Over time, sports change. In some games, the change happens very fast. The NFL and NBA of today look very different from the games 10 or 20 years ago. Imagine how much a game that’s as old tennis has changed over the centuries it has been played.
One of these main developments in tennis had to do with where participants played the game, and there were specific terms used to distinguish them that might not be as familiar now.
What is long tennis? Long tennis is an old word used to describe the differences in the type of court surface used when the modern game of tennis was developing. It was primarily used to distinguish between lawn tennis, which was played on grass, and other types of tennis played on different surfaces.
Tennis Court Development
The first divide between types of tennis and where they were played came about in the late 1800s.
Before that time, real tennis was a game played on an indoor court. It was sometimes known as royal tennis since it was popular among the European upper class.
King Henry VIII of England even had a real tennis court built in one of his London residences. In the 1530s, he had the Royal Tennis Court built at Hampton Court Palace, and it is still there to this day.
However, people really just wanted to get outside and play. Courts were built outdoors on the lawns, and thus tennis players could choose between real tennis (indoor) and lawn tennis (outdoor). As time passed and the indoor game fell out of favor, the term tennis meant the game played outside on the lawn.
Further developments in the game happened as tennis courts moved away from grass and onto other surfaces. These non-lawn and non-real tennis matches became known as “long tennis.”
As an overview:
- Real or Royal tennis: an indoor game that was very popular among the upper class
- Lawn tennis: Tennis played on grass lawns/courts
- Long tennis: Tennis played on surfaces other than grass, such as clay, concrete, or hard court.
The Terms Fell Out of Fashion
Even if you’re a tennis fan, you might not have heard these terms before. That’s because as time went on, the modifiers in front of tennis became less critical.
Lawn tennis and long tennis both just became tennis. The discussion of the court became a discussion of tennis, rather than long tennis and lawn tennis being considered two different sports.
While the four main surfaces do play differently, the thing that made the most difference in the game of real tennis and lawn tennis was actually the invention of vulcanized rubber. That allowed for balls to bounce off of different surfaces.
In real (indoor) tennis, the balls were made of cork and hand-wrapped. The room’s walls were critical in getting the ball to bounce, but after the invention of the rubber balls we know today, the game moved outside and onto the lawn.
Types of Courts
There are 3 different surfaces in tennis:
- Grass (lawn)
- Clay courts
- Hard courts
Lawn or Grass Courts
These were the initial outdoor courts. Some varieties of court shapes existed, such as an hourglass shape that was trialed and eventually abandoned.
Lawn tennis initially took place on croquet courts. As the game of croquet became less popular, croquet club owners wanted to make use of the lawns they had previously invested in.
It moved from the lawn to the long courts, which was only possible because of the ability of the balls to bounce on a variety of surfaces.
The thing about living grass is that it’s challenging to maintain. In the hot summer months, the grass would become patchy and burned or dead.
This led to the use of local clays or crushed bricks to cover those spots up and level the grass court. Towards the end of the 1800s, clay was famous as a material to protect the grass and eventually morphed into an entirely different court.
Eventually, the entire court became clay instead of just using it as a patch or protective measure. The minerals are compacted, and most clay courts are red.
On some of them, mainly in the United States, the clay is green basalt. When clay courts originally came into fashion, playing on clay would have been considered playing long tennis.
In the 1940s, an explosion in the popularity of tennis led to more hard courts, as they were cheaper to build and maintain.
The tennis courts made out of concrete usually have between four and five inches of the material, which is then covered in additional materials, like acrylic, to add cushioning and smooth out the surface to enable more accessible play. Tennis played on hard courts would also have been considered long tennis.
Why Even Bother to Make the Distinction?
It’s one of the exciting idiosyncrasies of tennis that, despite all of the rules in the rulebook, what is notably absent is the management of the court’s surface.
Even today, there is no official rule about what a tennis court has to be made of. There are rules about the dimensions and width of the line and what the balls are made out of, but there’s no guidance for the playing surface.
This is a feature unique to tennis. The four main courts play incredibly differently, and many players excel on one type of surface more than the others.
So in a sense, even though the rules and dimensions are the same, the game is played very differently based on the surface type. In a sense, they are different games.
Therefore, when the game was changing, it was probably imperative for people to understand the type of surface they’d be playing on. In today’s world, the surface makes a tremendous difference in who wins tournaments and how the games play out.
As time has passed, the term tennis has come to mean the racquet sport with the yellow ball, no matter what surface it is played on. Real tennis still exists, although it is much rarer than it used to be.
From humble beginnings, tennis has gone through many iterations, from the lawn to the hard courts to the clay to the hardcourt. Play on the lawn or play it long; tennis is a great game that fans worldwide love to play.