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Oxford and the ‘King of all Racquet Sports’

Oxford: home to a 'Real Tennis' court since 1595 - the Oxford University Tennis Club is one of the oldest in the world

"Take heed" - a warning

With Britain's indefatigable Andy Murray beating Roger Federer in straight sets to win the gold medal in the men's singles tennis final on Centre Court at Wimbledon during the London 2012 Olympic Games, then defeating Novak Djokovic the following year in the men's singles final at the 2013 Wimbledon Championships, becoming the first British man to do so since Fred Perry, 77 years previously, there has been a massive resurgence of interest in the sport, but did you know that the game has its roots in Oxford?


The city of Oxford has enjoyed a long and illustrious association with this most celebrated of all the racquet sports, and has been home to a 'Real Tennis' court since 1595. The Oxford University Tennis Club is one of the oldest tennis clubs in the world, and has been on its current site at Merton College since 1798. The game is undergoing and enormous revival with many new courts being built around the world.

The generic 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 the games of 'palla', 'fives', 'pelota' or 'handball', in that it involved hitting a ball with a bare hand and later with a glove.

One theory is that this game was originally played by monks in the cloisters of their monasteries in 5th century Tuscany, where villagers soon adopted the sport by striking balls up and down the streets with their bare hands. This theory is based on the construction and appearance of the early courts.

By the turn of the 16th century, the glove had become a racquet, the game had moved to an enclosed playing area, and the rules had been established. 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.

In Great Britain, as in France, Royal patronage ensured the continued popularity of the game. French Kings in the 16th century and Stuart Kings in the 17th century were enthusiastic players. Royal interest in England began with Henry V, who reigned 1413-1422 but it was Henry VIII, who reigned 1509-1547 who made the biggest impact as a young monarch, playing the game with gusto at Hampton Court Palace on a court he had built in 1530, when he was in his late thirties.
It is believed Henry's second wife Anne Boleyn was watching a game of Real Tennis when she was arrested and that he was playing tennis when news was brought to him of her execution. During the reign of James I (1603-1625), there were no less than 14 courts in London alone.

In France, King François I (1515-1547) was an enthusiastic player and promoter of Real Tennis, building courts and encouraging play among both courtiers and commoners. His successor, Henry II (1547-1559), 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 Amboise.

King Charles IX granted a constitution to the Corporation of Tennis Professionals in 1571, creating the first pro tennis 'tour', establishing three levels of professionals – apprentice, associate, and master. The first codification of the rules of Real Tennis was written by a professional tennis player named Forbet and published in 1599.

The game thrived among the 17th century nobility in France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and in the Habsburg Empire, but suffered under English Puritanism. By the Age of Napoleon, the Royal Families of Europe were besieged and Real Tennis was largely abandoned. Real Tennis also 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. During the 18th century and early
19th century, as Real Tennis declined, new racquet sports emerged in England: racquets and squash racquets.

In Victorian England Real Tennis enjoyed a revival, but broad public interest later shifted to the new, 'outdoor' game of lawn tennis, which soon became the more popular sport, played by both sexes (Real Tennis players were almost exclusively male). Prince Albert (1819-1861) was an enthusiastic player, and there is a locker in the changing room at The Royal Tennis Court, Hampton Court Palace which still bears his name.

Real Tennis courts were later built in Hobart, Tasmania in 1875 and in the United States, starting with Boston in 1876, and in New York in 1890. Real Tennis also greatly influenced the game of 'stické', which was invented in the 19th century and combined aspects of real tennis, lawn tennis and racquets. Real Tennis also has the longest line of consecutive world champions of any sport in the world, so with Team GB's outstanding success at the London 2012 Olympic Games maybe the IOC should consider the game as a future Olympic sport?

The game of Real Tennis is the 'King of all Racquet Sports', a game where subtlety and thought are more prized than power and fitness. It is played in an asymmetrical court which contains many unusual features. A 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 a buttress that intrudes into the playing area called a "tambour" off which shots may be played.

The majority of courts share the same basic layout but have slightly different dimensions. Most are about 110 by 39 feet (34 x 12 metres) above the penthouses, and about 96 by 32 feet (29 x 9.8 metres) 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.

Unlike the latex-based technology underlying the modern lawn tennis ball, the game still utilizes a cork-based ball very close in design to the original balls used in the game. The 2½ inch (64 mm) diameter balls are handmade and consist of a core made of cork with fabric tape tightly wound around it 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), and are usually re-covered every week with new cloth. The balls are traditionally white, but around the end of the 20th century "optic yellow" was introduced for improved visibility, as was done years earlier in lawn tennis.

The 27 inch (690 mm) long racquets 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.

The manner of play has the classic elements of warfare where a failed attack is punished by a counter-attack. 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 the receiver's ("hazard") side of the court before first touching the floor in a marked area on that side. There are numerous and widely varying styles of service. These are given curiously descriptive names to distinguish them, for example a "railroad", "bobble", "poop", "piqué", "boomerang" and "giraffe".

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, his shot's second bounce must be further from the net (closer to the back wall) than the shot he 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 the 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 skilful 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 until 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 below the penthouse roofs that, in some cases, offer the player a chance to win the point instantly by hitting the ball into the opening. 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, are ineffective.

The rules and scoring are similar to those of lawn tennis, which derives from Real Tennis. Although in both sports game scoring is by fifteens (with the exception of 40, which was shortened from forty-five). In Real Tennis, six games win a set, without the need for a 2 game buffer as in lawn tennis, although some tournaments play to 9 games per set. A match is typically best of three sets, except for the major open tournaments, in which matches are best of five sets. 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 no barrier and many octogenarians play the game, and to a jolly good standard.

The Oxford University Tennis Club is the home of 'Real Tennis'. Their clubhouse was completely rebuilt in 1997 and now includes modern changing rooms, a club room, plus a meeting and dining room. The court itself was refurbished in 2002. The club has approx 250 members, and is open from 08.00 till 10.30 seven days a week, and can be booked up to three weeks in advance using their new booking system (members only). There is a small shop, equipment for hire, plus a racquet repair service. The two resident professionals, Andrew Davis and Craig Greenhalgh, are always on hand for bookings and coaching, and to welcome new members.

The club is a friendly place, and open to all, not just to members of the University. There is play at all levels with junior, student and senior members playing all year round, overseen by their two full-time professionals. The court is extremely popular especially during term, and it will help avoid disappointment if you book ahead. New players, though, should not be put off, as the pros will always try to make time for you.

Membership is simple – just phone the OUTC (01865 244212) or call in and talk to Andrew or Craig.

If you would like to know more about the sport, you'll be made especially welcome and almost certainly invited to come along to the club and watch a game which I can assure you, will be an experience to behold!

- Peter Holthusen


Top Image - Oxford has enjoyed a long and illustrious association with this
most celebrated of all the racquet sports, and has been home to a ‘Real Tennis’ court since 1595.

Middle Image - The 27 inch (690 mm) long hand-crafted racquets are 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.

Bottom Image (left) - This 16th century engraving depicts a game of Real Tennis being played on one of the many courts that were emerging across Europe. Royal interest in England began with Henry V, but it was Henry VIII, who made the biggest impact as a young monarch, playing the game with gusto at Hampton Court Palace.


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