Real Tennis

I used to own, and run, the Canadian freedom of speech advocacy site

Before that, I was a freelance writer and I  cornered the market  on cigarette smuggling  in Canada, a Very big political deal, back then.

The Reader’s Digest picked up a lead story I’d written on the subject for Canadian Business Magazine and the Wall Street Journal asked me to produce an Op-Ed, which was later published.

Wall Street Journal, eh?  That was big-time and I thought I’d try my arm at writing something else for them.

For some reason I can no longer remember, I’d also become interested in Real Tennis  so I decided write something on that.

It was never accepted for the WJ, but a little while ago my long-suffering wife, Liz,  and I were looking through some old stuff of mine and we came across the Real Tennis draft.

I recently had a quadruple coronary bypass from which I’m still  recovering.

I also suffered a devastating stroke, but that’ll be another story.

Meanwhile, for nine years I had been getting up around  3:30 every morning, knowing exactly what I was going to do with my day – write copy for p2pnet – and after I sold p2pnet I was going squirrelly trying to find a way to fill the vacuum.

That’s why I’d created this site and I thought, dammit, I can post my long lost article here. So…

Court Tennis? —  asks a racquetball freak, thinking deeply.  He ponders  a little more,  then “got it!”  he says.  “That’s the one you play on tarmac instead of grass?  Right?”


Court tennis  is just another name for Real Tennis, (real for ‘Royal’ rather than ‘the real deal’).

Sometimes called “the sport of kings,” it’s the world’s oldest and most exotic  racquet-ball game.  One tries to hit the ball over the net and scoring goes – 15, 30, 40, game, the same as the ‘other’ game. But there the similarity ends. It boasts the longest continuously played championships, thanks to the about 5,000 rabid, not to say wealthy, in most cases, amateur and professional aficionados scattered throughout the United States, England France, and Australia.

“Despite a 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 reconstruction,”  says the Wikipedia, going on, “The 27-inch (686-mm) long racqets are made of wood and use very tight strings to cope with the heavy balls.

“The racquet head is bent slightly 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. Currently there are only 2 companies in the world hand-crafting these racquets: Grays of Cambridge (UK) and Harrow Sports (US) based in Denver, Colorado.”

Real tennis may have been the sport of Kings, but it was also the sport of movie stars.

One of the members of the exclusive racket and tennis club  on Park Lane, New York, the scene of a world tournament, was the famous Fred Astair.

“Real tennis is at least as fast as squash, a lot more subtle than lawn tennis and the ball can hit 140 miles an hour”, says former Australian world champion Wayne Davies.

“My best is 143 mph.  Imagine something as hard as a baseball, but the size of a tennis ball, coming at you that fast. It’s terrifying.”

Jeu de paume

Go back in time to 1050 AD.  You’re in a French  monastery.  On your right is a high wall with a massive buttress made from huge stone slabs hacked out of solid rock.  Around you is the cloister with a long, sloping roof and windows in each wall.

Now imagine three or four monks waiting tensely for the action to commence. One of them tosses a ball formed from old rags from one hand to the other. Suddenly, he throws it into the air and smashes it the palm of his hand, batting it at a steep angle off the buttress.  Another monk intercepts it and fires it back at the first, who launches it through a window at the end of the square.

Jeu de paume means game of the Palm in French  and even today,  Frenchmen complain of being ‘paume’ if they having a run of bad luck.  But back then, the monks were having nothing but fun as they tried to get a hand to the ball careening off the monastery walls or sloping roofs at grotesque angles.  In fact they were having too much fun until in 1245, the Archbishop of Rouen tried to remove temptation by banning the game altogether.

It was, however, too late. Jeu de paume lived on and prospered. Charles V of France, and Edward III of England, were stricken with real tennis fever and in 1365 both monarchs issued decrees stating the game was to be the exclusive province  of nobleman and courtiers.

Skilled craftsmen made the balls, somewhat smaller  than those used in lawn tennis  but harder, and heavier,  by hand.

Around the 1400’s, strange narrow wooden rackets with only 4 or 5 strings – meant,  according to legend, to resemble an arm and hand with the wrist slightly bent – replaced palms.  And that was probably the last time a major change was made to real tennis. Around 100 years later,  Paris had more than 200 courts employing some 7000 people. But it didn’t stop there. Venice had four courts, a Roman artist named Caravaggio  argued with a friend over a match and killed him.

Prague had had four courts and and new Amsterdam in Holland also  boasted a place where  real tennis could be played.

Ironically,  it was on a real tennis court in Paris that the French National Assembly swore to abolish the monarchy and the  revolution put paid to the game in that part of the world. And  across the Channel in England,  and new pastime based on court tennis was steadily gaining strength.  Call field  tennis, it led, eventually became what’s known today as lawn tennis.

In England, Lord’s  is best known  for its world-class cricket matches. But it’s also the site of a real tennis court,one of around only 42 in the world, 25 in the UK and of just four in London.

If the game is bizarre,  so is the terminology.

Lachlan Deuchar is the touring pro  at the Harbour Club  in London, England.

“He won many open singles tournaments and, partnering Wayne Davies, dominated the doubles scene from 1984 until 1992, “ Says the International Real Tennis Association webpage (

When he won the right to challenge   Australia’s Wayne Davies  (Real Tennis world champ from 1987 to 1994), during the play-offs  in Melbourne,  Deuchar served  ‘giraffes  on short chases,’  not to speak of hitting for ‘grilles  and two winning’ galleries.’

And one of the shots  Davies used to take out  Deuchar  at the subsequent final in New York  was a classic ‘railroader.’

In it, the server holds the racket  backwards, contorts his or her body, strikes down  to give the ball heavy spin and fire as it  along  a sloping ‘penthouse roof’  running along the back walls an down one side of the court, the idea being to leave the recipient  at the’ hazard’  end  flat-footed by dropping the ball into a corner.

Be that as it may,  ironically co-ordinated receivers  might still be able to get a railroader as it comes off  the penthouse or ‘tambour’,  a sidewall angle, in which case they can score by hitting the ball across  the drooping net  into the ‘dedans,’  the screened spectator  gallery service in.  It’s liberally hung with bells  which jingle to signal score.

Or  if the server can get the ball  into the small net covered grille  behind and to the right (from the server’s point of view another point is scored.

Then there is the chase, the core of the game which allows players to switch sides. It’s important because the sober always has the advantage.

To further complicate matters it also has something to do with replaying points, how often the ball bounces and how close it is to the back wall.

And don’t ask about the giraffe, boomerang, Caterpillar, bobble or demi-pique.  They’re all different kinds of serves.

Meanwhile,  why isn’t the game more widespread?

Because courts cost  at least $1 million to build.

“In New York, we have 2 courts with 3 pros, plus the racquet courts.  It takes about $140,000 per year to staff them. But we only make back about $50,000 in fees. And I make about half my earnings from lessons. So imagine the costs if I was on the straight salary.” And   there’s maintenance, and so on.  And the balls are still handmade.Factor in maintenance,  and you see why investors aren’t exactly lining up.”

The pros usually look after that, Davies adds,

“we start the small cork then we get thin strips  of carpet webbing which we wrap around the court. Use pliers to build it and they hammer to compact it. Retired pattern onto the to make it hard and keep your round, rather like the baseball, and then we wrapped felt around it and  and-sew it on.”

One ball lasts about 4 years, but naturally, the covers eventually wear out — “we put 60 or 70 balls on the court at any one time,”  so we take a knife and cut the covers off. We also cut off the twine. Recycling, you know.  Then we re-tie ball hard and around because they go out of shape.”

Lord’s is also the home of the MCC European Open Tennis Championship, says the webpage. In  (,795,AR.html)

One thought on “Real Tennis

  1. Do you know where it’s possible to purchase real tennis racquets and balls online? As of now, I’m in no position to be able to play the sport (no courts exist in southern California), but I really enjoy reading about it and watching videos of it. I’d like to just have a racquet and ball(s) of my own to hold and get a feel of. I understand that the racquets are quite expensive.

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