Naked Ambition: The Real Tennis Player

Sport

By Benjamin Snyder

Like gunshots blasting at an artillery range, heavy balls wrapped in cloth lob across a blood red net, ricocheting off the walls with a thunderous clap.  It’s a relentless sound that echoes through the court’s chamber and drums for seconds in the ear afterward.

A man lunges forward with hypersensitive quickness. He dashes about the court in all-whites, before muscling a powerful forehand that rips through the air. The ball hits off a wall over his opponent’s momentarily bewildered head and dies when making contact with the floor. The attacker earns the point. The umpire calls the score, and the man yells out, “Come on, baby!” with the aggressive spirit of Wayne Rooney scoring a decisive goal against Liverpool.

But the rowdy celebration is to be expected. This is, after all, the game of the French Revolution – royal tennis. Called court tennis in America or je de paume in France, the sport is caught in between two worlds: tradition of centuries past and an attempt to fit in today. The father to the modern game of tennis, real tennis players will politely differentiate the new sport as the lawn tennis played by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.

Real tennis, which enjoyed its heyday in England and France during the 16th and 17th centuries, differs in many ways from the more widely played game of today.

Despite its tradition, however, not all is well for real tennis’ professionals. The sport has been de-relegated from its Olympic status, having last been played in 1908. Moreover, many professionals cannot survive on real tennis earnings alone.

Even Britain’s Ben Matthews, ranked as high as No. 5 in the world, has this difficulty. He said, “The main difference…is that a real tennis pro generally works at a club as well as competing, due to the lower levels of money within the sport.” Depressingly, he continues, “It is very tricky to survive solely on tournament income and realistically only the top handful of players could do this.”

Despite the hardship and financial constraints, the sport compels him to stay on Tour. He said, “I keep playing real tennis because I am ranked where I am in the world and I want to continue to improve, and to win titles.”

During his career, the 27-year old has claimed the US Open doubles title in 2010 and has advanced to the doubles finals of the British Open, and the Australian Open. In singles, he’s advanced to the semifinals of the major tournaments on three occasions.

Today, the sport appears to be an anomaly.  Real tennis enjoys a quirky style with no two courts exactly alike. And, yet, for Alexander Evans, the current captain of the Oxford University Blues and a fourth year Mathematics student at Worcester College, it’s precisely this reason for his continued play since the age of 8.  He says, “The game is very old and the courts all eccentric and quaint, far more [differences] exist than any regulations would permit in a modern game.”

While Wimbledon has become a battle of the baseline, real tennis players typically stay towards the service end and hazard end of the court. Their shots tend to be a scoop from the legs or a chop with biting backspin, more akin to squash.

Evans explains, “Good placement, tactics or agility can count for as much as power or spin.”

He continues that there is a “greater complexity of the rules, which adds so much more to the tactics required. For, example to change ends and gain the advantage of the serve you have to score a ‘chase,’ which may mean a different shot to one you’d normally play. [This is] opposed to lawn tennis where serves merely alternates between games.”

According to Matthews, who also played other racquet sports growing up, “due to the variants…and the asymmetric nature of the court. You also can’t just hit the ball through somebody as there are walls there. It’s much more of a tactical sport.”

The sport is reportedly “thriving” with the construction of additional courts to bolster the 40-plus venues worldwide in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and France. There is an influx of junior programs geared towards the creation of fresh talent through schools and sports training camps.

Says the Blue’s captain, “A great deal of the players coming through now are juniors with lives that wouldn’t mark them out as players of an ‘old-fashioned’ game.” He continues that many players originate from the elite schools, such as Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Manchester.

For Evans, however, a number of reasons contribute to real tennis’s growth. He cites “the relative lack of expense it takes to play compared to other ‘older’ game” and explains, “While it costs more for a court or a racket than say lawn tennis, it isn’t as prohibitive as say Polo [or] showjumping.” For this reason, the sport enjoys “new players from all walks of life.” Senior members at the university clubs are generous and “allow junior tennis to be subsidized, which [he believes is] a sign of why the game is reviving.”

The former World No. 5 is more cynical about the rise in real tennis’ popularity. He explains, “I’d like to think that real tennis is always growing, but it is a tricky sport to grow because of the £500’000 price of building courts.” He admits, “there are also talks of a few more courts around the [UK], which is good.”

Real tennis is in its first few months of being broadcast online. The website, www.realtennis.tv, showed the European Open, held on March 8 – 9 at Lord’s in 2011, in its first broadcast. Now, tournaments, such as the IRPTA Championships, are being shown daily and from the quarterfinals to the championship match. In the archives, this year’s Blues match with Oxford challenging Cambridge can be viewed along with commentary.

Off Merton Street, the Oxford University Tennis Club (OUTC) looks simple enough. And, yet, it’s a physical representation of tennis history, being built on this site in 1798 and with a court in Oxford since 1595.

The court’s grandeur matches up to its presence in the city for the past two centuries. Although “the smallest court in England,” it’s expansive, measuring 110 by 39 feet. Ornamented with crowns, the court also boasts a ruby red net and glistening floors of oak.

Unlike lawn, especially during competitive matches, players exchange words between points, while an umpire sits behind a net in the back gallery and calls out the score. The scene is jovial, but the points are serious.

The camaraderie is typical for the real tennis teams at Oxford. “There is the sense of belonging to a fairly exclusive sport that shares a small enough community that everyone knows nearly everyone else within and on the more local level,” says Evans.

With the heavy emphasis on singles, the sport can sometimes get lonely. Evans says, “the majority of matches are played on your own and never with more than one other person so there isn’t quite the same bond that perhaps rugby or football players can have.”

When a group of French tourists sit to watch the curious sport of real tennis doubles, so different from their own Roland Garros, one of the players quickly turns on the charm, inviting them to enjoy the match of jeu de paume. He says this in a perfect French accent, a broad grin painting his lips and with a boyish mischievousness.

After a particularly riveting point, showcasing a stunning array of sprints and quick reflex volleys that would have even lawn tennis legend John McEnroe envious, a father tells his young daughter, “facile,” with joking disbelief at what’s just transpired. The young girl and the other tourists giggle, raptly fixating on the court once again. A hush falls over the spectators, no doubt a rarity for the OUTC players, and play commences.

Watching from the dedans, or the back of the court, I watch the players come back from a quick break. They put down their racquets and their beers. A stellar sport, indeed.

PHOTO/ciaranj75