Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Real tennis is the original racquet sport from which the modern game of lawn tennis, or tennis, is descended. Real tennis is still played at a small number of active courts in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States and France.
It is also known as "court tennis" (America), jeu de paume (France) and formerly called "royal tennis" (Australia). The term real tennis is often thought to be a corruption of this last name and related to the game's connection with royalty during its heyday in England and France in the 16th and 17th centuries. In fact "real" was first used at the end of the 19th century as a retronym to distinguish it from the then recently invented game of lawn tennis. Real tennis players often just call it "tennis", describing the modern game as "lawn tennis".
Real tennis has evolved over centuries from an earlier ball game played around the 12th century in France. This had some similarities to fives, pelota or handball, involving hitting a ball with a bare hand and later with a glove. One theory is that this game was played by monks in monastery cloisters, and the shape of the court is certainly to this day reminiscent of a courtyard. Another theory is that the court features relate to medieval city streets and squares. The term "tennis" derives from the French word tenez, which means "take it"—a warning from the server to the receiver.
The game spread across Europe and became increasingly popular, with the Venetian Ambassador reporting in 1600 that there were 1,800 courts in Paris alone. Shakespeare mentions the game in Act 1 of Henry V. By the 16th century, the glove had become a racquet, the game had moved to an enclosed playing area and the rules had stabilised. Henry VIII's great attachment to the game around this time is also well known. The game became popular among the 17th and 18th century nobility in England and France, but eventually declined in popularity. This was due in large part to the impact that wider political and social changes—the English Civil War and Puritanism, and the French revolution—had upon the aristocracy and its pursuits. Real tennis played a minor role in the history of the French Revolution, through the Tennis Court Oath, a pledge signed by French deputies in a real tennis court, which formed an decisive early step in starting the revolution.
Today there are only around forty real tennis courts remaining in the world and several thousand active players. There has been something of a revival towards the end of the 20th century, with several new courts being built, for example in the UK at Clifton College and the Millennium Tennis Court at Middlesex University and in Australia in Sydney, Ballarat and Romsey. The Netherlands and Ireland have real tennis interest groups—the latter attempting to convince the government to restore a Dublin court for public play.
Manner of Play
The rules and scoring are similar to those of lawn tennis, which derives from real tennis. The balls are handmade and consist of a core made of cork with fabric tape tightly wound around it and is covered with a hand-sewn layer of felt. They are much less bouncy than a lawn tennis ball, and nearly as heavy as a cricket ball. The racquets are made of wood and use very tight strings to cope with the heavy ball.
A real tennis court (jeu à dedans) is a very substantial building (a larger area than a lawn tennis court, with walls and a ceiling to contain all but the highest lob shots). It is enclosed by walls on all sides, three of which have sloping roofs (known as "penthouses") with various openings, and a buttress (tambour) off which shots may be played. The courts (except at Falkland Palace—see below) share the same basic layout but have slightly different dimensions. The courts are about 110 ft. by 39 ft. including the penthouses, or about 96 ft. by 32 ft. on the playing floor, varying by a foot on two per court. They are doubly asymmetric—not only is one end of the court different in the shape from the other, but the left and right sides of the court are also different. The service only happens from one end of the court (the "service" end) and the ball has to travel along the penthouse to the left of the server to the other end, called the "hazard" end. There are numerous widely differing styles of service, many with exotic names to distinguish them. The game of Stické uses a smaller court of a similar layout.
The court at Falkland Palace, Scotland, (1539) is an older jeu quarré design. It is the only surviving example of its type. Like the jeu à dedans type it is larger than a lawn tennis court, and has four walls. But only two of those walls feature penthouses, and the court lacks a roof and tambour. It has five additional point-scoring features: four openings (lunes) in one wall and a vertical board (ais). The playing floor is 97 ft. 4 in. by 33 ft. 5 in.
The game has other complexities, including that when the ball bounces twice at the serving end, the serving player does not generally lose the point outright. Instead a "chase" is called, and the server gets the chance, later in the game currently being played, to replay the point from the other end, but under the obligation of ensuring every shot he plays has a second bounce further back from the net than the shot he failed to reach. One result of this feature is that a player can only gain the advantage of serving through skillful play (i.e. gaining a "chase" which ensures a change of end), as opposed to lawn tennis where service alternates between the players by rotation.
The level of thinking involved makes real tennis unusual in being a physical sport which people often take up and reach a relatively high level of proficiency later in life.
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