Introduction to Real Tennis

Introduction to Real Tennis
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You might know what Real tennis is but don’t know too much about the sport which is still active in the UK and is the precursor to lawn tennis. Often known as “the sport of kings”, Real tennis has a rich and colourful history. The sport is still played today throughout the world.




Real tennis evolved from earlier ball games played around the 12th century in France. The word tennis is believe to derive from the French word tenez, which means “take heed”! Real tennis spread across Europe, with the Papal Legate reporting in 1596 that there were 250 courts in Paris alone.



Royalty has been linked to the sport since 15th century with Henry V and later Henry VIII, both playing. In the 16th century, Henry VII built a court at Hampton Court Palace, which is still used today. His second wife Anne Boleyn was watching a game of real tennis when she was arrested. It is also believed that Henry was playing tennis when news of her execution reached him.


During the reign of James I (1603–25), there were 14 courts in London alone. And it is said that Queen Elizabeth I was a keen spectator of the game.


While in France

Across the channel, in France, François I (1515–47) was an enthusiastic player and promoter of real tennis. He encouraged all to play and built court to enable this. His successor, Henry II (1547–59), was also an excellent player and continued the royal French tradition. King Charles IX granted a constitution to the Corporation of Tennis Professionals in 1571. This created 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.


17th – 20th Centuries

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


In Victorian England, real tennis had a revival. However this was short lived and public interest later shifted to the new, much less difficult outdoor game of lawn tennis. This sport soon became the more popular racket sport. Lawn tennis also had another advantage. It’s a game played by both genders, whereas real tennis players were almost exclusively male.



Today, Real tennis is still played on about 43 surviving courts in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States and France. The sport has the longest line of consecutive world champions of any sport in the world, dating from 1760.



Rules of Real tennis

The rules differ lawn tennis, however both games score the same way.



To win a game a player needs to win four points. And, usually (but not if playing off a handicap adjustment), to be at least two points ahead of his opponent. The first player to win six games wins the set. However, sometimes sets are played as first to 8 or 9 games. It is not necessary to be ahead by two games as the eleventh game is decisive (or the 15th /17th). It is the score of the player who won the last point that is called first (this is different to lawn tennis).



Service is only from one end of the court. For the service to be correct, the ball must touch the half of the side penthouse at the receiver’s end. The ball may also touch the side penthouse at the server’s end and/or the side wall. The first bounce of the ball must be on or beyond the service line at the hazard end (the receiver’s end). The server must stand further from the net than the second gallery line. The ball must go over the net but it can first strike the wall or the side penthouse at the striker’s end.



The ball is out if it strikes the side walls above the marked limits or hits one of the rafters or lights. A ball entering the dedans, the grille, or the winning gallery wins a stroke for the striker. However, A ball entering any other opening at the end opposite the striker, or bouncing twice on the floor at the end opposite the striker, records a chase at the mid-point of the opening or at the point of the second bounce, as appropriate. Then there is no change to the score.


If the score is within one point of game or if two chases have been laid, the players change ends (and service) and the chases are played in the order in which they occurred. The player who has not laid the chase has to win the chase by ensuring that the second bounce of his or her return is nearer the back wall than the chase being played.


The gallery posts are considered to be part of the gallery nearer the net. However, the stone sides of the openings are not considered to be part of the opening. And hitting the net post loses the stroke.


The chase

The unusual feature of real tennis is the chase. A chase is a point held in abeyance and occurs when a ball bounces twice without being struck or enters some of the galleries (but there are three openings wherein the entry of the ball wins the stroke, not a chase). The chase is recorded. For example, a chase better than four means that the second bounce of the ball was nearer than four yards from the back wall. However no stroke is scored.


There are lines on the floor to help measure the chase. If one chase is laid and the score is within one point of game or if two chases have been laid, the players change ends (and service) and the other player has to ensure that the second bounce of his or her return is nearer the back wall than the chase(s) marked. The opponent may leave any ball that seems to fall further from the back wall than the chase marked and so win the point.


Necessary skills

Some hand-eye coordination and physical mobility is essential but it does not require the sort of fitness and agility demanded by squash in order to enjoy the game. The game can be enjoyed at many skill levels and a system of handicapping has been devised in order to make games competitive between players of different ability. Age is also no barrier. Many octogenarians play the game, and to a good standard.



The Court

Real Tennis is the king of all racquet sports; a game where subtlety and thought are more prized than brute strength and power. It is played in an asymmetrical court which contains many unusual features, sloping roofs, openings (galleries) in the walls and a main wall which has a kink in it (tambour) so the ball on hitting the sloping face moves across the court instead of continuing down the line of the main wall. It has the classic elements of warfare where a failed attack is punished by a counter-attack. The game is played with racquets made of wood and with hand-made balls re-covered every week with new cloth.


The ball can be given spin either by the player or by contact with the wall, and the action of this spin can be even more deadly than Shane Warne! Therefore, reading the spin is an important part of the game. Initially one is totally bewildered by the spin but soon one begins to judge where the ball will move after contact.




Each court has at least one pro, who is on hand to teach as well as make the balls used. Some famous players and professionals include The Earl of Wessex, the current world champion Camden Riviere, Northrup R. Knox, multiple-time American champion who retired undefeated, and Claire Vigrass Fahey, Current Women’s World Champion.



Where to Play

We’ve listed in our directory, all the places you can play Real tennis in the UK. From historic venues like Hampton Court, and Cambridge University, to more modern courts like Middlesex University. So, if you’re looking for a new challenge, give Real tennis a go!


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