Tennis is one of the most widespread sports on the globe and enjoys great popularity. It challenges and entices all senses; combines speed, athleticism, coordination, anticipation, tactical expertise and, last but not least, mental skills. Due to these comprehensive demands for the mind and the body, it is considered an ideal body and life school and has a life-prolonging effect in old age.
The tennis game originated in the Northern French monasteries in the High Middle Ages, around the 12th/13th century. There, monks played with a ball with their palms or tried to move it in various arches. In the following centuries, this ball game spread in France under the name Jeu de paume (“game of the palm”) and became known across national borders in the German-speaking areas and the British Isles. It gained such acclaim among the noble circles that in the 16th and 17th centuries special ballrooms, dedicated to the game, were built in the castles. In the records, kept form those times, rackets were also mentioned for the first time. They were invented to relieve the palms of the players. Tennis gained its current name from the French word “tenez!” – “take/hold the ball!” It was announced by the player as a warning before the ball was launched into the game.
The invention of vulcanization in the middle of the 19th century was a prerequisite for modern tennis as we know it today. It enabled the production of small, weatherproof, durable rubber balls. Tennis could already be played perfectly safely outdoors and was called “Lawn Tennis”. At the same time, the creation of a single set of rules along with standardized courts was moved forward.
In 1877, the Wimbledon tennis tournament was held for the first time at the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC). The Wimbledon Championships are still held today and are considered to be the most prestigious and important tournaments in the tennis world. In the early years of the tournament, the female players’ hems had to cover their ankles and the sleeves of the blouses had to be under the elbows. Men had to wear long-sleeved shirts and long trousers. That etiquette on court has been softened over time, but the AELTC, as a host, to this day lets the participants on the court in white clothing only.
For the American top player Andre Agassi, known as „The bird of paradise“ in the 1990s, the sense of tradition and the strict dress-code regulations were a good enough reason to refuse to participate in the Wimbledon tournament. Before he had thought of a better reason and after a three-year absence, he fell in love with the tournament and finally, in 1992, he won it.
The color of the tennis balls was originally white, too. This changed in the 1970s, after the University of Braunschweig had demonstrated that the yellow balls were easier to spot not only for the players themselves, but also and especially for the viewers in front of the TV sets. Television had already begun playing an important role in the popularity of the game.
From then on, the international tennis circus and tennis as a whole became a very important industry in the world of sports.
The Covid pandemic, currently prevailing worldwide, also presents tennis with completely new challenges and unfortunately allows its exercise to a very limited extent. The professional tournament series at international level, organized by the ATP (The Association of Tennis Professionals) for men and the WTA (The Women’s Tennis Association) for women will again take place in 2021 as much as circumstances will allow. Although they will be subjected to strict regulations and will demand great organizational efforts, at least they will be held. The tournaments are usually carried out in empty stadiums, recorded life and if spectators are allowed, they are seated at a great distance from each other. For the loss of spectator revenue, additional sponsors must be found to economically manage such a tournament. Money from broadcasting rights for television stations is an important source of income.
Players are often confined to the tournament’s tennis facilities or they have to sit out the quarantine in their hotel rooms. The average professional player is used to travelling the world for about ten months a year, often changing places every other week on all continents. This tennis nomadism is difficult to match the current travel regulations. Last but not least, the players complain about having to play their matches in empty stadiums in front of cardboard figures and without the usual mood of their fans to support them.
However, the possibilities for practice for professionals are far better than those for amateurs. In Austria, where I come from, since November 2020 and until now (March 2021), except for special permits for professionals, playing tennis indoors is strictly forbidden. It is not easy to understand why and it remains an enigma for the players affected by the decision – the distance between the the players on the court is far too big, the huge air-cubature in tennis halls with heights of more than 10 meters is more than enough.
In short, playing in the open air remains the only possibility. However, this is literally a “cool” activity when taking into consideration the average winter temperatures in the country. Apart from that, in Austria outdoor tennis is played almost exclusively on clay courts, which are impossible to use in winter even on days when the weather allows for it.
As children of the big city, my friends and I pack rackets and balls in our backpacks and we set out in search of flat, dry concrete surfaces, houses with long, smooth walls without windows and if possible at windless and sunny places. Such spots can be found in parks, under bridges, in recreation and industrial areas.
As a tennis coach, I always say: “The wall is a good and patient opponent!” The current third best in the men’s tennis world ranking (as of March 15, 2021), Rafael Nadal, always trains on his tennis court in Manacor (Mallorca) in his tournament-free time. Each training session begins with an intense 45-minute warm-up against the tennis wall. Тhe tennis ball is blown against the wall and squashed to death in no time – every five minutes his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, has to replace it with a new one. He was a professional himself, but as a footballer and player for FC Real Madrid, while his nephew, Rafael, is keeping fingers crossed for the Catalans from FC Barcelona. But that probably won’t be the reason why Toni trains his protégé so hard. Together, the two have already achieved a great deal – Rafael has won 20 Grand Slam singles titles and has spent more than 200 weeks at the top of the tennis world rankings. A list of all his achievements would go beyond the scope here. There are 4 Grand Slam tournaments per year, these are the biggest and most prestigious in the tennis calendar.
In any case, the tennis wall has always been an integral part of Nadal’s training program, and it has remained the only opponent he has not been able to defeat. Ever.
So many of my friends, who play tennis, and I are hitting against improvised tennis walls which we can find in the city and with Rafael as a mentor on our mind, with the conviction that this is the way for us to become better tennis players. The wall challenges your responsiveness, you have to see it in your mind where the ball is going before it starts its journey back, your legs and your eyes need to work quickly and to communicate between each other. When we get through the winter, we will feel like we have all the time in the world to play on regular courts. In addition, a well-groomed clay court is much more even than a sidewalk with edged stones and water drains. Yet, the difficult conditions and the different soil can only sharpen our senses. When you hammer against the wall for ten minutes, you have the feeling you’ve played for an entire hour. You break faster, just like the ball, which soon begins to crack and the rough surface begins to peel off. You’ve never seen such tennis balls.
I sincerely hope that with the beginning of spring and the opening of the outdoor clay courts, normality will return to our tennis life and we will be able to pursue our favorite sport without restrictions.
– by Martin Hofbauer