Real Tennis: the sport of kings

real tennis
The Royal Tennis Court, Hampton Court © Historic Royal Palaces

Literally the game of kings, real tennis is exactly what it sounds like. Unlike Lawn Tennis and Squash, it’s the genuine article: proper tennis

Henry VIII was into it, wasn’t he?

Like many pastimes, tennis became popular in medieval Europe. As a young man, Henry was very athletic and, on his appropriation of Hampton Court, took over Cardinal Wolsey’s courts with gusto.

Is the court at Hampton Court the one Henry played on?

The current court is on the site of Cardinal Wolsey’s original, but ‘only’ dates back to the time of Charles I. Visitors to the palace can stand behind the carved-wood-and-net ‘galleries’ and watch tennis being played much as it has been for nearly 500 years.

real tennis
A match in progress in the Royal Tennis Court © Historic Royal Palaces

What’s changed?

Not much. The strange-angled ‘penthouses’ and punishing solid floor survive, thankfully without the bull’s blood once used to add grip. A fancy spectators’ booth, with arched wooden ceiling, bench seating and candelabra lighting remains a disconcerting place to sit – players get extra points for hitting it. Points are also awarded for ringing a pair of bronze bells, and real tennis has to be the only ball game in the world where players try to hit a window.

How does it work?

Like regular tennis, the court is divided into two ends. Unlike regular tennis, those ends are unequal. The server hits the ball into the ‘hazard’ end, where they win points by ringing those bells (the ‘winning gallery’) or that window (the ‘grille’). The only way the defending player can switch ends is by forcing the server into a ‘chase’ by landing a ball into the server’s end.

real tennis
Credit: Lawrence Alexander

So is it more like squash or lawn tennis?

Players of both disciplines will initially find real tennis challenging. The asymmetric racquet is smaller and heavier than in lawn tennis and the smaller, solid balls, still hand-made by the players themselves, have virtually no bounce. Squash players will recognise the ball reflected from walls, but so many walls, each at a different angle.

Who plays real tennis?

Still played by royalty – the Earl of Wessex is a regular – real tennis is gaining popularity. Men and women play together as the game is often more about strategy than brute force.

The Royal Tennis Court Club at Hampton Court boasts 200 regular players but is keen to attract new people and can arrange taster lessons. Hampton Court also hosts the annual Champions Trophy, which this year was won by Rob Fahey.

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