Real Tennis and the elemental thrill of ball games

All the joy has gone out of modern Tennis, which privileges power and mathematical strategic thinking. It's time to rediscover what makes ball games so much fun - comedy, lightness and a sense of play.

An eighteenth century etching of a group of young men enjoying a game of Pallone col Bracciale.
An eighteenth century etching of a group of young men enjoying a game of Pallone col Bracciale. Credit: Artokoloro / Alamy Stock Photo

What connects the words dedans, tambour, penthouse and grille? All of them are names of parts of a Real Tennis court – so called because it is the antecedent of modern Lawn Tennis.

When we think of racquet sports played inside, we tend to think of the course of play directed towards one wall, as in squash or rackets.

But in a Real Tennis Court, there is a buttress on the side of the receiver of serve (called the tambour) which ricochets the ball on contact at acute angles. Three sides of the court are lined by penthouses where the ball can dribble along or bounce off. Although the ball must carry over a net between the two players, as in Lawn Tennis, the ball can also continue to bounce off any number of walls and remain in play. When the grille (a small square panel near the tambour) is hit by the attacking player, he wins the point. The same is true of the dedans, a long netted gallery found behind the server.

The game has a long history. The construction of the penthouses is said to mimic the roofs of cloisters along which monks would hit balls with their hands, or a line of shop fronts in a medieval town. Coming to prominence in the early modern period, jeu de paume was enormously popular, played by all classes and not just in the royal courts of England and France. After the French Revolution, many courts were destroyed (there are a handful of courts in France; before 1789, there were hundreds) because of its popularity with the aristocrats of the ancien régime.

Its title, ‘game of the palm’, reflects its proximity to the simple ballgames which appear in so many human cultures, like Eton Fives in England, played with gloves in courts with a tambour-like buttress in the middle, Pallone in Italy (the players’ hands are covered by a strange hedgehog-like brace which they use to clod a leather ball between them over a playing surface hundreds of yards long), or the furiously fast game of Basque Pelota (itself derived from the Vulgar Latin pilotta). And indeed, the racket used to play Real Tennis has a curve in it, shaped almost like an arm with an upturned palm held out to strike the ball.

An essential feature of Real Tennis is its lack of predictability. The court is structured so that the angles of the court produce potentially myriad directions of travel for the ball. Occasionally, one of the players is pretty much hard done by the bounce of the ball – a good shot turns into an easy get, a bad shot into a sure-fire winner. This element of play is intrinsic to many ‘older’ or ‘more primitive’ ball games, which have not benefitted from the technological advances that have evolved into Lawn Tennis. The fact that the racket is closer to shape of the hand makes the ball harder to control. Bad luck and hazard are given their proper due, a feature of the game recognised by Jacobean playwright John Webster in The Duchess of Malfi: ‘We are merely the stars’ tennis balls, struck and banded / Which way please them.’

Along with bad luck, comedy and silliness is a strong feature of Real Tennis. Even very good players can be made look very silly indeed, simply by the constraints the game imposes on them. Memorably reproduced in Shakespeare’s Henry V, a medieval chronicler noted that ‘the Dauphin, thinking King Henry to be given to such plays and light follies … sent to him a tun of tennis balls’. In James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, published in the 19th century and set in the 16th, the Calvinist ‘justified sinner’ Robert Wringhim, in his crusade against the world’s ‘depravity and corruption’, goes out of his way to disrupt a game of jeu de paume. The game’s light follies must have infuriated such godly ‘heroes of the faith’.

In the same way, children, not knowing any differently, readily understand that ball games are supposed to produce levity. I remember at my grandparents’ house playing catch or tennis or cricket against the walls in the garden. One of them had an uneven texture. The ball would play every which way possible. Another was flatter and more predictable, but the lawn that sloped away from it produced a skiddier bounce. A different challenge altogether. What I remember is not whether I managed the process 20, 50 or a hundred times, but the sheer fun of it. It’s fun to hit a ball against a wall – and the angles, duff shots and uneven bounce produce moments of unexpected comedy.

Sadly, this sense of fun is barely present in Lawn Tennis, at least in the modern era. Carbon fibre rackets create virtually no natural variation in ball speed and spin. And the new, wider racket face privileges a style built around extreme power and physical prowess. There are beautiful players of course, artists in their own way. But a sense of fun has to be smuggled into the scene from the outside – by the ‘characterful’ players like Nick Kyrgios, who peppers his play with trick shots, or by a ball boy slipping up, or a line judge bending out of the direction of the ball in a funny way.

Amateur tennis player David Foster Wallace, in his essay ‘Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley’, remembers how he thrived on the peculiar courts he played on growing up in the Midwest: ‘The Illinois combination of pocked courts, sickening damp and wind required and rewarded an almost Zen-like acceptance of things as they actually were, on-court.’ ‘It takes imagination for a player to like wind, and I liked wind,’ he comments. For Foster-Wallace, the court’s quirks transformed the requirement in tennis for ‘geometric thinking, the ability to calculate not merely your own angles but the angles of response to your angles’ into a tougher prospect – you had to ‘play octacally’: ‘For the wind put curves in the lines and transformed the game into 3-space.’

Foster Wallace didn’t appear to write anything significant about Lawn Tennis’s ancestor Real Tennis (or at least I can’t find any references to the game in his work), but perhaps, he dimly perceived, beyond the 78’ x 27’ dimensions of the modern tennis court, and its geometrically precise little world, a richer and more various scene, where life is lived as play and play is freedom.


Alastair Benn