Real Tennis

History in Europe

The French Revolution: The Tennis Court Oath - 20Th June 1789

About this website

This site deals with The Royal Game of Tennis, the precursor of our present game of tennis, as it was played between c.1470-1700. Much research has been done into The Game of Kings, The King of Games as it was played by the Tudor and Stuart Kings, the results of which can be read in standard tennis history books as 'The Annals of Tennis (1878)', 'The Willis Faber Book of Tennis & Rackets (1980)' and most recently Roger Morgan’s 'Tennis: The Development of the European Ball Game (1995)'.

Although the origin of the game of tennis is hotly disputed, it is safe to claim, however, that the first enclosed tennis courts were not to be found at the Tudor court, but on the Continent. It is generally accepted that the 15th century Burgundian and Italian courts served as models for the early modern courts of Europe. Recreation and entertainment were essential forms of diversion in the life at court of the great Burgundian dukes Philip the Good and Charles the Bold as well as at the Renaissance courts of the illustrious Medici, Sforza, Gonzaga and Este princes. It should come as no surprise that according to archival research undertaken so far the Dukes of Burgundy and two Italian princely dynasties, the Estes of Ferrara and the Sforzas of Milan are associated with the first walled-in tennis courts that have been traced.

Our itinerary starts at the splendid courts of Renaissance Italy after which we set out for the magnificent Châteaux of the Valois Kings. Then we head further north to visit the Low Countries, in search of the first tennis racket. We finish our quest for Royal Tennis Courts in Germany. The uninitiated not familiar with Henry VIII’s exploits on the tennis court are advised to consult the books mentioned above and those who wish to get acquainted with the rules of the Game should surf to

Real Tennis

Real Tennis is still almost the same sport as the Royal Game that was played with such great enthusiasm at all the princely courts of Europe and by a large contingent of the urban elite between roughly 1500-1800. After 1800 the interest in the game dwindled on the continent, but it survived in Great Britain. After 1874, when the new game of lawn tennis swept the country, royal tennis became more fashionable again among the English aristocracy. By the year 1900 the popularity of lawn tennis was so great that it was universally called "tennis" and the old game had to distinguish itself by becoming "real" tennis. Nowadays, attracted by the combination of clever ball control and tactical skills that are required for this subtle game, many players are taking up real tennis. In addition, every new player is fully aware of the game's unique historical pedigree. To its devotees, some 7,000 players worldwide, real tennis is the most wonderful pastime yet devised by the wit of man.

Real tennis has the oldest of all sporting world championships, which dates back to 1740. Nowadays there are also many tournaments for amateurs. There are twenty-three clubs in Great Britain, nine in the USA, four in Australia and four in France.

Unique interior of a Dutch tennis court (+ theatre)

Trade Card of Mathieu Riviere, Proprietor of a Tennis Court (Kaatsbaan) of 1675 in Utrecht.Waddesdon Collection

The man in the doorway may well be a representation of the proprietor, Mathieu Riviere. The addition of the naked Venus adds an element of eroticism to the scopic and homosocial activity depicted in the card. Four men, all dressed in wide-brimmed hats, play tennis. The two men in the foreground wear breeches with ruffles and loose sleeve shirts. The left hand man wears a doublet.

The two men in the background wear breeches and knee-length coats. The card is divided into two registers. The slightly larger upper register contains a view of a game of real tennis taking place in the large barrel vaulted hall of an indoor tennis court. The building is composed of a high wall. The wall is decorated with a horizontal foliate pattern band; a vertical band and a plaque delineated by the foliate and scroll pattern in the middle of the left hand wall; and two vertical foliate and scroll bands in the middle of the back wall, terminating in fleurs-de-lis.

About the author

Cees de Bondt; Infected by the tennis history bug.

This website on the history of tennis has its origin in a visit I paid to Seacourt Tennis Club in Hayling Island, England, with a group of lawn tennis players from the Oranje Tennis Club in The Hague in the summer of 1986. At Seacourt I played my first game of real tennis, the ancestor of all racket sports, including lawn tennis. My first experience with real tennis was frustrating, but at the same time inspiring. The intricacies of the rules, the lay-out of the court and the weight of the solid ball make it a game that is very difficult to master, even for advanced lawn tennis and squash players. But I soon found that the sheer endless range of tactical possibilities the real tennis player can opt for during a match, give the game an extra dimension and its unique appeal.

When later I played at the Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court Palace near London, the court where the Stuart Kings practised the game, I was genuinely infected with the real tennis bug. King William III of England, Prince of Orange, had played on the court, I was told, and the Princes of Orange before him had also been keen real tennis players. After my return to Holland I found that the history of the game in Holland was virtually unexplored territory and I consequently spent the next seven years in libraries and archives to unearth the game’s history. My research culminated in my book Heeft yemant lust met bal of met reket te spelen ...?Tennis in Nederland tussen 1500-1800, published in 1993, which records the existence of tennis courts at the major residences of the Princes of Orange as well as at least 200 real tennis courts (kaatsbanen) in Holland between 1500-1800.

Once I had finished my book I continued to search for records on tennis in studies on Renaissance and Early Modern European civil and court culture. Tennis accounts, or even brief references to the game, proved to be scarce. Early in 1996, however, I perused the index of a book by Gregory Lubkin, A Renaissance Court. Milan under Galeazzo Maria Sforza (Berkeley 1994) and to my surprise came across a long list of tennis entries. Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1466-1476) proved to have been a passionate player who employed as many as ten tennis professionals. These pros exhibited their skills in matches on the duke’s principal tennis court, the Sala della Balla at Milan’s Castello Sforzesco. It still exists in its full glory.

My present book project centres around the theme Tennis as Warfare during the late Middle Ages. It is to be viewed as a chronicle of the chivalrous game tennis was during the Hundred Years’ War.

The author, Cees de Bondt
Click on the image for more information about the book.