A game played with 100 balls; a game where you serve off the roof; a game where you play in a court that has a tambour, grille and penthouse; a game where you can ‘Chase the Door’, Chase Better than the Last Gallery . . . most of you have probably never heard of Real, Royal or Court tennis, but Lawn Tennis evolved from this game.
It is still played with a wooden racket and played on original courts in the UK, USA, France and Australia. It is thought that the court was originally copied from monastic buildings where the grille was a buttery hatch or an opening through which the monks could speak with people outside. The penthouse could have been part of the cloisters and the galleries were cowsheds, but this cannot be proved. The Kings of England and France played tennis so it became known as royal, or real, tennis. It was played in the Louvre and Versailles and is mentioned in literature more than any other sport. Charles II apparently was an addict and it is believed that Henry VIII was playing tennis when Anne Boleyn was sent to the block in the tower of London. It is said to be a game of moving chess, combines the exactitude of billiards, the hand-eye coordination of lawn tennis and generalship and quick judgment of polo. In the Middle Ages players protected their hands with a leather glove which later acquired gut strings, then a handle was added. The racket is asymmetric in shape and fairly heavy – this curious shape is designed to help the player cut the ball by having a large area of strings across which the ball can sweep diagonally. The ball is solid, containing a core wrapped round with some thirteen years of webbing in ½" widths which is soaked in water and then wound tightly round the core to form a spherical shape, kept in place a binding of twine. The ball is finally covered with wool cloth which is hand sewn; the cover wears out in about a month, but the core lasts virtually forever.
It is thought that the word tennis may have come from the French imperative of tenir (hold) – French players called out ‘tenez’ (hold or take heed) before each service, which would have been a word of warning. The number 60 often represented a complete whole in medieval times, a physical sign or sextant, the sixth part of a circle, consisted of 60 degrees, each degree was made up of 60 minutes, each minute 60 seconds; it was natural, therefore, to take the figure 60 to represent a game and the four points which made up the game were each worth 15 thus dividing the game into four equal stages of 15 i.e. 15, 30, 45 (which was later cut to 40). The origin of deuce comes from France where ‘a un 40’ was within one stroke of winning the game and when both players reach 40, the rules required the winning of two consecutive points – ‘a deux’. The word ‘love’ could be the corruption of the French word l’oeuf, the egg and the service is thought to have been the ancient practice of having a servant to play the first stroke – Henry VIII employed a man for this purpose. The net used to have a fringe to distinguish the good strokes from the bad, but this eventually became a crossed netting. The chase is derived from the French ‘chasser’ to hunt or chase; the chases used to be marked with an object where the ball landed on its second bounce as this is where the ball was ‘dead’. This is the unique feature of real tennis.
Apart from the chases, tennis is similar to lawn tennis in that it is played over a net and can be singles or doubles. Both require the ball to be returned either on the volley or after striking the ground once, although in tennis it may rebound off the walls before striking the ground. Both are scored with 15, 30, 40 etc. and sets are won by the first player to reach 6 games, although the winning margin is a single game, 6-5.
There are certain openings, which gives the player who strikes the ball into them an outright point, which are the dedans, grille and winning gallery. The tambour is a protrusion on the court which when hit with the ball gives a difficult angle. The service is always played from the dedans end and the ball must bounce at least once on the penthouse roof – there is a fault line as in lawn tennis. It is an advantage to serve, also as in lawn tennis, and a player will attempt to remain on the service side as long as possible. The only way the receiver can cross over and gain the service is by means of a chase. In lawn tennis the server’s points are called first; at tennis because the service can change in the middle of a game, it is the winner of the last point whose score is called first.
In lawn tennis, if the player misses the ball or the ball bounces twice and is ‘not up’, then the player loses the point. But in tennis, the point is not lost but is held in abeyance until the change of ends. The chase is the point where the ball lands on its second bounce so when the players change sides, the player who missed that particular point has the opportunity to win it by making a better shot than his opponent made. For example, if the second bounce lands on the 6 yard line (chase 6), then to win the point he has to either win it outright or make the ball land on its second bounce between the 6 yard line and the back wall. To make it more confusing, there are lines on the other side of the net (hazard end) where chases can also be made.
Prince Edward says of Real Tennis, “it is one of the few sports left where, at whatever level, playing the game is more important than winning”. If only this were true of all sports.
Prince Edward and Sophie attended the dinner and the finals. They met through a promotion of Real Tennis; Sue Barker was unavailable and Sophie stood in for her and ‘love’ blossomed. The World Number one lady player is Penny Lumley, who has won numerous titles during the past 10 years and in the 1996/97 season achieved the Grand Slam, taking the British, French, American, Australian Opens and the World Singles and Doubles titles. She has also been placed in the Sunday Times Sportswomen of the Year awards.
The game suffered a severe decline as a result of the social loss and upheaval following the First World War, but is now undergoing a revival, with old courts being taken back into use, such as those at Newmarket and Bridport and new courts being constructed, such as those at the Oratory School, Harbour Club a second at Hampton Court Palance, and those in Washington and Sydney.
For further information, Real Tennis has a website on the Internet: Real Tennis.