'Real' tennis makes a comeback at Hatfield House
PUBLISHED: 11:51 25 July 2017
With its roots in the medieval period, real tennis is making a winning return. Damion Roberts visited the Hatfield House court and club helping the sport to thrive
It’s Wimbledon this month – a shining jewel in the crown of great British summer sport. With its tradition of whiter-than-white attire, more than 8,500 punnets of strawberries and cream washed down with galons of Champagne daily, and the odd sing-a-long in a downpour, it remains a favourite of the British public.
A favourite with the BBC too, which last year extended its broadcasting rights until 2024 and this summer will celebrate the 90th year anniversary of the first radio broadcast of the championship.
Yet the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club – founded in 1868 and hosting its first tennis in 1875 – is a youngster compared to the ancient game of real tennis from which it derives.
Serving at court?
Drawing on its origins in courtyards, a real tennis court has a stone floor and players can use the walls and the sloping roof of a gallery that runs around three of the four walls. There is a net in the middle like lawn tennis that players must get the ball over, but they can use any of the walls or the sloping roof to achieve this. It is a bit like a cross between tennis and squash. As well as by beating an opponent, points can be scored by hitting targets, while lines on the court come into play at different times – all this played with handmade wooden rackets and a solid ball.
Also known as ‘royal tennis’, some advocates see real tennis as the more noble sport. It is certainly growing, with more than 10,000 registered members and 27 courts nationwide. Recently built are courts at Radley College, Oxfordshire and Wellington College in Berkshire. And there is one of these frankly-odd looking courts close to home - in the grand setting of Hatfield House. It dates to 1842 when there was a Victorian resurgence in interest in the game among the aristocracy.
One devotee recently wrote in The Telegraph, ‘Wimbledon, held in its current location since 1922, is often rhapsodised as one of England’s most storied sporting institutions, but it’s a babe-in-arms compared to the royal court at Hampton Court Palace, which has been in continuous use for nearly 500 years.’
Hatfield House Real Tennis Club
Jon Dawes is the head professional at Hatfield House Real Tennis Club. His father was also a real tennis professional and Jon, who joined Hatfield 20 years ago, has been playing the sport since he was about six.
‘I also played lawn tennis, squash, badminton, football, cricket and pretty much every sport going at that age but real tennis was the one that interested me the most because there is just so much more to it than any other racket sport,’ he explains. ‘There’s so much to learn that 35 years later I still feel like I learn every time I’m on court.’
He says that as a rule, players come to the sport later in life having tired of squash or tennis and in search of a new challenge.
‘Because real tennis can be a tricky sport is does help to have a sporting background,’ he says. ‘That said, the technique is very different to any other sport so sometimes people who don’t have years of bad habits from other sports are much easier to teach.’
Real tennis is actually a winter sport at Hatfield, played from September to May, so doesn’t have a crossover with Wimbledon - nor its let’s-go-and-have-a-game effect. ‘There isn’t much of an impact from Wimbledon although we do tend to get a number of calls from people looking for tennis courts, but sadly they’ve generally never heard of real tennis.’
The club is not suffering however, membership stands at more than 200.
Hatfield play in the National League, which involves nearly all the clubs in the country, and has seen some of the world’s best players grace its courts over the years.
These include Mike Gooding, the winner of both the French and British singles, and world number four Ben Taylor-Matthews, who worked at Hatfield before moving on to his current job at Leamington two years ago.
The club holds a ‘huge number of internal events’ according to Jon, in addition to two national tournaments each year.
‘The highest profile is the Billy Ross Skinner Mixed Doubles that we host every February, which is the top national mixed doubles event and includes the top lady players based in the UK,’ Jon explains.
‘We will be holding our annual garden party in the grounds of Hatfield House during the summer months and we recently held an open exhibition match between the resident professionals here to members of the public who would like to find out more about the game and hopefully have a go themselves.’
So what does the future hold for this ancient game? ‘It’s still a growing sport and there are plans in the pipeline for two or three more courts in the future but these plans do take time and because of the layout of the courts and the amount of space required there is also huge expense.
‘There are attempts being made to bring more professionals into the game with a new training scheme being created by the governing body of the sport, in this country the Tennis and Rackets Association, and so in general the sport is in very good health.’
Real tennis rackets are made of wood and are asymmetrical, with a flat edge at the bottom and a slightly more pointed edge at the top. The balls are handmade by the professionals that work at the various clubs and are solid – about halfway between a cricket ball and a lawn tennis ball.
As well as trying to make an opponent make a mistake, players can also try to hit one of the three winning targets on the court, which automatically wins the point. There is also a series of numbers and lines on the floor that players have to try to hit at certain times of the game. It isn’t always the youngest, fittest or most talented person that wins but often the one who uses the tactics most efficiently.
Hatfield House Real Tennis Club offers reduced price introductory lessons to beginners. For more information, visit hatfieldhouserealtennis.com