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Wed, Oct. 16

Column: The original 12 rules for playing the game of tennis —1873-74

Major Walter Clopton Wingfield created the modern version of “Lawn Tennis” which he called “SPHAIRISTIKE” patented in 1874 in England.

He produced and sold kits containing a net, posts, four bats (now called racquets), balls, a mallet and a line brush, accompanied with a book of rules for an original price of five guineas - which a year later increased to six pounds.

This game played on a flat field of cut grass quickly spread to buyers in the USA, Canada, Germany, France, Switzerland, South Africa, China, India, Greece and Russia, and was sold to a very well-to-do crowd of royalty and upper echelons of aristocracy within its first year, surpassing the games current games of croquet and lawn billiards which took much more time to play and involved much more movement for men and women. The court could be put up in five minutes or so and was played year-round outdoors unless there was snow on the ground but more enjoyably in nicer weather.

Here are the 12 original rules that started the game that we know today as the game of tennis. Read them and see if you can make heads or tales of what is stated. Thank goodness for the rules we have in place today and the games evolution.

  1. This game can be played by 2 or 4 players.
  2. The sides having been made, and the one to go in having been determined on, as in Racquets, they select their Court, and the first player, standing in the service line, serves, which he does by throwing up the ball with his left hand into the air, and while falling striking it with his bat and sending it over the net between E and F (service box), first into one Court and then into the other. The out-side stand, one in the right and the other in the left Court of the other side; if they fail to return the ball served to them during its first bound, or by a “volley,” that is, hitting it before it has touched the ground, the in-side score and ace; but if they do return it, the ball is hit back-wards and forwards over the net till one side fails to do so, or hits it out of Court.
  3. The game consists of 15 aces, and the out-side have the option of setting it, if they should happen to be 13 or 14 all, to either 3 or 5.
  4. The outer side can never score an ace, he can merely put his opponent’s hand out; the score can only be made by the side that is in.
  5. With four players, the side that goes in has only one hand the first round, afterwards each player has an innings; and when all the players on the side are out, the out-side become the in-side; but they retain the same Courts till the termination of the game. At the conclusion of each game the sides change Courts.
  6. If the server does not hit the ball over the net between E and F (service box), or sends it out of Court, or fails twice running to serve it into the proper Court, his hand is out.
  7. If the server sends the ball into the wrong Court the player in that Court may take it; but he cannot enter his partner’s Court and take one that pitches there.
  8. A ball that hits the top of the net and goes over, is playable, except in serving, when it must be sent clear over. A ball that alights on the outer lines of the Court is a Let, but a Let is playable at the option of the striker.
  9. No ball is playable if it does not pass between the posts E and F (net posts), even if it may be hit from one Court into a Court on the other side.
  10. A ball that is hit at, even if it is not touched by the bat, or if it afterwards pitches out of Court, is considered as taken.
  11. A ball may not be hit twice, or taken if it has previously come in contact with either player.
  12. The net should be kept tight between the posts, and should be 4 feet 4 inches high in the centre; and players serving from the back crease being 14 yards from the net, may hit the ball overhand, and cut it in any way they can; the service should be from near the centre, as the side nets and lines are all drawn with that idea. In Racquets, though you serve from the side, you serve against a wall, and it is returned into the Court from the centre of the wall.

No Rule can be laid down about placing the players in the Court, as it all depends on the hitting and style of play of the advensaries, whether one player takes the In Court from between the net and the line (GH - service line) and the other the remainder; or, whether one takes the left and the other the right of the Court.

Chris Howard is a local USPTA Tennis Professional with over 40 years in the racquet and fitness industry. He can be reached at 928-642-6775 or

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