The French Open started yesterday. It’s one of the “Grand Slam” events, a quartet of tournaments that are the crown jewels of the sport’s elite competitions. (Remember, I warned you all that I am the resident “jock” of the Wenches.) As it’s one of the grand traditions of a game that often appears in literature, it got me to thinking . . .
In historical novels, the words “Tennis, anyone?” conjure up vintage images of elegant figures clad in pristine whites moving gracefully across a swath of verdant lawn. (I’m particularly fond of E.M Forster’s A Room With A View and its descriptions of pastoral Edwardian garden party elegance.)
But take note—Edwardian is the key time frame here. Or late Victorian to be perfectly precise. Any time period earlier and an author is . . . hitting the ball into the net.
I cringe when I read Regency or Elizabethan authors having their characters play a set of tennis outdoors on the lawns. Yes, tennis has been around for centuries—but the game we know today as tennis was not invented until 1874, when Major Walter Clopton Wingfield filed for a patent on a new sport he called sphairistike, which is Greek for . . . uh, well, lawn tennis. (Not that Achilles was known for his drop shot.)
Thankfully the Patent Office refused to patent the name (can you imagine trying to say “Sphairistike, anyone?” . . . especially after two gin and tonics.) But it did give him rights to the design of his court—which was first shaped like an hourglass, rather than the now familiar rectangle. Wingfield quickly published his rules as The Major’s Game of Lawn Tennis.
The game was a hit with the younger sporting set, who were looking for something more vigorous than croquet to play at their country houses. It soon spread to the Continent and America, via Bermuda, and tennis tournaments became a popular pastime for the leisure class.
But back to the “real” story.
The game of tennis (these days it is called real tennis, or court tennis, to distinguish it from the modern sport of lawn tennis) originated in the Middle Ages. Legend has it that the game was created by monks hitting a ball off the angled walls and roofs of their monastery or cloisters with their hands. (In France the game has always been known as jeu de paume—game of the hand.) Racquets appeared in the early 16th century and by the reign of the Tudors, tennis was so popular in England and France that numerous indoor courts were built for the game. (In 1600, the Venetian ambassador to Paris recorded that there were 1800 courts in the city. That sounds awfully high to me, but perhaps it was true, because it’s also recorded that high stakes gambling on tennis was so prevalent in 1369 that Charles V had to issue an edict restricting play.)
Interestingly enough, one of the first mentions of a female athlete in history was a tennis player. In 1427, it’s recorded that Margot of Hanault played at a gambling house known as the Little Temple and attracted crowds when she took on all challengers.
Court tennis is often called the sport of kings, for royal names abound in the annals of the game. Louis X of France died from a chill he caught after playing jeu de paume.. Henry VIII, an ardent player, was said to have been executing a slice on the tennis court at Hampton Court as Anne Boleyn was losing her head. And on the Continent, Catherine de Medici was known to wear her hair styled in the shape of a tennis racquet.
Tennis also figured into the lore of the French Revolution. David’s famous painting of “The Tennis Court Oath” pictures the deputies of the Third Estate on the court at Versailles, swearing to fight for a constitution for France. (For the record, the monarchy went down to defeat in straight sets.) Napoleon and Wellington were also said to be aficionados of the game.
Classic literature abounds with references to court tennis. Perhaps the most famous is Act 1, Scene II in Shakespeare’s Henry V, where the King reacts to the French Dauphin’s insulting gift of tennis balls: “When we have matched our rackets to these balls/We shall in France, by God's grace, play a set/Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard.”
A court tennis court is asymmetrical (so are the racquets) and the oddities reflect the game’s Medieval courtyard heritage. While all courts are approximately 110’ long by 38’ wide, no two are exactly alike. Each has its own unique little architectural details to bedevil the players, which is considered part of the charm of the game. However, the elements are the same. The ancient cloister roof is represented by the penthouse, a sloping ledge that runs along three sides of the court. On the fourth wall is a buttress called the tambour. There are openings in the walls called the dedans and the grille. A net crosses the center of the court, but it high at the ends and droops in the center because in past centuries, the monks had no way to tighten it. The floor is a hard, cement-like surface marked with painted lines that look more like football markings than the familiar lawn tennis layout.
As for scoring . . . oh, don’t ask. It’s incredibly complicated. Yes, the games and sets are scored the same as in modern tennis, but winning points is far more complex. As one top-ranked court tennis player admitted, ”If you haven’t played the game, it’s impossible to comprehend.” Suffice it to say, depending on where a ball lands, there are complex rules about playing hazards and chases, which are sort of games within games. (Cut to the chase is a term that comes from court tennis.) Sometimes the best way to win a point is not to play the ball at all! Even experienced players need a scorer to keep track of all the arcane permutations.
For modern tennis fans, this time of year marks the zenith of the game’s calendar. As I mentioned, the French Open—played on the glorious red clay courts at the Bois de Boulogne in Paris—is a much anticipated rite of Spring. And at the end of June, strawberries and cream at the grass courts of Wimbledon outside of London are a cherished English sporting tradition. So as you watch the modern athletes pummel the ball across the net, raise a toast to both the old and the new—and know that the roots of the game are far deeper than those emerald blades of grass.
And speaking of grass, wait until I get rolling on the origins of golf . . . cleeks, mashies, niblicks, gutties . . . (She says with an evil leer. <G>)
Do you have a favorite summer game or pastime?
(P.S. There are ten court tennis courts in the U.S. Most are in Eastern private clubs, such as the Racquet & Tennis Club in NYC and Tuxedo Park, in Tuxedo, NY. However, there is one public court at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI.)