The general reaction to telling people that I was trying out Real Tennis was ‘you mean just tennis?’ or, as one member of Oxford University Tennis Club (OUTC) told me he often gets, an ironic ‘as opposed to fake tennis?’ Real Tennis is, in fact, what we know to be ‘normal’ tennis’s predecessor. Originally invented by the French aristocracy, the game moved over here in the medieval ages, developing in lawn tennis (now normal tennis). That is a lot of tennis.
Real Tennis is played on an inside court, of which there are only 45 in use in the world. The only court in Oxford is on Merton Road and is the second oldest court in England, dating back from 1798. Luckily I didn’t realise this until after playing, otherwise I would not have been whacking the ball around quite so haphazardly. Differing from what we know as Tennis, all courts are differently shaped, sized and structured but maintain common features, such as the kink in the main wall, known as a ‘tambour’, netted galleries, and a ‘grille’, a box-like indent in the wall, tucked in one corner. The whole thing looks like Picasso trying to draw a squash court: all angles and slopes.
To match the complicated court, the game also has complicated rules. These were somewhat simplified and dumbed down for me, but still a lot of smiling and nodding went on whilst I tried to process exactly what a ‘chase’ is and why it doesn’t involve running after the other player like its name suggests. One rule I did easily comprehend, however, is that unlike the tennis we know, the serve only happens from one side of the court- the ‘service’ end as opposed to the ‘hazard’ end (not as dangerous as its name implies).
Generally the point scoring works in the same way as Tennis does- 15, 30, 40 etc. but points can also be instantly won by hitting the ball into the grille, the ‘dedans’ (a netted space at the service end) or a certain part of the gallery. As if just hitting the ball over the net isn’t enough. Here is also where the ‘chase’ element comes in- if your opponent misses the ball and it bounces twice, the point at where the second bounce occurs is measured against lines on the floor. When the game reaches match point, the players change ends and your opponent must beat your ‘chase’- that is, the ball must double bounce at a point closer to that back wall than yours did.
Needless to say, trying to remember all of this whilst tracking the ball which is careering off of various angles and surfaces is not easy. It is, however, apparently highly addictive. Some members train ten times a week, an impressive feat considering I’m pretty proud if I squeeze in more than one training session of squash a week, and even then moan that I’m doing too much exercise. The club is open to anyone, and has a mixture of older, more experienced players and students.
Having thought six years of playing badminton and a term’s worth of squash would help, I went in feeling confident. However, the heavy and powerful racquets means a requirement to lock the wrist when you play, and the ball does not need to be hit very hard. Six years’ worth of flicking the wrist to perfect a drop shot in badminton did me no favours here, neither did my tendency to whack the ball with a full squash swing, which simply saw it either fly unexpectedly far out of control or land in a heap just short of the net. It evidently is a game more concerned with skill and tactics than sheer power, the requirements which saw OUTC dominate over Cambridge in their Varsity match last weekend.