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"I do think there is a link in that in both cases, writing fiction or writing a computer program, at any given moment you're focusing on a very specific and particular thing—one word, one line of code, whatever."
- Neal Stephenson

Robot Tennis Player  
  A purely mechanical, autonomous foe on the court.  

As far as I know, the first instance of a tennis-playing robot in science fiction. But not the first actual tennis-playing robot - see below!

THE red tennis robot scooted desperately across the court, its four wide-set wheels squealing. For a moment, Robert's hard-hit passing shot seemed to have scored. Then, at the last instant, the robot whipped around its single racketequipped arm. Robert sprawled headlong in a futile lunge at the return.

"Game and set to Red Three," announced the referee box from its high station above the net.

"Ah, shut up!" growled Robert, and flung down his racket for one of the white serving robots to retrieve.

"Yes, Robert," agreed the voice. "Will Robert continue to play?" Interpreting the man's savage mumble as a negative, it told his opponent, "Return to your stall, Red Three!"

Technovelgy from Manners of the Age, by H.B. Fyfe.
Published by Galaxy in 1952
Additional resources -

Feel like you're being outclassed? Adjustments are possible:

In a few moments, the major-domo [Blue One] arrived.

"Did Robert enjoy the tennis?" it inquired politely.

"I did not!" snapped the man. "Red Three won — and by too big a score. Have it geared down a few feet per second."

"Yes, Robert."

Modern Mechanix offered delighted robotics enthusiasts with this story in 1934; as you see, the robot is a wily server of tennis balls, if not a returner of tennis balls.

(Actual tennis robot circa 1934)

PITTING their skill against the strokes of a mechanical tennis player in a recent exhibition, St. Louis racquet stars found themselves deluged by a barrage of deceptive lobs and smashing serves which drove them to the base line and forced them to net several of their returns.

The invention of Edward Serrano, winner of the St. Louis district doubles crown in 1932, the robot will do practically anything the human tennis player can do except return the ball. Mounted on a movable, two-wheeled frame, the iron body of the machine is crowned by a bucket-like head which contains sixty balls. A striking bat, powered by a small electric motor, serves, lobs or drives the balls as they are fed automatically from the hopper into a dish-like receptacle.

(Inventor and tennis robot circa 1934)

Various adjustments permit a wide latitude of strokes. Hitting toward the top of the striking surface results in a top-spin drive; hitting toward the bottom produces an under-cut stroke. When the robot is called upon to lob it is adjusted backward until its “head” forms an acute angle with the ground, much like the wartime trench mortars. The serve is executed merely by slowing up the drive.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Manners of the Age
  More Ideas and Technology by H.B. Fyfe
  Tech news articles related to Manners of the Age
  Tech news articles related to works by H.B. Fyfe

Robot Tennis Player-related news articles:
  - ESTHER Tennis Robot V. Fact (1934) And Fiction (1952)

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