Tennis is one of the world’s most enthusiastically supported sports, by some measures, surpassed only by football, cricket, and hockey. But where is tennis the most popular?
The sport of tennis dates back some 800 years to 12th century France. Most historians agree on the game as we know it today began in monastic cloisters and was initially called “jeu de paume” or “game of the palm.”
As the name implies, no rackets were used, instead, players (monks) struck balls, originally made of wood, with their bare palms (and later a gloved hand). The etymology of the term itself is believed to derive from the Anglo-Norman term “tenez” meaning to hold, which would be hollered by the server before each point.
Rackets weren’t introduced until at least 150 years later. By the 16th century, the Medieval game of real tennis, which is still enjoyed by as many as 10,000 players today, was popular among the nobility and the upper classes. Played in purpose-built rooms with sloped roofs, real tennis resembles a mix of the modern game and squash.
Modern tennis or lawn tennis, played on croquet lawns, to begin with, would evolve in Birmingham in the late 1900s, developed by English lawyer and soldier Major Harry Gem. Emblematic of its immediate popularity, singles and doubles tennis event was included in the inaugural Summer Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, but was not contested by the world’s best players of the time; Wimbledon and US champions.
Nowadays, despite the fairly specific – and expensive – equipment demands of a satisfactory court, net, rackets, and balls, the sport has universal appeal with almost 90 million participants across the globe and many more tuning in to view grand slams and prestigious matches.
Tennis has also become a hotly speculated event on the sports betting markets. The Nadal/Federer era divided and united tennis fans, with many backing their favourite in enthusiasm and at the bookies. With their own specialisms, Federer favoring faster surfaces and Nadal the slower clay, the pair went tit for tat for number of majors won over their illustrious careers.
Serbian Novak Djokovic entered the fray and has since surpassed Federer’s tally but remains one title behind Nadal – a record Federer will no longer be able to contest after recently announcing his retirement from the game following a less-than-ideal recovery from knee surgery.
The three titans have dominated the men’s tournaments for the past fifteen years with occasional challenges from fellow Swiss Stan Wawrinka and Brit Andy Murray. Tennis betting is a fierce arena where big money can be made, especially if an outsider comes good on the day.
On the women’s side of the sport, the Williams sisters’ reign – along with strong showings from Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova – seems to have subsided and has opened up to a wave of new talent. 16 different champions have been successful at the last 27 major titles (over the past seven years).
One metric to measure the popularity of any topic is to gauge how frequently a term is searched on the internet. These figures show the top ten countries that searched “tennis” most often are made up of five European, two Asian and two Oceanic countries plus the United States.
All four hosts of the major tournaments appear, with Australia topping the list but perhaps most surprisingly, “tennis” also rated highly as a popular search term in Singapore and the Philippines – and Madagascar proudly at number eleven. The African island nation’s inclusion may be explained by the success of Malagasy hotshot Zarah Razafimahatratra, now retired, won one singles and five doubles career ITF titles.
Filipino athlete Alex Eala was the number two ranked ITF junior in 2020, currently 248 in the WTA world singles rankings, and has several singles and doubles junior grand slam titles to her name. Eala is certainly one to watch for the future.
Global tennis viewership increases year after year. The number of viewers of WTA events doubled between 2015 and 2019 to 700 million and continues to rise.
During a similar timeframe, the ATP Tour Finals in London at the O2 Arena was watched in 175 nations reaching 850 million viewers. Unsurprisingly, the 300 million strong USA makes up the largest portion of tennis viewers with localized peaks in the host nations of each major tournament.
This phenomenon is further intensified when local heroes take to the courts on home turf. 17 million people worldwide tuned in to Andy Murray and Roger Federer’s final at Wimbledon 2016 and Aussie Nick Kyrgios attracted 4 million in his fourth-round tie against Nadal at the Australian Open.
When adjusted for population, the relatively small nation of Ireland has some of the highest tennis participation figures as does Bulgaria, Romania, and Austria. Tennis is also one of the most well-loved sports in Germany, with over 5 million active players and 1.4 million members in their tennis federation – the largest in the world. International superstars Boris Becker and Steffi Graf lay the foundations for its popularity while more recently Angelique Kerber flies the flag.
While tennis continues to enjoy huge involvement from the general public, its biggest challenge to overcome will be to keep the next generation of players and viewers interested. One way of achieving this is to experiment with exciting new formats of the game, including shot clocks and shorter matches.