The Rules

Real Tennis history in Europe

The Court

At first sight the tennis court, with its variety of galleries and openings, appears to be a complicated structure. The physical boundaries of the court, however, echo the confined spaces where the game of tennis originated in the 14th century: the streets, the market squares or courtyards surrounded by buildings, where the ball could bounce off walls and roofs and still remain in play. When we look at the sloping roofs alongside the tennis court we can see the resemblance with the penthouses above medieval shopfronts. The tennis court's side galleries derive from the open windows lining the street, in which the ball could disappear during play.

An interior view of Henry VIII's "Great Tennis Play" at his Whitehall Palace (c. 1530, graphic design, © Alan Gilliland)

The Game

By the time Henry VIII had his Great Tennis Play constructed in about 1530, the game of tennis, after a century of fluctuations of trial and error, had achieved the perfect equilibrium and come to full maturity. Through a brief insight into the architecture of the court as well as the tactical aspects of the rules we will try to understand why the game of tennis was to become the most popular physical exercise practised at the princely courts of Europe. Fitness and speed certainly play a significant part in the game, but subtlety and creative skills are even more important. The game starts by serving the ball from the service side across the penthouse roof to the receiver. After that a rally may develop.

The general aim, as in the modern game of tennis (which derived from the old game in 1874), is to return the ball over the net. The scoring system is also virtually the same. But there is another dimension: there are walls to play off that may produce unfamiliar bounces or spins and besides there are three goal-like galleries to aim for that win automatic points if the ball is hit into them. They are the winning gallery and the grill on the receiving (=hazard end), and the dedans on the service end. These options provide the skilful player with an extraordinary range of tactical opportunities. The tennis player who is able to think ahead will always have the edge over one who relies on pure athleticism.

The Chase

The playing of chases is unique to tennis. The system works as follows. Once the ball bounces a second time, the ball is dead, but the point is not yet won: a chase is laid. It will be played off when two chases have been made, or when the score reaches game point. The players then change ends, and the one who laid the chase now has to defend it. To win the point, the attacking player has to hit a ball that is deeper (= closer to the backwall) than the chase being played. To determine the depth of the shot the lines marked on the floor serve as a guidance. The system of the chases perfectly reflects what Norbert Elias in his pioneering An Essay on Sport and Violence called the tension-equilibrium that is characteristic of the great sport games.

As soon as the players make their way to the other end to play off a chase, the tension in the spectator galleries mounts (an ideal time to place a bet, the Renaissance prince must have thought). Will the attacker be able to play the ball deeper and beat his opponent's chase? This system of the playing of chases during which the tension is built-up, prolongued, until the better player finally gains the upperhand, can be seen as the expression of the "mature" or ultimate form the game of tennis had achieved in Henry VIII's time. Major Wingfield, the inventor of the modern game in 1874, thought fit to do away with the walls, the galleries and the intricate system of chases. He did remain faithful to the racket, the net and the basic scoring system, however.

The Burroughs Court at Middlesex University
Oxford University

For the devotees of the old game (roughly 5,000 real tennis players) there remains only one "real" game of tennis, the most wonderful pastime of its kind yet devised by the wit of man. It may be worth noting that the limited spread of the game makes the present-day real tennis player just as priviliged a person as some of his 16th century counterparts. Whenever he visits another club (he has a choice of 26 courts in GB, 11 in the USA, 6 in Australia and 3 in France), its members will do everything they can to receive him as a true Renaissance prince.