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Royalty and tennis: It hasn’t always been strawberries and cream

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at Wimbledon in 2011.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are keen followers of tennis. Here they are at Wimbledon in 2011.

With so many focused on the attendance of royals at Wimbledon for the quarter-finals, it seems appropriate to take readers on a history of the sport and the influence royalty has played in shaping tennis over hundreds of years. When researching the history of tennis, it was no surprise to me why the sport is so loved by today’s royals.

Tennis was thought to have started in northern France in the 12th century. It was referred to as “game of the palms” because the monastic monks used their hands to hit the ball. The term ‘real tennis’ wasn’t used until the 16th century when clubs were used, and then the use of rackets came in later. The game was played indoors with no formal rules or protocol. Around 1400, John Gower, an English poet, is noted to have first mentioned the word ‘tennis’ in his poem dedicated to King Henry IV ‘In Praise of Peace’.

Real tennis reached its peak in popularity with royalty in the 16th century. But there were some dangerous incidences where kings deaths are linked directly or indirectly to the sport. In 1437, King James I of Scotland was trapped and assassinated when the drain outlets that were to be used for his escape route were blocked to prevent tennis balls from being lost. King Louis X of France died from a chill after playing a game in 1316. King Charles VIII of France also met a similar fate after an accident where he sustained a head injury, dying shortly after that in 1498.

The deaths of their predecessors didn’t stop future French kings from showing their love for the sport or expanding its notoriety. Francis I, who reigned from 1515-47, built tennis courts and encouraged participation among his courtiers and commoners alike. In 1555, an Italian priest wrote and published Tiattato del Tiuoco Della Palla, the first known book on tennis. King Charles IX, in 1571, granted a constitution to the Corporation of Tennis Professionals, establishing three levels of players: Apprentice, Associate and Masters. He is also credited to have held the first tennis pro ‘tour’. The first edition of the rules of the sport was published in 1599.

During his reign from 1413-22, King Henry V was the first English king to take an interest in the sport. Henry VIII (1509-47) played tennis too at Hampton Court, which he built in 1530. During James I’s reign (1603-25), London had 14 tennis courts. During the 17th century, tennis thrived elsewhere in Europe, but in England it suffered and faded out because of the strict laws enforced by Puritanism.

The Tennis Court Oath is thought to have played a minor role at the start of the French Revolution. The Oath was a pledge signed by French deputies on a ‘real tennis’ court. In England real tennis died out while three other sports emerged: racquets, squash racquets, and lawn tennis, which is the modern game of tennis that is played today, but, of course, with some modifications.

The lawn tennis we know today came about during the period of 1859-65 in Birmingham. It is a combination of two separate inventions or games: rackets and a Spanish ball game known as Pelota. Players played this game on a Croquet lawn. Leamington was the world’s first tennis club and was founded in 1874. Major Walter Clopton Wingfield is credited with creating the modern game of lawn tennis.

Wimbledon, or ‘The Championships’ as it can be referred to, began in 1877. It was established by the private club, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which was founded in 1868. Women weren’t allowed to compete until 1884 when the ladies singles and gentlemen’s doubles began. It wasn’t until 1913 when mixed doubles competitions were introduced. Today, Wimbledon is considered one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world.

The Duke of Kent is Patron of the

The Duke of Kent is Patron of the All England Club and regularly attends Wimbledon.

The Royal Box was built in 1922. Its seats are dark green Lloyd Loom wicker. It isn’t just available to members of the British Royal Family. Members of foreign royalty, heads of government, those from the world of tennis, commercial partners, members of the British Armed Forces and select members of the media may receive an invitation.

To sit in one of the 74 seats, one must be nominated by members of the Lawn Tennis Association, the Championship’s Organisation Committee and other organisations. They will then be invited by the Chairman of The All England Club. After the close of the day’s events, all those seated in the box are invited to the Clubhouse for lunch, tea and drinks. If you’re fortunate enough to sit in the Box, you must dress accordingly. Men must wear suits and ties. Unlike many other social sporting events where ladies might wear hats, they are prohibited at Wimbledon.

The Duke of Kent is the Patron of the All England Club, and responsible for handing out the medals to the winners. Because of her great enthusiasm for the sport, The Duchess of Cambridge was made an honorary member of the All England Club in 2013.

Photo credits: Robbie Dale & Pete Edgeler via Flickr