Real tennis

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Jesmond Dene jeu a dedans court, view toward service end Jesmond-Dene-tennis-court.jpg
Jesmond Dene jeu à dedans court, view toward service end

Real tennis – one of several games sometimes called "the sport of kings" – is the original racquet sport from which the modern game of tennis (originally called "lawn tennis") is derived. It is also known as court tennis in the United States, [1] formerly royal tennis in England and Australia, [2] and courte-paume in France (to distinguish it from longue-paume, and in reference to the older, racquetless game of jeu de paume , the ancestor of modern handball and racquet games). Many French real tennis courts are at jeu de paume clubs.


The term real was first used by journalists in the early 20th century as a retronym to distinguish the ancient game from modern lawn tennis (even though the latter sport is seldom contested on lawns these [ which? ] days outside the few social-club-managed estates such as Wimbledon).

There are more than 50 active real tennis courts in the world, located in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States and France. [3] Other countries have currently disused courts, such as the two in the Republic of Ireland. The sport is supported and governed by various organizations around the world.

Game description

Racquets and balls Real-tennis-rackets-balls.jpg
Racquets and balls

The rules and scoring are similar to those of lawn tennis, which derives from real tennis, but are more complex. In both sports game scoring is by fifteens ("40" being short for the original forty-five). However, in real tennis, six games wins a set, without the need for a two-game margin as in lawn tennis [4] although some tournaments require more games (as many as 10) to win, usually playing one, single set. A match is typically best of three sets, except matches between men in the major open tournaments, which are best of five sets.


Unlike latex-based technology underlying the modern lawn tennis ball, the game uses a cork-cored ball which is very close in design to the original balls used in the game. The 2+12-inch (64 mm) diameter balls are handmade and consist of a core made of cork with fabric tape tightly wound around it, compacted by outer windings of string, and covered with a hand-sewn layer of heavy, woven, woollen cloth, traditionally Melton cloth (not felt, which is unwoven and not strong enough to last as a ball covering). The balls were traditionally white, but around the end of the 20th century "optic yellow" was introduced for improved visibility, as had been done years earlier in lawn tennis. The balls are much less bouncy than lawn tennis balls, and weigh about 2+12 ounces (71 grams) (lawn tennis balls typically weigh 2 ounces (57 g)).

The 27-inch (690 mm) short, asymmetrical racquets are made of wood and use very tight nylon strings to cope with the heavy balls. The racquet oval is shaped to make it easier to strike balls close to the floor or in corners, and to facilitate a fast shot with a low trajectory that is difficult for an opponent to return. There are two companies in the world hand-crafting these racquets: Grays of Cambridge (UK) and Gold Leaf Athletics (US).

An example layout of a tennis court. A valid serve must occur from the serving court before the second gallery line, and hit the service penthouse before dropping in the receiving court, marked by the service line and fault line. Corresponding chase lines extend from the centres of the side galleries on both service and hazard ends, including the first, door, second and last. Gallery posts and the net post are marked with circles. Shaded areas are the winning openings, the dedans, grille, and winning gallery. None of these, nor the posts, would be visible with an actual overhead view as depicted. Tennis court layout.png
An example layout of a tennis court. A valid serve must occur from the serving court before the second gallery line, and hit the service penthouse before dropping in the receiving court, marked by the service line and fault line. Corresponding chase lines extend from the centres of the side galleries on both service and hazard ends, including the first, door, second and last. Gallery posts and the net post are marked with circles. Shaded areas are the winning openings, the dedans, grille, and winning gallery. None of these, nor the posts, would be visible with an actual overhead view as depicted.


Newmarket-Suffolk jeu a dedans court, view toward hazard end Newmarket-Suffolk-tennis-court.jpg
Newmarket-Suffolk jeu à dedans court, view toward hazard end

There are two basic designs in existence today: jeu quarré, which is an older design, and jeu à dedans. The court at Falkland Palace is a jeu quarré design which unlike jeu à dedans court lacks a tambour and dedans. Mary, Queen of Scots became especially fond of the game, and it is said that she scandalised the people of Scotland by wearing men's breeches to play. The more common real tennis court (jeu à dedans) is a very substantial building (encompassing an area wider and longer than a lawn tennis court, with high walls and a ceiling lofty enough to contain all but the highest lob shots). It is enclosed by walls on all four sides, three of which have sloping roofs, known as "penthouses", beneath which are various openings ("galleries", from which spectators may view the game and which also play a role in scoring points), and a buttress that intrudes into the playing area ( tambour ) off which shots may be played. There are no "standard dimensions" for courts. Most are about 110 by 39 feet (34 m × 12 m) above the penthouses, and about 96 by 32 feet (29.3 m × 9.8 m) on the playing floor, varying by a foot or two per court. They are doubly asymmetric: each end of the court differs in shape from the other, and the left and right sides of the court are also different.

Manner of play

The service is always made from the same end of the court (the "service" end); a good service must touch the side penthouse (above and to the left of the server) on or over the white service line on the receiver's ("hazard") side before touching the floor in a marked area on that side. There are numerous and widely varying styles of service. These are given descriptive names to distinguish them  examples are "railroad", "bobble", "poop", "piqué", "boomerang", and "giraffe". [5] [ citation needed ]

The game has many other complexities. For instance, when the ball bounces twice on the floor at the service end, the serving player does not generally lose the point. Instead a "chase" is called where the ball made its second bounce and the server gets the chance, later in the game, to "play off" the chase from the receiving end; but to win the point being played off, their shot's second bounce must be further from the net (closer to the back wall) than the shot they originally failed to reach. A chase can also be called at the receiving ("hazard") end, but only on the half of that 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, parallel to the net, generally about 1 yard (0.91 m) apart – it is these lines by which the chases are measured. Additionally, a player can gain the advantage of serving only through skillful play (viz. "laying" a "chase", which ensures a change of end). This is in stark contrast to lawn tennis, where players alternately serve and receive entire games. In real tennis the service can only change during a game, and it is not uncommon to see a player serve for several consecutive games till a chase be made. Indeed, in theory, an entire match could be played with no change of service, the same player serving every point.

The heavy, solid balls take a great deal of spin, which often causes them to rebound from the walls at unexpected angles. For the sake of a good chase (close to the back wall), it is desirable to use a cutting stroke, which imparts backspin to the ball, causing it to come sharply down after hitting the back wall.

Another twist to the game comes from the various window-like openings ('galleries') below the penthouse roofs that, in some cases, offer the player a chance to win the point instantly when the ball is hit into the opening (in other cases, these windows create a "chase"). Effectively, these are "goals" to be aimed for. The largest such opening, located behind the server, is called the "dedans" and must often be defended on the volley from hard hit shots, called "forces", coming from the receiving ("hazard") side of the court. The resulting back-court volleys and the possibility of hitting shots off the side walls and the sloping penthouses give many interesting shot choices not available in lawn tennis. Moreover, because of the weight of the balls, the small racquets, and the need to defend the rear of the court, many lawn tennis strategies, such as playing with topspin, and serve-and-volley tactics, are ineffective.


Jeu de paume, Paris Jeu de paume.jpg
Jeu de paume, Paris

The term "tennis" is thought to derive from the French word tenez, which means "take heed" – a warning from the server to the receiver. Real tennis evolved, over three centuries, from an earlier ball game played around the 12th century in France. This had some similarities to palla, fives, Spanish pelota or handball, in that it involved hitting a ball with a bare hand and later with a glove. This game may have been played by monks in monastery cloisters, but the construction and appearance of courts more resemble medieval courtyards and streets than religious buildings. By the 16th century, the glove had become a racquet, the game had moved to an enclosed playing area, and the rules had stabilized. Real tennis spread across Europe, with the Papal Legate reporting in 1596 that there were 250 courts in Paris alone, near the peak of its popularity in France. [6]

Royal interest in England began with Henry V (reigned 1413–22) but it was Henry VIII (reigned 1509–47) who made the biggest impact as a young monarch, playing the game with gusto at Hampton Court on a court he had built in 1530 and on several other courts in his palaces. His second wife Anne Boleyn was watching a game of real tennis when she was arrested and it is believed that Henry was playing tennis when news was brought to him of her execution. [7] Queen Elizabeth I was a keen spectator of the game. During the reign of James I (1603–25), there were 14 courts in London. [8]

In France, François I (1515–47) was an enthusiastic player and promoter of real tennis, building courts and encouraging play among both courtiers and commoners. His successor, Henry II (1547–59), was also an excellent player and continued the royal French tradition. The first known book about tennis, Trattato del Giuoco della Palla was written during his reign, in 1555, by an Italian priest, Antonio Scaino da Salo. Two French kings died from tennis-related episodes Louis X of a severe chill after playing and Charles VIII after striking his head on the lintel of a door leading to the court in the royal Château at Amboise. King Charles IX granted a constitution to the Corporation of Tennis Professionals in 1571, creating a career for the 'maître paumiers' and, establishing three levels of professionals – apprentice, associate, and master. The first codification of the rules of real tennis was written by a professional named Forbet and published in 1599. [9]

The game thrived among the 17th-century nobility in France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and the Habsburg Empire, but suffered under English Puritanism, as it was heavily associated with gambling. By the Age of Napoleon, the royal families of Europe were besieged and real tennis, a court game, was largely abandoned. [10] Real tennis played a 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.

An epitaph in St Michael's Church, Coventry, written circa 1705 read, in part: [11]

Here lyes an old toss'd Tennis Ball:
Was racketted, from spring to fall,
With so much heat and so much hast,
Time's arm for shame grew tyred at last.

During the 18th century and early 19th century, as real tennis declined, new racquets sports emerged in England: rackets and squash racquets.

Real Tennis house at Coburg, Germany Ballhaus coburg.jpg
Real Tennis house at Coburg, Germany

There is documented history of courts existing in the German states from the 17th century, the sport evidently died out there during or after World War II.[ citation needed ]

In Victorian England, real tennis had a revival, but broad public interest later shifted to the new, much less difficult outdoor game of lawn tennis, which soon became the more popular sport, and was played by both genders (real tennis players were almost exclusively male). Real tennis courts were built in Hobart, Tasmania (1875) and in the United States, starting in 1876 in Boston, and in New York in 1890, and later at athletic clubs in several other cities. Real tennis greatly influenced the game of stické, which was invented in the 19th century and combined aspects of real tennis, lawn tennis and rackets.

Real tennis has the longest line of consecutive world champions of any sport in the world, dating from 1760.

Victorian court master-builder

A forgotten master of designing, building and restoring real tennis courts was the British Fulham-based builder, Joseph Bickley (1835–1923). [12] He became a specialist around 1889 and patented a plaster mix to withstand condensation and dampness. [13] [14] Examples of his surviving work include: The Queen's Club, Lord's, Hampton Court Palace, Jesmond Dene, Newmarket, Moreton Hall, Warwickshire and Petworth House. [15] There are also examples of his projects in Scotland and in the United States. [16] [17]


Real Tennis Court building at Falkland Palace, housing the world's oldest tennis court and Falkland Palace Royal Tennis Club Real Tennis Court building, Falkland Palace, Fife.JPG
Real Tennis Court building at Falkland Palace, housing the world's oldest tennis court and Falkland Palace Royal Tennis Club
The Spectators' Gallery facing the court at Falkland Palace Real Tennis Court Spectators' Gallery.JPG
The Spectators' Gallery facing the court at Falkland Palace
Inside the Spectators' Gallery, Falkland Palace Real Tennis Court Spectators' Gallery (interior view).JPG
Inside the Spectators' Gallery, Falkland Palace

There are more than 50 real tennis courts in the world, and over half of these are in Britain.

United Kingdom

United States of America:





New court projects in the USA:

In literature

Tennis is mentioned in literature from the 16th century onwards. It is frequently shown in emblem books, such as those of Guillaume de La Perrière from 1539. Erasmus lets two students practice Latin during a game of tennis with a racquet in 1522, although the playing ground is not mentioned. [19] A 1581 translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses by Giovanni Andrea dell'Anguillara, printed in Venice in quarto form transforms the fatal discus game between Apollo and Hyacinth into a fatal game of real tennis, or "racchetta."

William Shakespeare mentions the game in Act I  Scene II of 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". Michael Drayton makes a similar reference to the event in his The bataille of Agincourt, published in 1627.

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. The title alludes to a shot that hits "the nick" (where the wall meets the floor), called "dead" because it then bounces very little and is frequently unreturnable.

Hazard Chase (1964), by Jeremy Potter, is a thriller-detective story featuring real 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 real tennis about the art of living.

The Corpse on the Court (2013) is a mystery by Simon Brett. It features the recurring lead character of Jude learning many details about the sport from aficionados.

In The Chase by Ivor P. Cooper, in Ring of Fire II in the 1632 series , up-timers Heather Mason and Judy Wendell learn the sport from Thomas Hobbes. Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden is depicted as an aficionado of the game.

Sudden Death (2016), a novel by Alvaro Enrigue, is interstitched throughout with descriptions of a real tennis match between the Italian artist Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Quevedo. The details of play are interspersed among historical reflections on the game, descriptions of techniques for making the balls, quotations from contemporary sources, gambling that accompanied the game, the backgrounds of the participants and the strategy discussions between the players and their seconds. It is intentionally unclear which details are real and which are imagined by the author.

In film

Real tennis is featured in the film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution , a fictional meeting between Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud. One of the film's plot points turns on Freud playing a grudge match with a Prussian nobleman (in lieu of a duel).

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. The film The Man Who Knew Infinity features a short sequence of G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) and John Edensor Littlewood (Toby Jones) playing real tennis.

The series Billions , Opportunity Zone episode, very briefly features Damian Lewis and Harry Lennix playing real tennis.

In the movie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead they play a game of questions in a disused real tennis court.

Televised matches

Real tennis has occasionally been televised, but the court (which does not well lend itself to the placement of cameras), the speed at which the ball travels, and the complexity of the rules all militate against the effectiveness and popularity of televised programming.

Web-streaming is proving a helpful innovation, and broadcast its first tournament, the European Open, from 8–9 March 2011. There were three 'main events' shown; the two men's semi finals and the men's final. The final was between Bryn Sayers and Robert Fahey, with Fahey taking the title in four sets.

Many top national and international tournaments can be seen live or on replay via YouTube channels:

in the USA: United States Court Tennis Association

in the UK: T&RA Media

in France: Real Tennis France

Notable players

See also

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