- Historic Sites
The Tennis Racket
How a Courtly Game Became Big Business
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
All of this, however, was before 1968, a year that tennis fans fix in their memories the way schoolchildren master 1492. In that year, the old division between amateur and professional tennis was finally breached when Wimbledon permitted the first open tournament since its inception in 1877. Quite suddenly, tennis cast off its old elitist image and blossomed into a major spectator and participant sport. In the thirteen years since, tennis has become a booming sports industry that has created a whole new class of millionaires in its affluent wake. Consider, for a moment, the game’s reigning king, Bjorn Borg. A slim, twenty-five-year-old Swede, Borg is one of the richest men in the history of sport. Last year a major tennis magazine made a run at trying to estimate Borg’s tennis earnings. Exact financial figures for a young man who has moved to Monaco to escape the Draconian tax structure of his native land are not easy to come by, but the publication’s investigation into Borg’s income for 1979 may prove instructional. Borg won a neat $1,000,000 in tournament purse money, and another $500,000 playing in exhibition matches outside the regular professional tour. He was paid $1,000,000 for allowing himself to be billed as the “resident professional” at the Puente Romano Tennis Club in Marbella, Spain, and actually did play there for a few weeks. He earned another $200,000 as the “touring professional” for Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Product endorsements make up a large part of a tennis star’s income, and Borg received $1,000,000 for playing with a Donnay racquet; $400,000 for wearing FiIa tennis clothes; and $200,000 for wearing Diadora tennis shoes. Endorsements for approximately fifty more goods and services earned him another $1,000,000. Borg was also able to make a good thing out of his marriage to Mariana Simionescu that year: he sold the exclusive rights to his wedding pictures for $125,000. The total comes to $5,425,000. It has been estimated that since then, Borg’s annual income may have doubled. Very little of this was eaten up with expenses such as those incurred by a heavyweight boxer who gives his manager some 30 per cent of his earnings and has to pay the enormous costs of training as well as supporting the retinue which inevitably follows a champion. In fact, Borg gets a few perks. He flies free on SAS Airlines, and there is always a complimentary Saab or two waiting for him at the airport.
The start of the journey tennis has made is lost in the mists of social history. References to a game somewhat like it are found in Homer, and some historians have traced the origins of the game as far back as the Persian Empire in 500 B.C. In any event, by the twelfth century, French ecclesiastical students had codified a much-enjoyed ball game designed to be played within the confines of a monastery courtyard. There were no racquets then, and the sphere was struck much as it is in handball today. The game was known as jeu de paume (“the game of the palm”) and is still called so in France today. As the monarchy moved in on the political prerogatives of the church, so did it expropriate their game. Tennis became a royal sport during the brief reign of Louis X. Louis, who well deserved his sobriquet of “The Quarrelsome,” died in 1316, according to legend, of a chill brought on by drinking cold water following a particularly spirited match. Although tennis was popular in most of the royal houses of Europe, it was a special favorite of the English kings. Henry V was a keen player, although he and other British monarchs forbade common people from engaging in the sport when it was discovered they were abandoning archery practice for tennis. Henry VIII cut a fine figure on the court, and was quite vain about his appearance. The Venetian ambassador, Sebastian Giustiniani, reported to his home office in 1519 that “it is the prettiest thing in the world to see him play, his fair skin glowing through a shirt of the finest texture.”
The game that Henry VIII played with such zest lives on today as court tennis and is the progenitor of all our modern-day racquet games. The introduction of lawn tennis required a technological breakthrough and the touch of a Madison Avenue merchandiser. The breakthrough was the development of a simple rubber ball that replaced the wad of cloth used in court tennis and could bounce neatly on as soft a surface as grass. The merchandiser was one Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, who could and did trace his lineage to an ancient English family that predated the arrival of William the Conqueror. The major cobbled together a new game from several existing ones.