Tennis is not what it was. Now it's all about branding and the annual disappointment of Andy Murray. (Oh, Murray. What's most disappointing about him is not that he always ends up losing, but that he is so strangely unlikeable. I want to like him, I do, but I can't.) Tennis today is a money game. At Wimbledon, you get charged through the eyeballs for strawberries, and sodden tourists get sold umbrellas at house-price levels. The players swank around in sponsored gear (remember Federer and his gilt-trimmed jacket?).

Way back when, the sport was simpler. Tennis wasn't tennis, it was handball. Then it was real tennis, as played by Henry VIII before he got fat. Eventually it became lawn tennis, but only thanks to the imagination of Major Walter Clopton Wingfield. (I'm not sure which part of that name I like the most. There is something gratifying about the alliterative Ws, and the rhythm of the successive trochees, but the clincher must be Clopton - the way it anchors the run of names, the heaviness of the word, the horse-like presence of "clop" in the middle of it all - it's too beautiful.)

Wingfield was Welsh (showing his commitment to poetry from birth) and patented tennis nets in 1874. He appears inexplicably on a Hungarianstamp from 1965 wearing a beret and a formidable beard and holding an ancient tennis racket. I don't know if this is an accurate representation of the man or not, but he looks like a blast. This is only confirmed by the name he chose for his invention - sphairistikè. That's right, sphairistikè, Greek for "the art of playing ball" (you can see "sphere" hiding in there). You have to admire the man's chutzpah - to give a fledgling sport an unpronounceable Greek name, a name that will surely never catch on. And catch on it didn't, so the game was rechristened tennis (from tenir, the French for "to hold, receive, or take").

Tennis now is more about aerodynamic sportswear and retractable roofs - yet that's all right. You can get misty-eyed about things, but I imagine it's more entertaining to watch Federer and Nadal prance round the court than it was to see dear old Clopton with his beard smash a ball about. All the same, what a beard.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan