have to deal with bounces and two grips start to lead the way, the American style, and the Australian style. The latest one was part of the philosophy ‘one grip fits all’ which was pretty good and was a continental grip as it was mostly the one used for serve and volley while it works also decently for your backhand response but it doesn’t work well with the forehead. So the Australians with thigs grip which doesn’t allow you to have a strong spin on the forehead were always attacking the net and play the ball overhead to avoid the forehead while the Americans had a different style.
The Americans used 3 different grips instead, the continental as the Australians did for the serve and volley, the Eastern forehead for the forehead, and the Eastern backhand for the backhand grip. Both however preferred to play serve and volley. A major change in the game happened when Hopman started to believe and put into practice the fact that training should be more difficult and tough than the real games so you would be able to play all sets at the same high level. Gyms, fitness aerobic routines started to take place and the players with more power introduced topspin which was previously only used in the European clay courts.
Rod Laver was very successful as he based his game on topspin and later on Bjorn Borg showed you could win even with topspin in Wimbledon on the grass court and not only in the clay. Ivan Lendl applied his theory that even with a strong topspin you could send back a stronger hit and he was very successful in those years.
Another very important introduction in those years was the backhand with two hands. Borg, Connors, and Evert were the three number one’s in the world to use it and it changed completely the game. These players started to hit with as much power with the backhand as the forehead and the gameplay based on putting the ball on the opponent’s return, supposedly to be the weakest part of the opponent’s game stopped. Some of them had even a better backhand than the forehead.
What about the forehead?
Well, Sampras and Agassi introduced an important style of play that is used even today. In the late ’60s when the players were playing the point only to come to the net hitting a winner inside-out forehead wasn’t thought to be possible and the physical level the players had at the time also nobody even thought about it. But the years passed and as mentioned before the physicality started to grow, tennis players would lift, jump, squat for hours to be stronger. So, Sampras and Agassi introduced mainly two top play-style:
1) The inside out forehead
2) The reverse forehead or the buggy-whip forehead previously known
With these two shots of which Nadal perfected the execution of the latter, Sampras was able to win his battles against Agassi as he managed to return the cross-court forehead of Agassi with even a sharper and stronger angle than his opponent.
This was also one of the evolutions. In the early ’70s, still, before the physical aspect to be taken to the max level players would always play close to the baseline. Borg and Lendl changed this by staying 10 feet behind. Previously with the players not being so strong being so far from the baseline would be a disadvantage as the return, weak would be too short and easy to become a winning point for the opponent. However, now the players would be stronger, and staying behind would be a very good defensive strategy to get to reach most of the opponent’s attack and to try to return as many as possible into the court. Murray was one of the latest players to adopt this technique and it was paying off as he is an Olympic Games winner.
The next level has been reached recently, in the last 10 years with even more powerful players, capable of hitting very strong forehead which transformed from defensive returns to an increasing number of winners hit from the back of the court.
How racquets evolve?
This is also an aspect not to be underestimated in the evolution of tennis in the latest decades. Till the late 1960s, all racquets were made of wood and they carried with them a lot of disadvantages. First of all, they are quite heavy, secondly, wood absorbs a lot the humidity and could warp the racquet.
The invention from Rene Lacoste in the early 1970s allowed Jimmy Connors to develop into the great players he was in those years. The magical racquet was the T-2000. One of the most innovative racquets of all time due to its steel wire wrapped around another steel wire.
In the mid-1980s’ there was a mix of a player still but most of them turned to graphite as the main material for the racquets. Wilander, McEnroe, Lendl were the main three, Vila instead stayed with wood but he was already in the last years of his career so he didn’t think a sudden change would be fruitful for him at that stage.At this point a mix of playing styles was in charge, Wilander and Lendl were leading the group of topspin lovers while the likes of McEnroe and Lendl were still playing a more classical style of tennis. So the late ’80s approached and the early ’90s began with a generation of Bollettieri kids to surge. One of these was Andre Agassi and another one was Boris Becker, with them taking power and the shots to be more and more strong from the back a revolution in the world of tennis was about to be complete.
Movement and diet
Started with Martina Navratilova and Lendl diet and fitness were to another level. He used to take a good amount of exercise and the diet was also part of the training to keep your body in perfect shape. Most of the time he would also train with younger players and this helped him to adapt to quicker speed with his feet and to run faster, Sampras was one of the young players of that era to be doing drills with him before important tournaments. This choice is still maintained nowadays as Federer still trains with young players as Nadal did also for the Australian Opens when he just trained the Italian emergent start, Jannik Sinner aged 18 for the 2 weeks ahead of the tournament.
The different style of play means also speed as nowadays the players have to be able to reach strong shots completed from every part of the court and return them with at least the same power they’ve received them. This made them faster, stronger, and leaner compared to the previous era of players.
Here it has to be mentioned surely the slice backhand was used mostly to attack and to come to the net while today is a defensive play to allow more time for the defensive player to recover from the attack. Sliced and also done in different manners it can ruin the rhythm of the opponent exactly as Djokovic did in the last final of the Australian Open against Medvedev.
Drop shots and drop volleys became more and more often played in the last 10 years or so, mostly since the powerful shots keep the players behind the baseline making this a very good way to conclude a point or give a difficult return to the opposite player if he stays too much away from the baseline.
The kick serve is also a regular second serve for most of the players now, instead, the slice is used mostly for the first serve. On top of that, the percentage of winners on the service is so much different from the 50% that Connor used to have in the late 1970s’- early 80s’ to the Andy Roddick 70% which guarantees much more easy games on the serve. Federer still serves with 65% as it’s a quite high percentage counting as well the better return players who are in the circuit nowadays, with Djokovic leading this group of players who looks like to be able to return pretty much everything to the other side of the court, making it mentally difficult for a player to win the point.
The Evolution of Modern Tennis
The style and the way tennis evolve is also based much on the materials of the racquet, shirts to make you move faster when running, shoes which are having a much greater grip than before, and the mentally part with psychologic assistants always with the player when needed is also elevating the performances.