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With Honor and Humor: A Tribute to Tennis and the US Open

For such a popular sport, tennis has surprisingly enigmatic origins. We know that it (more or less) originated as a handball sport in France. But who invented such a bizarre scoring system: Love, 15, 30, 40? No one knows. Where does the tennis term “love” come from, anyway? No one knows.

Of course, your preferred origin story probably says something about your personality type. Are you a romantic? Then “love” is what the players have for each other before their opponent begins to score. Are you a visual thinker? “Love” probably comes from the French “l’oeuf” meaning “egg,” which looks like a “0.” (This explanation works particularly well if you stoically ignore the fact that the early players were mostly illiterate and didn’t bother to write down the scores.) Are you an idealist? “Lof” is a Dutch/Flemish term for “honor.” A gambler? You have a 0 score when you have “neither love nor money.” A really stubborn loser? Then your “love” of the game is the only thing keeping you on the court.

But, like we said, tennis is more than just a weird origin story shrouded in mystery, wrapped in enigma, and tied with an encrypted ribbon.

It is a sport popularized by French kings, the spark that launched a conquest of France, and a beloved sport that has recently transformed into a multi-billion-dollar industry, a mocumentable wedding theme, a Japanese Manga series, and a favorite Hollywood symbol/trope. Follow along with this mad and marvelous journey:

A Royal Sport

Historians have traced the popularization of tennis (known as “jeu de paume” or “game of the palm” in the days before rackets had been invented) to the court of Louis X, the monarch affectionately nicknamed “le Hutin” (there isn’t an exact English translation, but it falls somewhere between “the Quarreler,” “the Stubborn,” and “the Headstrong.”)

the royal history and origins of Tennis e.g. hand ball - King Louis X

Louis would have played the sport indoors, always in teams of two, and with rules allowing for the ball to ricochet off the walls (though, ideally, not the spectators.)

Sadly, for Louis, tennis also proved to be his undoing. After a particularly vigorous match played on his custom-built courts in Vincennes, the exhausted Louis drank a vast quantity of chilled wine and then died shortly thereafter of either pneumonia, pleurisy, or poison (Medieval forensics wasn’t a very exact science).

Tennis Means War

The next noteworthy mention of tennis is found in William Shakespeare’s play Henry V, which describes King Henry’s successful campaign to conquer France in the early 1400s. According to Shakespeare (who was, to be fair, known to take significant liberties with historical details), when Henry first sent notice to France, claiming several dukedoms on behalf of England, the Dauphin (crown prince), sent a messenger back to England with a treasure chest containing tennis balls—the less-than-subtle message being that King Henry should go play with the boys and stop bothering the real politicians.

Henry’s response is classically chilling, and sets the stage for the Shakespearian gore yet to come:

When we have matched our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God’s Grace play a set,
shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.[…]
And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gun-stones. […]
His jest will savor but of shallow wit
When thousands weep more than did laugh at it.

Feeble fact-based historians will tell you that this conquest had more to do with the invention of the Welsh longbow (the long-range missile of its day) than with Henry’s tennis superiority, but the line makes for a fabulous story.

Modern Tennis (With Rackets!)

In any case, the popularization of tennis outlived both Louis and Henry, and, technology being the mother of all sporting innovations, 16th century players discovered that they could hit harder and further with greater leverage, a brainwave that led to the invention of the early racket (which wasn’t nearly as effective as a modern racket, but probably saved numerous players from the concussions that would have resulted if a powerhouse like Roger Federer were to launch vulcanized rubber at speeds in excess of 143 miles per hour in a small enclosed space.)

men dressed in fancy lace clothing playing what look like hand ball - possible origins of tennis

As you can see, by the 17th century, the indoor tennis games were played by men in full court dress, which means that they were carrying daggers, but also wearing lace-trimmed doublets, ruffled collars, poufy pants tied with garters, silk stockings, and high heeled shoes (generally decorated with bows.) Good times.

Modern Tennis (Outdoors!)

The next major breakthrough in tennis is actually the result of the 1830 invention of the lawn mower. For serious sportsman (who had, by then, abandoned the heels), a reliably even surface comprised of short grass made the prospect of outdoor tennis more aesthetically pleasing and more competitive. French “Tennis of the Palm,” sport of kings, was thus conquered by English “Lawn Tennis,” sport of the idle and wealthy; and, by the 1870s, the rule-loving British had begun to standardize the game and organize formal tennis clubs. The popularization of tennis as a “country” game also made it allowable for women, who were severely handicapped by Victorian dress codes, but still managed to look intimidating.

women playing tennis in victorian dress clothes

In 1877, Wimbledon hosted the first championship of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (played on grass, as you might expect). The U.S. responded by forming the first nationwide tennis organization (the United States National Lawn Tennis Association) and hosting a similar (then grass-court) U.S. Open in 1881. And the French eventually caught up to the tennis trend in 1891, but retaliated against the appropriation of their sport by playing on a hard clay surface and only allowing French players at the French Open. With the formation of the (also then grass-court) Australian Open in 1905, the stage for the Slams was finally set. The first man to win all four tournaments was the British sportsman Fred Perry (1934-5), but the first to win all four in a single year was the American Don Budge (1938).

Fred Perry and Don Budge

Modern Tennis (with Polo Shirts!)

As we have discussed before, the modern “polo” shirt was actually devised by tennis legend René Lacoste as an innovation in sportswear. 20th century cotton milling allowed for more breathable fabric and a sturdy, sun-protective collar; combined with a shortened placket, lengthened hem, and shortened sleeves, the modern “polo” allowed for maximum flexibility with a minimized potential for wardrobe malfunction. (And if you want to know how a tennis shirt became a polo shirt, click here.)

Modern Polo - The Tennis Player Lacoste

Modern Tennis (Iconic Sport)

Since the sixteenth century, tennis has also served as a metaphor for other kinds of social conflict, but even Shakespeare would have been boggled by the strange directions in which tennis has taken our popular culture. The concept of mixed doubles probably saves tennis-themed weddings from ominous foreshadowing, but the tennis-themed films play to the idea that every game is a metaphor for grander (and/or gender) conflict.

tennis themed weddings and movies

Modern Tennis: Fashion Forward

But if you want to dress well for the game of life, you could do worse than to look to a sport that has overcome assassination and war, high heels and garters, gender conflict and comic adaptation. At Otero, we’ve taken the concept of the athletically-comfortable shirt designed by Lacoste and pushed it into the 21st century with luxe fabrics, striking colors, and an immaculate off-the-rack fit. So, if you’re planning to watch the U.S. Open over the coming weeks, you may just want to look the part.

otero menswear cardinal red polo shirt

Otero Menswear: Anything but Average

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