REAL TENNIS: REAL DEAL; Real tennis has been played for centuries, but how hard can it be Fraser Thomson finds out.
Ignoring the bead of sweat that is blinding my vision, I lunge towards the ball, backhand at the ready . . . ready to drill it straight back down the wall to leave my opponent floundering.
The ball hugs the wall, never straying more than six inches from it, when suddenly its course is diverted and it leaps at right angles between my legs, skittering across the floor . . . irretrievable.
That bloody tambour! A thousand curses on the mad monks who designed the buttress that has so cruelly deflected my opponent's shot and robbed me of glory. The point is her's. And I am left flailing at thin air.
A quick tap on the floor with the lump of wood that is more akin to a cudgel than a tennis racket and I have indicated my appreciation of my opponent's cunning shot.
Sally Jones merely smiles . . . or was it a laugh? It is difficult to tell from the far end of the court. I am breathless; my legs ache and, had I, at the age of 40, any muscles in my legs, I could swear I had pulled one.
If you are at a loss to what I am talking about, just try playing the game. Welcome to Real Tennis.
If it is good enough for Roger Federer, the No 1 in the tennis world - at this game, he probably wouldn't rank in the top 100 - then it is good enough for me, a tired, beaten hack who has to drag around the court a middle-age spread.
It is the centenary year of Moreton Morrell Tennis Court Club; Federer, who is in the country for a different reason, tried it for the first time at Hampton Court on Wednesday so I was eager to learn more about this mysterious game that pre-dates lawn tennis by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.
My tutor, Sally Jones, is one of the leading lady players in the world so, when I pitched up in the leafy Warwickshire village of Moreton Morrell, it was not without some trepidation.
But how hard can it be? In my younger years, I played lawn tennis and squash; my racket skills might not have won me any titles, but I am no mug. Surely, it was just a matter of playing tennis in an oversized squash court? Yeah, right.
Real tennis involves far more than just batting a tennis ball about an empty monastic dining hall, so I had to learn something of the background and rules.
Scholars believe real tennis may have originated from hand ball (or jeu de paume) which was played on the streets of Rome and Greece.
The Middle Ages brought the development of the indoor game as we know it today. Monks converted their ecclesiastical courtyards into games areas and the features of the modern-day court can be traced back to those times.
The austerity of Moreton Morrell's court echoes the cloistered conditions of an age-old monastery. The Grille, for example, is thought to have originally been a serving hatch or a window at which monks, usually locked away from the outside world, might meet with family on the rare occasions when they were allowed to visit. Now, when a ball is struck into the grille - no more than a small hole in the wall - a point is won.
The galleries, which lie under a sloping roof called the penthouse, were the old cloisters along which monks walked in silence. One of the galleries is known as 'the door' which was, originally, exactly what it says. There is a winning gallery which has, attached to the net, a bell to ring another winning point.
The dedans is another extended hole in the wall behind the server into which a winning shot can be aimed.
There is, just like Wimbledon, a net across the middle of the court, but there all similarities with lawn tennis end.
The playing surface, hard and shiny, is marked out with zones and lines into which the ball must be served or played. The markings, measured in yards, help with the scoring, known as chases and here is where the uninitiated will struggle with the complications.
Generally, the scores follow that of the more conventional game - love, 15, 30, 40, deuce and advantage - but into this mix is introduced chases. It is all about where the ball lands on its second bounce if a player fails to play a successful return.
The devil is in the detail but, suffice to say, a certain JP McEnroe would have had far greater scope for argument with the umpire had he picked up a real tennis racket instead of a conventional one.
Jones, my ever-patient mentor, assured me that anyone with a modicum of intelligence and an ability to concentrate would quickly pick up the rules. So what's a chase, then?
Eager to get on and have a thrash, Iam on tenterhooks as Jones runs through a brief history of Moreton Morrell.
Built in 1905 by Joseph Bickley for Charles Tuller Garland, an American with a zealous penchant for all things English, the tennis court was a sister building to Moreton Hall (now the agricultural college). Garland, eccentric in the extreme, relished in playing the English country squire.
Historians will tell us that he was a notorious gambler and womaniser. Many believe the entire game was developed for gamblers who delighted in betting on the outcome of matches or even where the ball might land to win a chase. Anne Boleyn, some historians believe, delayed her execution just to discover the outcome of a real tennis match.
Betting still goes on today although it is unlikely modern gamblers will lose their heads over it.
Garland wanted his daughters to play real tennis. Women, in those days were not allowed to play at the nearby Leamington Club, while their father was viewed with suspicion because he was 'in trade'. Hence he built his own court.
The past still echoes with a resounding din, it seems, for women are still barred from playing at Leamington, something that dumbfounds Jones.
'If they allowed us to play, there are several of us who would easily make their first team,' she says, barely hiding her chagrin.
No matter. Moreton Morrell - one of 30 courts in Britain (there are less than 100 throughout the world) is flourishing without Leamington.
It has produced four world champions in recent years. Charlotte Cornwallis, the reigning women's champion; Julian Snow, who has been the world amateur champion for the past 17 years; Philip Shaw-Hamilton, the reigning world over-50s champion; and, of course, Jones herself, who held the world crown in singles and doubles in the mid-1990s.
So into battle then, where's my weapon.
The racket has changed little since monks took them up to protect their bruised hands all those years ago.
Made of wood, they are not dissimilar to old lawn tennis rackets, save for the off-set head to facilitate getting down low to the balls which, made from cork wrapped in felt, rarely bounce higher than a foot from the floor Real tennis is not for light-weights. The balls are leaden by comparison to ones which will be used at Wimbledon; the rackets are like axes - Jones even offered me a child's version to play with.
But I'm a real man. I'll take the grown-ups racket, thank you very much!
Oh, how I longed for the kid's bat. Within minutes of our knock-up, my arm ached.
'You have to ready yourself early and give a good swing at it,' shouted Jones from across the net, some 70 yards away.
She serves, up onto the sloping roof of the penthouse; the ball bounces around the back wall (am I on a tennis court or a giant pin-ball machine?) and drops behind me, laughing as I swipe at fresh air.
'Try again,' shouts Jones, as she lobs up another, easier serve which, this time I return with aplomb, straight into the net.
'And another . . .' My return is driven full bore into the winning gallery. The bell rings out in triumph. Her point, I'm aiming at the wrong gallery.
So it's 40-love; fluff the next return of serve and she's won the game. Concentrate, Thompers!
She serves, it pitches on the roof, my eyes stay glued to the ball and I strike a forehand across the court and - more importantly! - across the net and into the nick at the far end.
'That's perfect,' shouts Jones, 'great shot.' And she mutters something about a winning chase and I am suddenly confused. Just as well she's keeping score.
We play on and I have some success at serving - former world champion Chris Ronaldson, head professional at Hampton Court, claims to have used more than 50 different serves in a match - and I even play winners into the grille and the dedans.
On one occasion, we even manage a rest - which is real tennis-speak for rally (God, it's confusing). She serves, deeper and at pace this time, but I've got my eye in and those old squash skills are coming back to me as I play shot after shot off the back wall. I'm even going for the nicks but Jones, accomplished as she is, keeps getting them back.
I drive one straight at the dedans, but Jones intercepts with a volley. I lunge towards the ball, backhand at the ready . . . ready to drill it straight back down the wall to leave Jones floundering (etiquette and gentlemanly sportsmanship have temporarily deserted me).
The ball hugs the wall, but this time a good foot away from it . . . it is mine. I have her . . . I am going to win . . . I . . .
That bloody tambour
Clockwise from top left - Charles Tuller Garland, the all-American English squire; former world singles and doubles champion Sally Jones putting a hapless Fraser Thomson through his paces in the cloistered hall at Moreton Morrell; the simplistic scoreboard for a complicated scoring system and some memorabilia depicting the art of real tennis including the advent of women players in the game; The victor and the vanquished - no prizes for guessing which is which - Fraser Thomson (inset left) and Sally Jones
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Jun 18, 2005|
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