Last April my essay about Pickleball was published under the title, PICKLEBALL: A Strange (but Compelling) Hybrid: amazines.com articleid 6256234. In it I explained that the game is a cross-pollination of badminton, ping pong, and tennis; and played on a paddle tennis court—court dimensions are also equal to badminton. The ease of play and quick learning curve renders the game available and attractive to the masses, especially seniors. |
I play Pickleball, but prefer tennis because of the larger court and faster ball. With that in mind, I decided to do a bit of research on the latter since it has a centuries old tradition, and is internationally renowned. What I have discovered so far is fascinating, if at times a bit gruesome. Further, the game has been very good for the ladies with seven of the Top 10 richest female athletes being tennis players Including the top four: Maria Sharapova (Russia), Li Na (China), Serena Williams (USA), and Caroline Wozniacki (Denmark). Note that only one is American, which highlights the international appeal (and dominance) of the game.
The earliest written record I could find for tennis is dated 1451 although the game is mentioned indirectly in older documents. It was invented by Mediterranean monks as an alternative to fencing. Turns out many early tennis players were master swordsmen as well. The sport had redemptive overtones: angels on one side and demons on the other. It was a matter of death and the afterlife, the ball as allegory for the soul flitting between good and evil; scheming to get into Heaven. German historian Heiner Gillmeister wrote that the very first tennis game was a doubles match in Hell with four demons using the soul of a French seminarist for a ball. It seems the student had a terrible memory and couldn’t concentrate so he made a Faustian bargain with Lucifer in order to pass his tests, He later become abbot of the monastery, but paid a terrible price.
The earliest game, probably thirteenth century, evolved from handball, which dates back to tenth century Ireland. Along the way, someone opined that the game would be w-a-a-y easier with (first) a wooden paddle and (later) a catgut strung racquet (circa 1500) rather than hands, much the same way paddleball and racquetball spawned from modern day handball in the 1970s. Game scoring is the same today as in antiquity (15-30-40-game); however, the server was required to yell, “Tenez!” before each serve, which means, “Here you are!” or “Here it comes!” or “Receive!”. The modern day alert would be, “Incoming!”
Here’s where the tennis story begins to get gruesome. One of the earliest famous matches was played between legendary baroque artist, Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio and Spanish poet, Quevedo (Francisco Gomez de Quevedo Santibanez Villegas). Quevedo was accompanied by his benefactor, Pedro Tellez Giron, third Duke of Osuna, who along with Galileo were line judges that day. The ball for the match contained the hair of the recently beheaded Anne Boleyn, wife of Henry VIII and mother of Elizabeth I. The match itself was the result of a rowdy drunken bender the previous night when Quevedo challenged Caravaggio to a duel. The option of weapons was Merisi’s. His sober second, Galileo, chose racquets.
When the villainy of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell led to the queen’s execution, Jean Rombaud was summoned from France to perform the task with his sword of Toledo steel. As was the custom, Anne Boleyn’s hair was shorn, her head shaved, and on May 19, 1536 sentence was carried out by a single blow. Witnesses recorded that as vertebrae, cartilage, spongy tissue of the trachea and pharynx were severed the resulting pop was like the uncorking of expensive champagne. As payment, Rombaud refused the offered silver, and requested the tresses of his victim as recompense, which he had made into tennis balls bound with cross-stitched calfskin.
With balls containing the priceless hair of a famous heretic, Rombaud calculated he could have a title bestowed, and thereby, be invited to play tennis with royals. Although the balls were by far the most luxurious sporting equipment of the Renaissance, all it earned Rombaud was a slit throat courtesy of French minister Philippe de Chabot. Rombaud’s crime was providing his service to the heretic King of England as executioner. When the blade was at Rombaud throat he wept prompting Chabot to say he understood Anne Boleyn did not shed a single tear. However, continued Chabot, if he could have one of the Boleyn tennis balls, Rombaud would be spared. Rombaud reached into his cloak and handed over a ball. Chabot took the ball, and told the guard to kill him.
During the first set, the artist “clocked” the poet twice in the head, and once in the groin, the latter creating tearful laughter from the gallery, even Quevedo’s supporters, as the poet laid writhing on the ground. The balls were quite hard often filled with sand or egg shells, and later with horse or human hair—kind of a cross between today’s tennis ball and a baseball. The point is that getting struck was painful. The bounce or rebound from the tile surfaces was roughly equivalent to what tennis players experience today from an air-filled ball on lawn, hard surface, and clay.
Caravaggio had frequent scrapes with the law, including jail time, for whoring, public drunkenness and brawling. Although tennis was a substitute for dueling, it didn’t always work out that way. On May 29, 1606, Caravaggio dispensed of Ranuccio Tomassoni on the Campo Marzio tennis court in Rome by running him through with a sword. The victim was rumored to be a pimp for Caravaggio’s favorite prostitute. Today a street runs through the site of that court called Via di Pallacorda, which means street of the ball and net.
Originally, tennis was played in a monastic courtyard surrounded by walls, which were in play making the game a combination of today’s tennis and squash. Moving the game out of the courtyard resulted in the modern game. The first set of rules for lawn tennis were written in 1873, with the first Wimbledon tournament held in 1877.
Finally, tennis was the first sport to have shoes named after it, and be mentioned at the end of our “game”; that is, eternal sleep. In Mexico they still say when speaking of someone’s death that he “hung up his tennis shoes,” that he “went out tennis shoes first”. Each of us; we are who we are, unfixable and screwed-up. We journey from good to evil, from happiness to obligation, from jealousy to sex. We are souls batted back-and-forth across the court. Birth: this is the serve.
Thanks to Mexican author Alvaro Enrique for clarity.
By Gene Myers
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