“Real tennis is the sport of kings.” This sentiment still resonates today, even if the main reason for doing so is that most of the rules appear to have been made up for the sole purpose of ensuring King Henry VIII never lost a match — “No your majesty, you won that point as well because…err…you hit the unicorn. Well done.”
Usually when someone introduces a niche sport, they start by describing it as a cross between two that most people are more familiar with. For real tennis, that would be lawn (or as I’ve started calling it, actual) tennis and squash. A more illustrative comparison is possible, however. Imagine, before football kicked off properly, it was played on an irregularly shaped lawn with a few scattered trees growing in the middle, and with a rule that if you kicked the ball through the kitchen window you lost the game because you wouldn’t be getting the ball back. Real tennis is that game.
For the uninitiated, the rules include vagaries such as automatic points if you manage to hit a picture of a unicorn, a small cowbell, or an oblong gallery at one end of the court. And your serves only count if they hit the sloping roof going down one side of the court, past the net. The court does at least have a net in the usual place, which is a reassuring touch for those more familiar with Henman Hill and rain delays. The racquet is small and off-centre, and the balls are far more solid than those of conventional tennis; liable to be relatively painful if you receive an unexpected hit to the face from an angled bounce of one of the slanted walls. The court is enclosed on all four sides, meaning the tactics are vaguely resemblant to squash, if less infuriating, and the various artefacts present add the slightly manic feel of MarioKart, if with considerably more elegance.
The superficially complex rules, which in reality take a few games to learn and probably quite a few more to master, and tactical nature of the game mean that there are a few octogenarians still playing tournaments. Watching an unreturnable forehand fly past you from the hand of someone who spends the majority of their day watching reruns of countdown is presumably one of the more bizarre events in sport (though speaking of which, Oxford share their court with Brookes, so anyone really is welcome).
If, like me, you grew up playing actual tennis on woefully underfunded public courts containing more empty Stella cans than tennis balls, it might take a while before you realise than trying to add topspin to your shots is likely to end up sending the ball flying into the ceiling (a fault) or slumping into the net (also a fault). Once you get the hang of this, and counterintuitive weight shifts on the forehand, you can make deceptively fast progress, and at least bluff proficiency to anyone staring with bewilderment at you through the netting of the gallery. Even if you don’t, a brilliant handicapping system exists to ensure parity with your opponent despite the greatest achievement of your day being that of finding the court (hidden down Merton Street) rather than the grille (the technical term for the unicorn painting). Imagine playing Andy Murray, but you start every game at a 4 point advantage, he isn’t allowed a second serve, and maybe has to stand on one leg. Hey, a win is a win.
Another significant advantage of the sport is that, in another nod to its heritage, many of the courts are in places that, unless you own either a title or half of Cornwall, it’s usually quite difficult to get into. Ignoring Cambridge for obvious reasons, these include the restricted access buildings of Wimbledon, Queens, Hampton Court and Lords. It’s worth playing just to be more welcome over there than Kevin Pietersen. Otherwise, any sport that can reserve the rights to the OUTC initials over upstarts such as actual tennis and triathlon deserves some respect. The Sport Of Kings, it definitely reigns over obscurity, and is worth a go for anyone who feels like punting and croquet are too mainstream, or hasn’t alienated their home friends quite enough with talk of SubFusc and trashing.