Real tennis: ‘Sport of kings’ survives the centuries

Published April 17, 2015
People play Real Tennis, the ancient sport ancestor of tennis, in Paris. — AFP
People play Real Tennis, the ancient sport ancestor of tennis, in Paris. — AFP

PARIS: A fuzzy ball the size of an orange shunts along a slanted ledge before dropping to the floor and bouncing onto the strings of a waiting wooden racquet.

Play begins yet again in a game of real tennis, a sport that originated in the Middle Ages and endures to this day, kept alive by about 10,000 enthusiasts from Boston to Melbourne.

“We're amateurs in the true sense of the word,” says Matthieu Sarlangue, the six-time amateur champion of France among other titles.

The game abounds with eccentricity, from the asymmetrical court whose parts include “penthouses”, a “hazard” and a “dedans”, to a multitude of service styles with names like the railroad, the giraffe and the boomerang.

Most unusual is a complex set of rules surrounding what is known as “laying a chase”, which happens when the ball bounces twice.

The point is held “in abeyance” until the players change ends and the player who let the ball bounce twice must try to “beat the chase” by hitting a deeper shot than his opponent did.

“Other sports are more monotonous,” Sarlangue says. “With real tennis you learn new things every day, different shots, different situations ... It's more difficult than it looks.”

Few concessions to modernity

The sport has made few concessions to modernity. White attire remains de rigueur, even for informal practice. The balls are still painstakingly made by hand, though the balls' felt covers became bright yellow in the 1980s for enhanced visibility as they did in modern tennis.

The ball, which has a cork core wrapped in cloth under the thick felt, weighs 73 grammes (2.6 ounces), some 30 per cent heavier than its modern tennis cousin.

Real Tennis' ball, the ancient sport ancestor of tennis, are pictured here. — AFP
Real Tennis' ball, the ancient sport ancestor of tennis, are pictured here. — AFP

Because they are handmade, no two balls are alike. Similarly, no two courts are of the same dimensions, giving a considerable advantage to home players.

“It's the effervescent side of real tennis,” said Tim Batten, captain of France's squad for the Bathurst Cup, the equivalent of modern tennis's Davis Cup national team tournament. “You have to adapt to different courts.”

With its Art Nouveau ceiling of ironwork and glass, the sole Paris court that is still in use, opened in 1908, is the world's highest at some 11 metres (35 feet) — easily accommodating the giraffe serve.

In real tennis, tactics are as important, if not more so, than physical strength, which helps explain the longevity of its top players.

Rob Fahey of Australia has been dubbed the Roger Federer of real tennis. He has 10 world titles under his belt from a championship dating back to 1740.

“He could almost roll out of bed and win most tournaments,” said Simon Marshall, a pro at the Paris club.

Only now, at age 46, is Fahey beginning to look over his shoulder to the next generation, having lost the world number one ranking last year to US player Camden Riviere, 19 years his junior at age 25.

Sarlangue meanwhile carries on his 22-year-old shoulders the hope for a revival of real tennis in its ancestral home.

From medieval monks

The grandfather of today's racquet sports evolved from a game played by medieval French monks with their bare hands — the French name, jeu de paume, literally means game of the palm.

Eventually gloves appeared, followed by flat wooden bats and then racquets designed to resemble the hand, with the face bent slightly away from the handle — a shape that makes it easier to scoop up low-bouncing balls.

At the height of the game's popularity in the late 16th century, France counted around 1,500 courts, with about 250 in Paris alone, according to real tennis expert and player Gil Kressmann.

Today, that number has shrunk to just one in Paris, and the only other court in all of France is at the royal chateau of Fontainebleau.

The centre of gravity shifted long ago to England, which today has the world's most robust real tennis scene, with three dozen clubs and the world's busiest venue at Hampton Court, the historical home of Henry VIII.

Matthieu Sarlangue, right, poses with his coach Tim Batten at the Real Tennis and Squash club in Paris. — AFP
Matthieu Sarlangue, right, poses with his coach Tim Batten at the Real Tennis and Squash club in Paris. — AFP

“In England most kids have been dragged to Hampton Court, so they have all seen the game being played,” Marshall says. “You have to book two or three weeks in advance to play there.”

The Duke of Orleans, a French nobleman who was imprisoned by Henry V for two decades in the early 15th century during the Hundred Years' War, is thought to have introduced the sport to England.

The very name of the game of tennis, the same in English and French, reflects a linguistic back-and-forth across the English Channel, as the word is thought to derive from the French “tenez” (hold, or take heed), which a player would say before serving.

Similarly, the word “ace” for a service winner in modern tennis almost certainly derived from “ais”, the French word for a wooden stave that once stood in a corner of the real tennis court that was worth an automatic point if struck, Kressmann said.

And “love”, the curious word for the starting score, comes from l'oeuf, the French word for egg, once used in real tennis to indicate failure to win a point.

The “sport of kings” was a fixture for generations of royalty, not just in France and England but across Europe.

The long line of French kings who were real tennis enthusiasts ended with Louis XIV, whose doctors forbade him to play because he suffered from gout, Kressmann said.

The Sun King took up billiards instead, launching a new fad for both royalty and high society.

Repurposed for Moliere

Kressmann says two-thirds of the courts in Paris were gone by the time of the French Revolution, mainly the victim of property speculation as the population grew.

One key venue has been preserved as a museum — the site in Versailles of the “Tennis Court Oath” of June 1789 seen as setting the French Revolution in motion.

Many courts were converted into theatres, during a period when a biting satirist such as Moliere was unable to stage his plays at the bourgeois venues of the day.

The 17th-century playwright “was very badly viewed. You didn't criticise royalty,” Kressmann said, adding that the resulting rectangular theatres would become known as “a la francaise”, or French-style.

The most prominent converted real tennis venue in Paris is the Jeu de Paume art gallery on the Place de la Concorde — it was its closure that led to the construction of the Paris club where Sarlangue, Batten and Kressmann play.

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