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Tennis for Real in Dorset

Rick Raumann tells the story of an ancient and little-known game and how it has survived in Dorset

Little has changed in the game of Real Tennis since the earliest records of it being played in England as far back as the 1400s, and the racquets still have a medieval shape and have to be made of wood (metal is forbidden) to strict specifications. It reached its first peak of popularity in the 16th century in France and had already spread to England.

The origins of the game are obscure but there were many games played in the narrow city streets in the Middle Ages and Tennis probably developed from these. These were probably played without racquets, using only hands – hence the French name for the game, ‘Jeu de Paume': game of the hand. It was not long before the attractions of Tennis spread from the street to the château and it became the game of kings. The nobility probably moved the game indoors to provide some privacy from the commoners. The unique features of the court – a penthouse roof with openings (galleries) along one side and a buttress (or tambour) on the other – have prompted suggestions that the game was moved into the cloisters of churches or monasteries. However, the size and shape of a cloister is unsuitable for Tennis but the association with the church may have been derived from the fact that ecclesiastical buildings provided walls and buttresses where the game could be played without interruption from pedestrians. In fact, the penthouse roof may well be there to replicate the canopy providing shelter for shoppers in medieval streets.

It was relatively recently that ‘Real’ was added to the name. This was probably done to distinguish it from the game of lawn tennis which originally emerged in the late 18th century in the form of ‘field tennis’. The name is unlikely to have developed out of links to royalty, even though myth has it that Henry VIII was responsible for taking tennis outside onto the lawns of Hampton Court. Interestingly, the Australians call the game Royal Tennis and the Americans play Court Tennis. The French call the game ‘Jeu de Paume’ and the building of that name in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris was built as a Tennis court; it now houses a fine collection of impressionist works of art.

From being the game of kings, Tennis was declining in popularity by the 18th century and in its native France, being the sport of the nobility, it never quite recovered from the French Revolution. However, in England there was later a distinct revival amongst the Victorian elite. As Lord Aberdare in his classic history of the game records: ‘Dukes, Marquesses and Earls, not to mention mere Barons, vied with each other to build courts on their country estates.’ The two surviving courts in Dorset date from this period.

The Canford Court

The Canford court, looking towards the ‘dedans’. The numbers on the walls indicate the distance in yards.

Canford’s Victorian court was in fact the second court to be built there. A document dated 1541 describes ‘a tennis play builded of timber and boards’ which adjoined the Manor House at Canford. Apparently the main bedchamber had a window which looked straight out over the court and ‘the floor of the same play is of hard stone that came out of Purbeck and it counts in length 26 feet and in breadth 23 feet but the boards and timberwork is in great decay.’ Only the building known today as John O’Gaunt’s Kitchen survives from this old manor and the exact location of the old court is not known.

After 1776, the medieval buildings were replaced by a mansion and this was greatly enlarged by Sir John Josiah Guest, who bought the manor in 1885. It was the second baronet, Sir Ivor Bertie Guest, later Lord Wimborne, who had a Tennis court built in 1879.

The court was renovated in 1913 and has been in constant use both by the school (which was founded in 1923) and by Canford Tennis Club. Under the current professional, Steve Ronaldson, the court has a reputation as a nursery for Tennis talent: several boys have won junior titles at various age groups and some have gone on to become full-time professionals.

The founding of the Canford Tennis Club in 1980 was a response to a revival in interest in the game. There are now around 4000 players in Britain and several new courts have been built, the first since the 19th century.

The Hyde Court

The Hyde court in Walditch, just outside Bridport, fell into disuse for many years but was re-opened in 1998

The Hyde court, in the tiny village of Walditch just outside Bridport, has benefited from this revival. It was built a few years after the Canford court in 1883 and stands next to the Gothic country home of its creator, Joseph Gundry. However, unlike the Canford court. it went the way of many courts and fell into disuse. After Joseph Gundry’s death in 1891 the Hyde’s Tennis court was played on less and less frequently. During World War 2 it was requisitioned by the American army, who knocked a large hole in the end wall and removed much of the penthouse. In the years leading up to 1998 it served as an excellent barn for farm machinery and livestock.

The Hyde Court

This view of the Hyde court shows the spectators’ gallery on the left, the buttress (the ‘tambour’) on the right and, in the far right-hand corner, the ‘grille’

1998 marked its re-opening by the Earl of Wessex. Joe Gundry, the grandson of its creator Joseph Gundry, gave the court and a parcel of land to the care of the Bridport and West Dorset Sports Trust, and National Lottery and other generous funding arrived, allowing the court to be restored. Like Canford it now has a thriving membership and Ben Ronaldson, nephew of Canford’s Steve, is the professional there.

Real Tennis gave lawn tennis its peculiar scoring system – 15-30-45-deuce-advantage. However, while both games use the same numbers to score points, the resemblance ends there. In Real Tennis the ball is served from only one end of the court. The ball is frequently hit off the court’s walls, but points can be scored by hitting shots into the net-covered wall openings (galleries), into the ‘grille’ (a small, tin-covered window) or into the spectators’ gallery called the ‘dedans’.

The game is exciting to play. The ball bounces low and fast on hard floors and accelerates with bewildering speed off the back walls. The effects of spin are electric: the ball can swerve wildly in flight, skid or shoot off the walls with alarming pace and trajectory. There is almost an infinite variety of serves, all with distinctive names: underarm twist, boomerang and railroad, for example. The balls are harder and smaller than lawn tennis balls and are still hand-moulded and hand-stitched. Each court is similar but no two are identical. There are slight variations in size and shape and the materials used in their construction: each has its individual playing characteristics and its unique charm.

Real tennis

The low bounce of the ball and the bewildering effects of spin and speed make it the most fascinating of racquet sports

Given that there are only 27 courts in Britain, eight in the US, six in Australia and three in France, the game retains an inevitable air of elitism but it is open to all. The sheer speed of the game, combined with the huge variety of strokes, the need for delicate touch and the scope for employing wily tactics make it the most fascinating racquet sport there is. Dorset is well represented by its two courts, which reflect the rise, fall and resurgence of this wonderful game.

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