Real tennis is the ancestor of all racket games. In fact, most rules of the game derive from it. ‘Real’ is the old form of ‘royal’ and was known from medieval times. Indeed, King Henry VIII was a big fan of the game in the sixteenth century. Further, the oldest surviving court still in use today is at Hampton Court Palace, built in 1530. In addition, other original courts remain, including that at Falkland Palace where Mary, Queen of Scots, played. The game was played with the hand in its early form. Indeed, it is still known in France as ‘le jeu di paume’ (game of the palm). Furthermore, the racket probably appeared around that time. The Marylebone Cricket Club established in 1875 the ‘Rules of Lawn Tennis’. These have been applied ever since with few modifications.
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Nearly all surviving rackets are of excellent quality. Those for lawn tennis are chunky and solid. ‘Catgut’ strings have nothing to do with cats. The word ‘cat’ is a corruption of ‘kit’. Makers used the muscle tissue of sheep intestines. And, in addition gut for violins. However, trials were made with steel strings, later with silk. Modern synthetic strings made of nylon have been in use since the 1940s. The shape of racket heads changed according to fashion. For example, early rackets have built-in scoring mechanisms set into the handle. In 1895 Harrods sold beautiful mahogany racket presses with brass fittings.
The word ‘deuce’ comes from the French, ‘à deux le jeu’, in other words players have equal scores. ‘Love’ is ascribed to the French ‘l’oeuf’, an egg having approximately the shape of a zero. The reason for numbering of scores ’15’, ’30’, ’40’ is unknown. A common theory suggests it originated from the quarters of a clock, the ’40’ having originally been ’45’.
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The game has become big business these days, top players having turned professional. Wimbledon is the biggest venue for lawn tennis. Whereas the US Open and Roland Garros are among other famous venues for top players. Regarding prices, a racket with original unbroken stringing, c. 1880, is estimated at US$ 1,120. A late 1920s aluminium racket with piano wire stringing could fetch US$ 600. A signed racket with cover used by Bjorn Borg in 1981 in the match against John McEnroe, could fetch US$ 8,700. Whereas a set of tennis shirt, cap and bandana all signed by Roger Federer is estimated at US$ 500.