The day I realised the tennis I knew wasn’t real…

Tennis. The game that instantly reminds us of radiant turf, white-clad competitors, strawberries and cream, hushed crowds and summers spent following the path of a small green ball. Everything about the game we know today oozes class, reverence for tradition, and all the very best of Britishness.

But I have learnt something that breaks my heart a little. Tennis, or the game as we know it, is not ‘real’ tennis. Lawn tennis (the game we know and love) is the modern descendent of the game Sphairistikè (an ancient Greek word loosely meaning “skill at playing ball”), created by Major Waltor Clopton Wingfield in 1873.

Jeu_de_paume The original lawn tennis court
The original game of real tennis (left) vs. the original game of lawn tennis, known as Sphairistikè (right)

Real (also known as Royal) tennis is an ancient sport that originated in the monastic cloisters of northern France in the 12th century. The game was originally known as Jeu de paume (game of the palm) until the 16th century, when rackets came into use.

FACT: King Henry VIII made the biggest impact to real tennis in Britain by building a court in Hampton Court Palace in 1530, which has been in use for nearly 500 years.

The use of rackets, a net and a ball is where the similarities between real and lawn tennis ends. In real tennis, the balls are much heavier and have little bounce. The racket face is miniscule in comparison to its lawn counterparts – only a handspan across – and are asymmetrical.

Real tennis racketsIf we use the American writer, John McPhee’s description of a lawn tennis court as ‘an Elizabethan theatre’, then a real tennis court would be a medieval marketplace. A gigantic three-dimensional area with penthouses with sloping roofs that hem in three sides of the court; various galleries; an angled buttress called a “tambour”; a netted opening on one end called a “dedans”; and a window called a “grill” – there are a multitude of planes off which to play a point.

Imagine this: ricocheting off the walls, the ball hurtles at you from countless directions; making you feel like you’re in a pinball machine rather than a tennis court. To win (or even just to hit the ball!) you need to be able to anticipate where the ball will bounce and get there in time to take a strategically-aimed swing – a task that requires both hand-eye co-ordination and a knack for on-the-fly trigonometry.

Suddenly, I have a newfound respect for the ancient game.

Australian real tennis world champion Robert Fahey (L) returns a ball to his US challenger Camden Riviere during the Real Tennis World Championship final in Fontainebleau, south of Paris, on May 20, 2008.

Given its roots, you might think this quaint pastime is limited to the customary Etonion set and on the verge of extinction – but you’d be wrong. Real tennis is growing in popularity across the globe with around 50 courts in use globally and more being built to satisfy demand.

For more information about the game, check out the International Real Tennis Professionals Association website.


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