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real tennis

The language of real tennis

This month, in Melbourne, Australia, saw 46-year-old Rob Fahey successfully defend his Real Tennis World Championship title, which he has held since 1994. Real Tennis is the king of racket sports and a game of kings – its best-known royal exponent was undoubtedly Henry VIII, whose passion for the game led to the construction of numerous courts, or tennis plays, at royal palaces; the court he built at Hampton Court Palace in 1530 remains in use today. Henry was reputedly playing tennis when news was brought to him of the execution of Anne Boleyn. Perhaps the most famously incompetent member of the English royalty to try his hand at the game was Charles II; Samuel Pepys records watching the king play tennis in his diary for 1664: ‘To the Tennis Court, and there saw the King play at tennis and others; but to see how the King’s play was extolled, without any cause at all, was a loathsome sight’.

Real or royal?

These royal associations have given rise to the theory that the name Real Tennis derives from the Spanish real (‘royal’, as in Real Madrid). But the true explanation is simpler: real was adopted to identify Real Tennis as the genuine article, and thereby distinguish it from its newfangled offspring Lawn Tennis. First devised in the late 19th century by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, Lawn Tennis was originally named Sphairistike, an ancient Greek word meaning ‘ball-playing’. Oddly this catchy name never caught on; the popularity of the game itself, however, caused a major downturn in the fortunes of Real Tennis.

The name tennis is probably derived from the French tenez, meaning ‘take’ or ‘receive’, supposedly shouted by the server to signal the beginning of a rally (known as a rest in Real Tennis). In France, Real Tennis is known as Jeu de Paume, ‘Game of the Hand’, recalling its origins in a game where the ball was struck with the hand rather than a racket. This origin is also preserved in the modern word racket, which derives ultimately from the Arabic word rahat, or ‘palm of the hand’. This association is preserved in the asymmetrical shape of the Real Tennis racket, which resembles an outstretched hand.

Giraffe, caterpillar, and other Real Tennis terminology

Real Tennis, known to Americans as Court Tennis, is played on an indoor court with four walls and a sloping roof, or penthouse (from the French pente, meaning ‘slope’), a survival of the game’s origins in the monastic cloister. Since it is possible to serve from almost anywhere in the service end, a wonderfully rich array of services has evolved, with names that describe the flight of the ball: giraffe, railroad, caterpillar, boomerang, and bobble. The receiver occupies the hazard end, so-called because it contains various additional obstacles which can be exploited by the server. One hazard is the tambour, a buttress which juts out causing the ball to bounce unpredictably. The receiver must also defend the grille, originally a window covered by a grating through which the monks could communicate with members of the public. A shot striking the grille is a point to the server; another winning shot is one that sends the ball into a large gallery behind the server, known as the dedans, from the French word meaning ‘inside’.

The scoring system is identical to Lawn Tennis with one major exception. Where a ball bounces twice without being returned a chase is called. The point at which the second bounce falls is recorded, the players then change ends and the opponent attempts to beat the chase, by hitting a shot that cannot be returned and whose second bounce is closer to the back wall than that of the chase. This is an ancient system of scoring which may derive from the uneven bounces encountered when the game was played outdoors, although it is often attributed to an overweight Henry VIII who found it increasingly difficult to cover the court. The system of chases makes Real Tennis a tactical game – a cross between Lawn Tennis and chess – offering a work-out for both body and brain. Simply keeping track of the more esoteric chases – more than a yard worse than the last gallery, or hazard better than the door – can be a mental challenge in itself.

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