The history of Real Tennis

Nobody invented tennis. It evolved, over nine centuries, although the game’s main features – the court itself, the racquets, balls, scoring system and other rules – have been standardised since around 1600. The oldest indoor court in existence today, at Hampton Court Palace in England, was built by Charles I in 1625 (on the site of Henry VIII’s earlier court) and is still widely used for championship play. An outdoor court at Falkland Palace in Scotland will celebrate its 475th year of play next year.

Tennis started as a form of handball (“Jeu de Paume” = “game of the hand”), played by monks in the cloisters of French and Italian monasteries in the 11th century. The design of today’s court, with its sloping penthouse roof, galleries and other openings, clearly derives from the architecture of cloisters and courtyards. The original balls were, as now, made of bound cloth or hair covered with stitched felt.

With the development of gloves, and later wood and string rackets, came heavier balls and standardised court dimensions and scoring. By the 13th century, tennis was the preferred sport of leisured French clerics – so  much so that it was, at times, prohibited by the church authorities.

In the 14th century the game began to be played more by kings and nobles than by the clergy. From France, which gave tennis much of its vocabulary (including the name, derived from “tenez”, the server’s warning that the  ball was on its way), the game spread to England and Scotland and had its many royal devotees. Henry VIII was perhaps the best known, but others were just as keen. By the 16th and 17th centuries, tennis was clearly the most popular ball game in Europe – and not just with aristocrats. Paris alone is thought to have had around 250 tennis courts in the mid-1500s. No wonder various monarchs tried to prohibit commoners from playing tennis rather than attending to their military and religious duties. By contrast, the 18th century was a period of sharp decline in the game’s fortunes. European royalty lost interest; wide-spread dishonest betting gave tennis an unsavoury reputation; and many courts were demolished or converted to other uses (particularly theatres). Finally, the French Revolution dealt a savage blow to the game in France, from which it has hardly recovered, although three courts are still in active use in the country.

The second half of the 19th century marked a major revival of the game in Britain. Tennis courts were built not just at the country houses of wealthy families, but at new urban clubs established to cater for the burgeoning growth of competitive sports in Victorian Britain.

Interest in the game spread to Australia and North America in the 19th Century. A court was built in Davey Street, Hobart, in 1875 and in Boston in the USA just one year later. The Melbourne Tennis Club was established in Exhibition Street, Melbourne, in 1882 and received royal patronage from the day it was officially opened by the Governor of Victoria Lord Normanby.  The Club received a royal warrant from Queen Victoria in 1896 and remains to this day the only tennis club in the Southern Hemisphere to have this honour.

There are many references to tennis in Sydney dating to the 1820s. Variously described as “tennis courts”, “ball alleys” and the like, these courts were generally attached to public houses or military establishments, and were most likely of simple construction comprising three main walls of brick or timber. A game was played with a gloved hand as in fives, or early versions of rackets popularised in the Fleet Prisons of London.

The first effort to construct a public real tennis court was at the behest of the Governor of New South Wales Lord Carrington who held office from 1885 to 1890. He appealed to the State Government for funds to construct a court in the stables of Government House, but this was rejected on the basis of cost. The next effort was in 1922 when Sir Adrian Knox and a group of enthusiasts planned to establish a court at Rushcutters Bay for an outlay of three to five thousand pounds: ‘Envy of Melbourne’s court has led to these men now to the point of seriously considering building one in Sydney. The site has been chosen at Rushcutters Bay, and it is quite likely that by next Cup, Sydney will be challenging Melbourne and Tasmania …’ In an item from ‘The Sun News – Pictorial’ of 4 November 1922 under the heading ‘Old Game for Sydney’, we see the comment: ‘Each year when Sydney men come over to Melbourne for the Cup, a number go along to the Melbourne Royal Tennis Club, and grow enthusiastic over the game that Henry VIII used to play. Sir Adrian Knox follows every stroke, although he has not yet taken part in the game …’.

In Britain, America and Australia the game thrives. There are competitions between these countries every two years for the Bathurst Cup, as well as for amateur teams under 25, 50+, 60+ and 70+, and national and worldwide Ladies Championships. Open events for the top professional and amateur players may earn the right to challenge for the world title. Players of any ability can participate in handicap tournaments or interclub matches, and in a popular team event held at Melbourne every other year – known as the Boomerang Cup.

France has clubs in Paris, Fontainebleau and Pau, and there are plans for a new court in Bordeaux, which has had a long line of tennis courts since the first was constructed by John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury in 1460.

Through the remarkable efforts of Wayne Davies and Rob Fahey, Australia has retained the men’s world championship for nearly 30 years. The most recent challenge was played in Melbourne in May 2014 at which Fahey defended his crown at the tender age of 46 against US challenger Camden Riviere, 20 years his junior.

Each country has an over-reaching organization to manage its tournaments, rules and by-laws, such as the prestigious Tennis and Rackets Association based at Queen’s Club, London and representatives frequently hold discussions to ensure the smooth running of this historic sport.