Courtly Love: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Real Tennis

The world of real (or “court”) tennis is, for most people, an obscure one. But the story of its latest rivalry is as familiar as it gets.

The compelling playbill of this year’s real tennis drama read like this:

Robert Fahey is the sport’s forty-six-year-old defending champion. He won his first world championship in 1994, and has yet to encounter a contender who can match him in the twenty years since.

Enter Camden Riviere. He was six years old when Fahey first earned his title. Now ranked number one in the world, an honor he earned after six grueling months of elimination challenges, Riviere is looking to become only the second player under the age of thirty to win the world championship in 250 years (Fahey was the first). Should he do it, Riviere would also be the first American in a century to earn the top position.

The eleven-time undefeated Tasmanian veteran (Tasmanian by birth and for the sake of intrigue; Fahey is based in London now) will meet the young South Carolinian at the Royal Melbourne Tennis Club and battle it out for the best-of-thirteen sets. At the end we will have a champion of “the oldest sporting contest in the world,” dated by devotees back to the first world championship in 1740.

That was last month. Fahey fell behind early on, losing the first two sets, and the initial set without even winning a game. Over the course of three days, however, the mature sportsman surged ahead of his adolescent challenger, winning the next seven of eight, and with it, a stunning triumph that proves appropriately that experience trumps agility in a game of calculations and reaction.

Though real tennis has survived from the twelfth century to our modern age, few are aware of its existence, let alone of its particulars—a real shame considering the richness of its history and the allure inherent in the complexity of the game.

The sport is summarized as “akin to tennis, squash, and chess for the strategically minded racquet sports enthusiast.” Disregarding the “strategically minded” part, I got my first taste of the ancient “sport of kings” at Prince’s Court in McLean, Virginia, one of only 11 real tennis courts in the United States.

Ivan Ronaldson, the club’s head professional, gave me a lesson, the first ten minutes of which he endured non-judgmentally while I made a spectacle of myself adjusting my lawn tennis instincts to the smaller racquet and the low bounce of the dense, hard balls. My instructor informed me the balls are hand-made and cork-based, but coyly declined to affirm whether this is due to an abundance of empty wine bottles.

I found my experience to be very similar to that of Craig Corrance, a club member who told me his first foray into the realm of “mobile chess” two years ago began with “utter frustration” and evolved into “excitement amplified by the complexity of the game.” I, too, began to understand the sport’s rules and strategy while improving my technique—a thoroughly satisfying experience for mind and body.

Real tennis, so I learned, is daunting at first, but anyone with a remote knowledge of lawn tennis or squash should be able to pick up the rules relatively quickly. (Having an extremely gracious coach whose father was world champion for the bulk of the 80s doesn’t hurt.) The space of the real tennis court is constructed in imitation of a monastic courtyard where the game was developed in the Middle Ages, complete with sloping roofs, galleries, and a buttress. Like squash, players use the high walls to direct shots, though it’s only required to do so while serving. There are fifty-five different types of serves, Ronaldson informed me, and I was able to regain part of my lost dignity later on by unwittingly delivering what’s called a “railroad” serve. (I look forward to the day I accidentally master the “bobble” and “giraffe” methods.)

Scoring for real tennis is counted the same way as in lawn tennis, except that the winner of the last point always has his score called first. A significant quirk of real tennis that makes Roger Federer’s version look like child’s play is the “chase,” which happens when the ball bounces twice at the service end without the player on that side touching it.

Briefly, wherever the ball makes its second bounce—marked by lines and numbers on the court—is noted, and while “playing off” the chase, the server must strategize whether or not to let the ball bounce twice or hit it. Basically you can be rewarded for not hitting the ball. Ronaldson assured me that this complicated practice, along with remembering to note the location of the second bounce, takes some getting used to. I was relieved. I also considered whether perhaps the monks had too much time on their hands.

Real tennis is a fascinating pastime that enthralled Europe for centuries. Ronaldson told me tradition holds that prior to the French Revolution, there were more real tennis courts in France than churches, though the game’s association with the wealthy aristocracy changed that. Real tennis is still somewhat tied to the upper class, since many of the world’s rich contribute necessary funds for the construction of courts. As Ronaldson put it, “You’re not going to get money from the bank for that.”

Though the really well-off supply the million or so dollars needed to build the impressive facilities, Ronaldson insists the courts sustain themselves with members who love the tradition, have grown bored with tennis, worn out by the physical demands of squash, or who are drawn “to never stop learning.”

Ronaldson says he is fortunate in his profession because he “gets to deal with people during the highlight of their day, with happy people.” Real tennis players, he added, are loyal to the sport, and there are plenty of enthusiasts well into their eighties who still participate. The sport has been slowly growing during the past forty years, and a new court is built every few years.

Corrance was introduced to the sport by a friend, and says he has been “overwhelmed by the outgoing, friendly nature of complete strangers” he has encountered playing all over the world. Falkland Palace Royal Tennis Club in Fife, Scotland (built in 1541), is the oldest tennis court in use today. Corrance said that while planning a visit there, he learned that only eight people from the village play real tennis, but when he arrived, every single player turned up to watch and compete. The balls are kept at the local pub, and whoever arrives first is expected to collect them.

Corrance acknowledges a sense of “introverted snobbery” within real tennis, a certain pride and camaraderie that exists among those few who know about the sport and its “300 year-old technology.”

That pride has kept real tennis alive. Its archaic traditions carry on with a handful of dedicated enthusiasts who uphold the value of antiquity and pure sport, and thanks to classic rivalries of the Fahey-Riviere variety that never get old.

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