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Real tennis court at The Oratory

Real tennis court at The Oratory

In these 2 weeks of Wimbledon madness, we thought it might be a good idea to take a little historical journey and discover the racquet sport that gave us the widely popular Lawn Tennis, the one we know now but whose origins stem from medieval times.

I was first introduced to Real Tennis when watching “The Three Musketeers” (1973) and then later by my science teacher at school, who was an avid player. He took a small group of us with him to watch him play at Queens Club in London. It was a fascinating and exhilarating game to watch and has stayed with me, with a nagging desire to at some point try a game.

Real Tennis, which is variously called Court Tennis, Royal Tennis and frequently the ‘sport of Kings’. It came into being in medieval Europe over the 15th century, but had developed over the course of the previous 3 centuries. In the mid 1500s there were some 250 courts in Paris alone. It was amazingly popular in France with a number of Kings playing it. The first codification of the rules where written in 1559 but a frenchman, Fobert. Indeed a Real Tennis court played a part in the start of the French Revolution.

realTennisIt was also extremely popular in England with Henry V liking it, but it was Henry VIII who took to it with gusto having a court built in Hampton Court Palace. This court still exists and is used to this day. Would you believe that it has the longest run of consecutive World Champions, running since 1760? That is a heck of a history and demands a very large wall to accommodate all their names!

Real Tennis is a very complex game, where cunning and skill are more valuable than strength and fitness. It is played in an indoor court that has slanted roofs called ‘penthouses’ and long openings called ‘galleries’. The Court is large, some 110 feet long by 39 feet wide, usually with an exceptionally high ceiling. It is played with wooden racquets that are asymmetrical and with a cork based ball, which is much less bouncy than a modern Tennis Ball.  The scoring is pretty much the same as the tennis we are familiar with  today; 6 games in a set and 3 or 5 sets in a match.

Lawn Tennis was described as a much less difficult game and therefore became more and more popular while Real Tennis declined over the course of the 18th Century. Now it has been relegated to an obscure sport that few have heard of and even fewer play. Currently there are only 43 Real Tennis courts in the world, with over half of them in Britain.

When you watch the lush green of Wimbledon this week, take a thought to it’s origins in the indoor courts of Medieval France and Britain played by Kings.

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