In The Court Of King Henry

Tennis is not tennis. Despite having played the sport competitively for nearly ten years, I only learned this fact a little over a year ago. Tennis is actually lawn tennis, the modern predecessor of a much older game. Court tennis, as we call it here in the US, real tennis in the UK, royal tennis in Australia, and jeu de paume in France is the original racquet sport: tennis as it was first meant to me played.

The game originated in France, probably in the fifteenth century. It was an offshoot of a type of handball played in courtyards. The first to play this game were monks in the courtyards of monasteries where they had previously played handball. They added racquets and then a net, and the game became the first racquet sport. It took off in popularity with the international royalty and was even adopted by King Henry VIII, who added in the complicated chase rule. A tennis fanatic, Henry VIII had his tennis pro on call as one of the only full-time staff members at the Hampton Court Palace; Henry was also said to be on-court when given the news of at least one of his wife’s beheadings. 

The game looks like a mix between tennis and squash in that you have to hit it over a net but you can bounce it off the walls, using outdated equipment, and on a weird court. The basic principle is that a player must serve the ball from the serving end of the court over the penthouse (awning-like roof) into the service box. The returner then must return the ball over the net, from which time the point is played out like a regular tennis point — hit the ball over the net without it bouncing twice — with the addition of walls. However, if a ball bounces twice anywhere on court except in the service box area on the returning side, the player does not necessarily lose the point; the player marks where the second bounce of the ball landed in accordance to lines painted on the court, called a chase on the serving side and a hazard on the receiving side, and puts that point on hold until the end of the game. When it is game point, say 15-40 or 40-love, any score where there is only one point left to decide the game, the opponents swap sides and the person who was just serving is now receiving (there are no regulatory serving changes like lawn tennis: you only change servers when there is a chase/hazard and it is game point or there is an accumulation of two chases, at which point you don’t wait until the end of the game but change sides right then; theoretically, you could go a whole match without serving or receiving if someone doesn’t hit any chases), and must hit every one of his balls so that the second bounce is better than (and by better we mean closer to the back wall) the chase. 

So let’s say, for example, you’re serving out a point at 30-all and the returner hit a chase 5. He does not win that point, it is still 30-all, but there is a chase pending. After the next point, say you win it and it’s 40-30, since it’s one point from deciding the game you now switch ends and you are now returning. You have to hit every one of your balls so that the second bounce is closer to the back wall than 5. If you don’t, the server may choose to leave it and he would win the point, meaning it would be 40-all (deuce), but if you win the chase by hitting it closer than 5, you would win the game since you were already up 40-30.

To make things more interesting, there are a number of openings in the court. The biggest opening is called the dedans which is a giant rectangular window directly below the penthouse behind the server. If the returner hits the ball into the dedans, he wins the point immediately. Likewise, on the receiving end, there are places the server can hit the ball and win the point immediately. Remember, the server can choose to hit the ball so that it bounces twice into the service box area on the returning side for which he’d win the point rather than get a hazard. There are also two winning openings on the returning end: one is called the winning gallery, marked by a bell, which is a small window on the side wall under the penthouse. The other is called the grille, which is an even smaller window under the penthouse on the back wall abutting the main wall. So that the server is prevented from hitting and easy straight shot down the main wall directly into the grille, a small piece of wall juts out called the tambour so that, if the ball hits the tambour, rather than go into the grille, it takes a left turn and goes a different direction. It’s not exactly an easy ball for the person on the receiving end to hit off the tambour, but it at least gives them a shot at it rather than going straight into the grille. Got all that?

It sounds quite complicated, but really it’s second-nature once you get on court and start playing. Think of it this way: you have to keep the ball going over the net like lawn tennis, you can let it bounce off the walls like squash, there’s a few places you can hit it into and win the point immediately, and everything else is a chase/hazard. Simple. Court tennis prides itself on being the consummate traditionalist’s game, so we use only slightly updated racquets from those that would have been originally used. They’re still made out of wood and by hand from only two companies. The racquet, you’ll notice, is asymmetrical: the head is tilted one way. There’s a number of theories as to why this is, but most prevalent is that it best models an outstretched arm, as one’s hand naturally tilts up a bit rather than remaining perfectly horizontal. Coming from handball, this is not an unlikely scenario. The balls, too, are all handmade. Every club makes their own balls by taking shredded cork, wrapping it in canvas strips, using a special type of twine to tie an intricate triangular pattern that keeps the balls in shape, and then sewing tennis-ball felt over them. To look at it, a ball may appear to be a handmade tennis ball, but upon feeling it, you’ll notice it’s much harder. 

Just about every club, save for a few university courts mostly in the UK, requires an all-white dress code which was adopted from lawn tennis in the Victorian age when the game was gaining a second wind of popularity. Shortly before lawn tennis was invented upon bringing rubber back to England from newly-colonized India, real tennis was at its peak with more than 1000 courts worldwide. Today, less than 50 courts survive in only four countries (US, UK, France, Australia), with a handful of other courts laying dormant in disrepair (mostly located in those four countries, but there are a few outliers). The real tennis world championships is the oldest ongoing sporting competition ever, dating back to 1740. As well, many of the terms in both court tennis and lawn tennis that are now in the popular lexicon come from the Brits misinterpreting French. For example, Love, which we all know means zero, came from a misinterpretation of the French word l’œuf which means “the egg,” representing 0. Or the name of the game, tennis, comes from the French word tenez which means “take heed,” a gentlemanly warning at the beginning of a match from the server to the returner. 

In my bucket-list quest to play every racquet sport in the world at least once, I took a court tennis lesson at the National Tennis Club, the court tennis club on the grounds of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI. Thinking it would be a one-time thing, something to satisfy my most basic requirement that I only need to play each racquet sport just once, I was transfixed by how hard it was to actually make contact with the ball. As I said, I’ve been playing lawn tennis for almost ten years competitively — at a DII university and then as first singles and doubles at a DIII university — and I’ve been playing and teaching squash now for more than three years. I thought, based on my ingrained muscle memory of my tennis strokes and my understanding of balls being able to bounce off walls at strange angles (something I understood from playing squash but is foreign to most lawn tennis players), that I would pick the game up fairly easily. Boy, was I wrong.

After my first lesson, I knew I had to come back. The pro at the club was keen on me playing more, and wanted more young people to play the game. He suggested I start a team at my college, Salve Regina University, which is only a stone’s throw from the court. I was able to drum up some recruits from the varsity tennis team that I play on and was even able to get some formal support from the school, but unfortunately they were not able to support financially. However, with thanks to the United States Court Tennis Preservation Foundation, we had our racquets, court time and team lessons all covered. Even though none of us four (except for me taking that single lesson) had ever played, we were now a team, one of only two university-affiliated teams in the US. We had a successful season learning the game and its many nuances, watching the pros play, and figuring out the complicated scoring system. 

This year, I went abroad for my first semester to London and left two of my teammates in charge in the interim. While in London, I studied at a school called St. Mary’s University which, by chance, was only two miles away from the Royal Tennis Court at the Hampton Court Palace, the oldest continuously played court in England. Compared to the US’ 12 courts, the UK is practically overflowing with 27 courts so, because of that, there are more collegiate teams, over 25 in all. In addition to playing for the squash, badminton, and tennis teams for St. Mary’s University, I was playing real tennis about three times a week at the Royal Tennis Court, riding my bike (with no breaks or no gears) through Bushy Park as a warmup. I figured, since I was there so often anyway, why not start a team at St. Mary’s too? With many more collegiate teams in the UK already existing, it was a lot easier for me to get organized support and funding for a team, I just needed interest. Again, I drummed up interest by turning to the teams that I already played for. I was able to recruit about seven students and, thanks to the Dedanist’s Foundation, got financial support. I registered the team with the school’s student union and, with help from the club’s head pro, we became official. Because of our status as a university team, I was allowed to play in the inter-university tournament at Cambridge University which was an absolute blast. I left after the semester with the infrastructure in place to keep the team going after I left and they continued to practice at the Hampton Court Palace this past semester after I had left. 

Coming back to the US, I was thrilled with the amount I got to play in the UK and how much I learned about the sport and its culture. Because it is such a small sport, with only an estimated 10,000 active players worldwide, it seems that everyone knows everyone, and I love that tight-knit aspect of it. Coming back to the Salve Regina team and seeing it having grown to six players (after having graduated one), we practiced two to three times a week. It all paid off when, at the end of the semester, we had an organized match with some of the members of the National Tennis Club and we ended up winning by a sweeping 10-0 after hard fought singles and doubles matches. Next year, we plan on playing the one other US university team, Georgian Court University in Lakewood, NJ, in what might be the first-ever intercollegiate court tennis match in US history (there are rumors about Harvard having played Brown back when the sport was more popular, but there are no records of such events). 

Additionally, this summer I was lucky enough to be offered the apprentice position at the National Tennis Club. I’ve learned so much in just the one month I’ve been here and still have two more to go before school starts back up. Not to mention, I get to live in Newport for the summer. It’s also looking like I may end up in Paris this winter at the Societe Sportive du Jeu de Paume as a court tennis intern over my Christmas break. 

From a sartorial angle, the biggest thing that jumps out at the spectator are the cricket sweaters. A staple of the Ivy and preppy looks, cricket sweaters (like many other pieces of the prep wardrobe) have been appropriated to be generic white V-neck sweaters with colored bands around the neck and waist. However, in court tennis, the colors and crests mean something. Many clubs have their own sweaters with the club’s crest in the center of the chest and the clubs colors are the bands the wrap around the neck and waist. Most of these sweaters are still made from 100% cotton, meaning they can be quite heavy. Maybe because it’s a traditionalist’s game, or maybe because players just like to look good, it is not uncommon to see a court tennis player of any age warming up in their cricket jumper, whereas in lawn tennis the sweater went out of style in the 1970s, and, nowadays, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone wearing a tennis sweater to warm up. Looking at modern sweaters and going back into the archival photos, very little has changed about the sweaters: a court tennis player looked just as good wearing them in 1919 as they do in 2019, and very little else has changed in the game since then either. Just the way it’s supposed to be. — TREVOR JONES

13 Comments on "In The Court Of King Henry"

  1. Trevor Jones | July 6, 2019 at 11:30 am |

    Sorry, sweaters are 100% wool, not cotton.

  2. Excellent. Very enjoyable. Very timely with The Championships having kicked off this week. Original name of lawn tennis, sphairstike, or something spelled similarly. Love the tennis whites. Abhor what Nadal has done to tennis attire. Roger all the way.

  3. Very cool. We have a few courts here in Virginia.

  4. whiskeydent | July 6, 2019 at 2:35 pm |

    On a related note, here’s another American brand that has adopted “sullen youth” imagery to market their tennis wear.
    https://boastusa.com

  5. “the modern predecessor of a much older game”

    This statement makes no sense. It would be the modern *successor* to a much older game. Just FYI. 🙂

  6. Trevor Jones | July 6, 2019 at 8:08 pm |

    @Steve righto. A carless mistake by anyone, never mind an English major ? Chalk it up to the hurried pace of writing, I suppose.

  7. Nice piece, and hurrah for you, young Trevor, for taking up court tennis. Have you tried rackets, squash’s predecessor? You probably know that it is played in a large court, 30′ by 60′ with dark cement walls and a small, hard white ball, which rockets off the walls at 150 mph. The racquet (often called a bat) is similar in size to the old wooden squash racquets, except the handle is three inches longer. It is a difficult and dangerous sport. I believe that there are only five rackets courts left in the U.S., all at private clubs, and the number of players is dwindling. In fact, the pro at one of those clubs told me not long ago that the rackets court is so little used now that some members want it converted to squash courts.

  8. Trevor Jones | July 6, 2019 at 10:54 pm |

    @Trace Six in the US, plus one in Canada. I’ve played in Boston, as well as a number of times when I lived in London. It’s really a shame the way courts are being repurposed. One at Georgian Court University is used as part of their cafeteria, another in the UK has been repainted with badminton lines. And to think, it was once the second-most popular sport in India behind cricket.

  9. René Lebenthal | July 7, 2019 at 6:38 am |

    We have a beautiful court of the jeu de paume at the Fontainebleau Castle, one left in France. I believe that there are only 1 or two left on France. If you ever come to Fontainebleau you have to visit.

  10. Trevor Jones | July 7, 2019 at 1:04 pm |

    @Rene, Fontainebleau is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful courts. Bordeaux has been defunct for a number of years but is recently refurbished and set to open by summer’s end. There are other courts in southern France/northern Spain, the Basque country, that are used for different games that can sometimes be played on. The courts are noticeably different, but contain many of the same elements; Pau is a great example.
    I plan on being in Paris at the club for a month this winter. If I am, we should definitely meet up!

  11. This is a fantastic piece. I’ve always wished to know more of the history and rules of real tennis, but finding accurate information on either isn’t easy.

    I just joined NTC and had the thrill of playing on its storied court. Loved it!

  12. Charlottesville | July 9, 2019 at 10:52 am |

    Twenty or more years ago, my wife and I stayed in a hotel on the Ille Saint-Louis that was originally a jeu de paume court built by Louis XIII in the 17th century. Lovely old stone building, but the newly built interior walls were decidedly not sound-proof. Still, who can complain about a week in Paris? Certainly not I.

    https://www.jeudepaumehotel.com/en/page/4-star-saint-louis-hotel.1.html

  13. Vern Trotter | November 18, 2019 at 8:06 pm |

    Henry VIII also thought himself an expert wrestler. In 1520, at the Summit, the field of the Cloth of Gold in France, Francis I, of France, challenged him to a secret match. The result not to be disclosed so the loser would save face. Francis utilized an effective technique called ” tour de Bretagne” and pinned Henry to the mat within seconds. Henry was much annoyed but laughed it off as a gentleman should.

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