The game we now generally call tennis or ‘Lawn Tennis’ is actually a late Victorian creation, a variation on the much older game now known as ‘Real Tennis’ (that is, ‘genuine’ or ‘original’) to distinguish it from the newer game. Real Tennis is approximately 1000 years old and probably started in Tuscany in the Eleventh Century.
Real Tennis was hugely popular in England, and all over Europe, in the Middle Ages, and played throughout society. It began as an outdoor game, using streets and courtyards. When enclosed courts were built from the thir- teenth century, some of these architectural features were incorporated.
For the first 500 years, tennis was played with the hand, but wooden racquets became the norm from the mid-Sixteenth Century. Racquets are still wooden and balls are handmade.
Real Tennis is notable for having the first World Championship of any sport, dating from the 1740s. The current Men’s World Champion, Rob Fahey, is Australian, and the Women’s World Champion, Claire Vigrass, is English. To see professionals play, look at the Real Tennis World Championship, Melbourne, 2014, Day 4, on YouTube. As in boxing, contenders play each other for the right to challenge the incumbent World Champion.
The Oxford University Tennis Club is based at Merton College. The Oxford court, England’s second oldest, dates from 1798 and is the sole survivor of the many that existed in the city. Of the thousands of medieval courts across Europe, few remain. Currently, there are only 26 courts still ‘in play’ in the UK, and others in Australia, France and the USA bring the world total to just 45. Renovation and construction continues. The court in Chicago (built 1922, closed 1933) re-opened in the summer of 2012 and Radley College’s 2008 court, just outside Oxford, is the world’s newest. Today, the game is thriving and more courts are needed.
No two Real Tennis courts are exactly alike, although almost all have common features. The court is divided by a net, forming the ‘service’ side and the ‘hazard’ (receiving) side. Serving only ever takes place from one end, the serve must be earned and the game has a significant server’s advantage. A serve, which may be hit over-arm, under-arm, forehand or backhand, is indirect, and must bounce at least once on the sloping roof of the hazard penthouse to be valid.
As in Lawn Tennis, players can lose points by hitting the ball into the net or out of court, but points can be won by hitting the ball into specific areas of the court too. The scoring system of Lawn Tennis was adapted from Real Tennis, but simplified.
Although the rules of Real Tennis are complicated, they are part of this historic game’s appeal. Both singles and doubles matches are played and may be contested by men, women or both. Every player has a handicap (like golf) and there is an effective system for ensuring that players of different standards can play competitive games.
The Oxford University Tennis Club is thriv- ing and friendly and new players are most welcome. Playing and membership are not restricted to Oxford University students and staff, and Brookes students, local enthusiasts and visitors use the court, which is open seven days a week from 08.00-22.30.