Real tennis

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Sports

Jeu de paume in the 17th century.
Jeu de paume in the 17th century.

Real tennis is the original racket sport from which the modern game of lawn tennis, or tennis, is descended. Real tennis is still played at a small number of active courts in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, and France.

It is also known as jeu de paume in France, "court tennis" in some parts of America, and formerly called "royal tennis" in Australia. The term real tennis is often thought to be a corruption of this last name and related to the game's connection with royalty during its heyday in England and France in the 16th and 17th centuries. In fact "real" was first used at the end of the 19th century as a retronym to distinguish it from the then recently invented game of lawn tennis. Real tennis players often just call it "tennis", describing the modern game as "lawn tennis".


Jesmond Dene jeu à dedans court
Jesmond Dene jeu à dedans court
Falkland Palace jeu quarré court
Falkland Palace jeu quarré court

The term "tennis" derives from the French word tenez, which means "take it" — a warning from the server to the receiver. Court tennis has evolved over centuries from an earlier ball game played around the 12th century in France. This had some similarities to palla, fives, pelota, or handball, involving hitting a ball with a bare hand and later with a glove. One theory is that this game was played by monks in monastery cloisters, and the shape of the court is certainly to this day reminiscent of a courtyard. Another theory is that the court features relate to medieval city streets and squares.

The game spread across Europe and became increasingly popular, with the Venetian Ambassador reporting in 1600 that there were 1,800 courts in Paris alone. By the 16th century, the glove had become a racquet, the game had moved to an enclosed playing area and the rules had stabilised. Courts were built near many European palaces including the Louvre in Paris and Hampton Court in England.

Shakespeare mentions the game in Act II of Henry V. When Henry declares:
When we have match’d our rackets to these balls
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts in France will be disturb’d with chases!

he is essentially challenging his cousin the Dauphin to a Court Tennis match with France as the prize. Little wonder that the sport became known as the "Game of Kings."

Henry VIII's great attachment to the game around this time is also well known. He played the game at Hampton Court, and indeed his second wife Anne Boleyn was watching a game of real tennis at Hampton Court when she was arrested, whilst it is claimed that Henry was playing real tennis when news was brought to him of her execution. The game became popular among the 17th and 18th century nobility in England and France, but eventually declined in popularity. This was due in large part to the impact that wider political and social changes—the English Civil War and Puritanism, and the French revolution—had upon the aristocracy and its pursuits. Real tennis played a minor role in the history of the French Revolution, through the Tennis Court Oath, a pledge signed by French deputies in a real tennis court, which formed a decisive early step in starting the revolution.

The game regained popularity in the 19th century, but soon gave birth to the outdoor game of lawn tennis which quickly became the most popular form of the sport.

Today there are only around forty five court tennis courts remaining in the world and several thousand active players. There has been something of a revival towards the end of the 20th century, with several new courts being built, for example in the UK at Clifton College and the Millennium Tennis Court at Middlesex University and in Australia in Sydney, Ballarat and Romsey. In 1999 Mike Carter became probably the first private individual to build a pair of real tennis courts at Prested Hall near Colchester, England, one with a unique glass viewing wall. In the United States, the court at the Newport Casino, now the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, was restored and brought back to use in 1980 after more than 50 years of inactivity. In 1997, the first new court in the United States since World War I, was completed in McLean, Virginia near Washington, DC. Known as Prince's Court, it is the first to have an entirely glass wall to facilitate viewing. Both of these courts are open to the public. The Netherlands and Ireland have real tennis interest groups. The Irish Real Tennis Association is currently involved in a legal battle with University College Dublin to restore one of the few two surviving real tennis courts in the Republic of Ireland, which has been used by the college as a gymnasium and more recently a laboratory, since 1939. The Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court Palace is the oldest court in the world still in use. It is one of several courts in England where members of the public can watch the game being played.

Manner of play

Racquets and balls
Racquets and balls

The rules and scoring are similar to those of lawn tennis, which derives from court tennis. Although in both sports game scoring is by fifteens, in real tennis 6 games wins a set, even if the opponent has 5 games. A match is typically best of 5 sets.

The 2½ inch (64 mm) diameter balls are handmade and consist of a core made of cork with fabric tape tightly wound around it and is covered with a hand-sewn layer of felt. Until recently the felt was always white, but yellow has been introduced for player safety. They are much less bouncy than a lawn tennis ball, and weigh about 2½ ounces (71 grams). The 27 inch (686 mm) long racquets are made of wood and use very tight strings to cope with the heavy ball. The racquet head is bent slightly to make it easier to strike balls close to the floor or in corners.

A court tennis court (jeu à dedans) is a very substantial building (a larger area than a lawn tennis court, with walls and a ceiling to contain all but the highest lob shots). It is enclosed by walls on all sides, three of which have sloping roofs (known as "penthouses") with various openings, and a buttress ( tambour) off which shots may be played. The courts (except at Falkland Palace, a jeu quarré design) share the same basic layout but have slightly different dimensions. The courts are about 110 by 39 feet (33.5 × 11.9 m) including the penthouses, or about 96 by 32 feet (29.3 × 9.8 m) on the playing floor, varying by a foot or two per court. They are doubly asymmetric—not only is one end of the court different in the shape from the other, but the left and right sides of the court are also different. The service only happens from one end of the court (the "service" end) and the ball has to travel along the penthouse to the left of the server to the other end, called the "hazard" end. There are numerous widely differing styles of service, many with exotic names to distinguish them. The game of stické uses a smaller court of a similar layout.

The game has other complexities, including that when the ball bounces twice at the serving end, the serving player does not generally lose the point outright. Instead a "chase" is called, and the server gets the chance, later in the game currently being played, to replay the point from the other end, but under the obligation of ensuring every shot he plays has a second bounce further back from the net than the shot he failed to reach. A chase can also be called at the receiving end, but only on the half of the receiving end nearest the net; this is called a "hazard" chase. Those areas of the court in which chases can be called are marked with lines running across the floor, from left to right, generally about 1 yard apart - it is these lines that the chases are measured against. One result of this feature is that a player can only gain the advantage of serving through skillful play (i.e. gaining a "chase" which ensures a change of end), as opposed to lawn tennis where service alternates between the players by rotation. In theory this means that an entire match could be played, with no change of service, and the same player serving every point.

The heavy, unbouncy balls take a great deal of spin, causing them to swerve when bounced off the walls, and a cutting stroke is often used to cause them to drop sharply off the back wall for the sake of a good chase.

Another twist to the game is the various windows below the penthouse roof that, in some cases, offer the player a chance to win the point instantly by hitting the ball into the opening. The largest window, located behind the server, is called the "Dedans" and must often be defended from hard hit shots (called "forces") coming from the receiving (called the "hazard") side of the court. The resulting strategy of long volleys and shots off the side walls and penthouse roof lead to many interesting shots not normally played in lawn tennis. However, because of the weight of the balls, the small racquets, and the need to defend the rear of the court, lawn tennis strategies like serve and volley are rarely employed.

Tennis in literature

The Penguin book of Sick Verse includes a poem by William Lathum comparing life to a tennis-court:

If in my weak conceit, (for selfe disport),
The world I sample to a Tennis-court,
Where fate and fortune daily meet to play,
I doe conceive, I doe not much misse-say.
All manner chance are Rackets, wherewithall
They bandie men, from wall to wall;
Some over Lyne, to honour and great place,
Some under Lyne, to infame and disgrace;
Some with a cutting stroke they nimbly sent
Into the hazard placed at the end; ...

The Scottish gothic novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (1824) describes a tennis match that degenerates into violence.

The detective story Dead Nick takes place in a tennis milieu, and the title alludes to a shot that drops in the nick between the back wall and the floor.

Hazard Chase (1964) by Jeremy Potter is a thriller-detective story featuring court tennis on the court at Hampton Court Palace. During the story the game is explained, and the book contains a diagram of a real tennis court. Jeremy Potter wrote historical works (including Tennis and Oxford (1994)), and was himself an accomplished player of the game, winning the World Amateur Over-60s Championship in 1986.

The First Beautiful Game: Stories of Obsession in Real Tennis (2006) by top amateur player Roman Krznaric contains a mixture of real tennis history, memoir and fiction, which focuses on what can be learned from court tennis about the art of living.

In Act I - Scene II of William Shakespeare's " King Henry V"; the Dauphin, a French Prince, sends King Henry a gift of tennis-balls, out of jest, in response to Henry's claim to the French throne. King Henry replies to the French Ambassadors: "His present and your pains we thank you for: When we have matched our rackets to these balls, we will, in France, by God's grace, play a set [that] shall strike his father's crown into the hazard ... And tell the pleasant Prince this mock of his hath turn'd his balls to gun stones".

Tennis in film

Court tennis is featured in the film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a fictionalized meeting between Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud. One of the film's plot points turns on Freud being forced into a grudge set with a Teutonic nobleman. The film The French Lieutenant's Woman includes a sequence featuring a few points being played. Also The Three Musketeers (1973) and Ever After briefly feature the game. Although presented with varying degrees of accuracy, these films provide a chance to see the game played, which otherwise may be difficult to observe personally. The Showtime series The Tudors (2007) portrays Henry the VIII playing the game.

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