Real Tennis: A Cut Above

So, what exactly is your opinion of Major Walter Clopton Wingfield? The overwhelming majority of sophisticated and intelligent people will answer “ahhhh…. None.”

But, for a few who play a game called court tennis, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield is the devil incarnate. Why would this be?

According to Wikipedia, “Major Walter Clopton Wingfield (1833 –1912) was a Welsh inventor of lawn tennis (1873, patented 1874), which he called Sphairistikè (Greek for “ball games”). When not inventing games, he was a Gentleman-at-Arms in the Royal Body Guard and an officer in the First Dragoon Guards.

The website of the Tennis Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted, depicts an older man wearing a Gilbert and Sullivan uniform adorned with epaulettes, a sash draped from left shoulder to right rib and a row of medals.

What’s not to like?

Court tennis players concede that Wingfield invented something and that he made racquet, ball and net kits – much like today’s garden croquet sets – until he let his patent expire in 1877. But whatever he invented, it was not “tennis.” We know this because “real tennis,” as “our” game is still called in England, had been played for 700 to 1000 years before the Major’s entrepreneurial effort.

Court tennis, as “our” game is called in the United States still exists, looking much as it did in the middle ages and the Renaissance, and is played on 45 courts located in four countries – Australia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States – by about 5000 to 8000 people.

Some have called court tennis the “game of kings” but polo and horse racing think of theirs as the games of kings. Perhaps kings just had a good deal of game playing time on their hands? Truth be told, there were some kings who played court tennis and even built courts.

 

Hit or Myth Some like to think that the Major invented his game at a house party – think “Gosford Park” or any Merchant Ivory movie – and on the day following the requisite white tie and candlelight dinner, the gentlemen went to disport themselves at court tennis. The ladies were invited to watch if at all but certainly not to play. The ladies were rankled. Enter the Major (military rank suggests second son and thus no money) with an eye toward picking off one of the damsels, preferably the richest. He suggests a gentler game outdoors on the lawn (clever fellow knows that ladies like the sun) and thus today’s lawn tennis is sired by a randy social climber. Sadly for us, it appears that, in reality, Wingfield first adapted an old Welsh game at his estate called Nant Clwyd near the village of Cerrig y Drudion in North Wales around Christmas time in 1873.

The world’s oldest surviving court (and the only outdoor one) was built in 1537 by King James V of Scotland at Falkland Palace, north of Edinburgh. The Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court Palace was built and used by Henry VIII and is still in use today. The court at the Palais de Fontainebleau south of Paris was built and played upon by Francois I. Elizabeth I cooled her heels at Hatfield House, site of another court, while waiting for half-sister Queen Mary to die and for the pendulum to swing back from the Catholics to the Anglicans.

 

But court tennis was hardly clear sailing for kings. Jacques Louis David’s famous painting, Le Serment du Jeu de Paume, depicts the final dramatic events that gave rise to the French Revolution, when deputies of France’s Third Estate seized Louis XVI’s private tennis court and pledged not to leave its confines until a constitution had been drawn up.

But if you ever find yourself at a court tennis court or decide you would like to try to learn to play, here is a hint: don’t say a word about the game of kings. Those who play court tennis don’t think of it in that way at all.

What seems to attract us to the game is something quite different. Indeed, the leading instructional book on the game is entitled “Tennis: A Cut Above the Rest” by former World Champion Chris Ronaldson stresses the mental and physical skills that are required to even try to master the game.  Though, like golf, most of us never will perfect it.

It is exceptionally difficult to learn in part because the racquet head is about 1/3 the size of a lawn tennis racquet and the ball is much heavier. Properly struck, the ball has considerable backspin – or “cut” — and it skids along the smooth floor often nestling into a corner from which it is difficult to retrieve.

The court is big – the same size as a lawn tennis court but from fence to fence – so there is much more to cover. It is surrounded by 18 foot high walls that are a part of the game like in squash so it is like being inside of a very large shoe box facing your opponent(s) across a net that ranges from three feet high in the middle to five feet at either end.  And the walls are not simple flat surfaces. That would be too easy. Three of them have shed like roofs extending their entire length. These are called penthouses and they have netted windows under the eaves. The fourth wall includes a tall diagonal protrusion called the “tambour” that deflects the ball at an unpredictable angle to its original flight.

High level singles matches can last up to four hours but with no sitting down at the changeovers. Doubles is tough too but for a different reason. There is much more volleying and the ball travels up to 150 miles an hour when hit hard. And those volleys need not be directed at the floor.

But there is more: the complexity of the game requires a far greater amount of tactical and strategic thinking than other games. For those whose speediest years may be behind them, the higher premium placed on experience is most helpful.

But again there is more. Court tennis is one of the most sporting games there is.  Before a match, players raise their racquets to salute their opponents, the marker (scorekeeper/referee) and the spectators of whom there are generally not many. If your adversary hits a good shot it is customary to tap your racquet on the wall or floor and tell him so.

In addition to a full schedule of competitive professional and amateur tournaments, every year there are weekend-long social tournaments hosted by most every court in the world; which often include parties at which vigorous training rules are not always observed. In times past the spectacle of tight muscled guys playing in shorts attracted an enthusiastic female following and, biology being what it is, this continues today. But it is now joined by the phenomenon of male spectators attracted to equally tight muscled girls playing in skirts. In both handicap and level (non-handicap) tournaments, they might well be playing against each other but no matter what happens on court the players will be happily celebrating that evening with the person who might have beaten them earlier in the day.

The new player stands at the bottom of a daunting learning curve thanks to the small-headed racquet and low-bouncing ball. And that is before they hear about the rules, which include separate meanings for all of those windows; all serving from one end of the court; an intricate mechanism for determining who serves; and points called chases and hazards that are held in abeyance.

But slowly the drip, drip, drip of addiction sets in and the novices are hooked. Their lives have changed forever and they will likely keep playing well into their 80’s.

So, now you know why we court tennis players dislike Major Wingfield: he swiped the name of our ancient game a mere 150  years ago and created another that is far better known and more popular, but we still think ours is better.

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For those who have never seen the game, here is a YouTube “highlight reel.” The match features the two most recent world champions, Rob Fahey and Camden Riviere, who again contested the title in late April 2020.

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This story was posted on January 24, 2020 before I left to go skiing. That had no impact on Major Wingfield, but it definitely impacted the note accompanying the video.  Rob Fahey (who birthday is today 4/30/20) and Camden Riviere did not contest the world championship as scheduled a few days ago. Like so many other events, it was postponed/cancelled (?) because of the virus. With thanks to Ivan Ronaldson, Head Professional at Prince’s Court and one of the most alert readers of the Pundificator, for calling my attention to this oversight.

37 Responses to “Real Tennis: A Cut Above”

Steve Hufford, April 30, 2020 at 6:47 am said:

great article, Haven! and the highlight reel is amazing.

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Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 7:06 am said:

Thanks Steve, and it appears on Rob Fahey’s birthday.

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Simon Aldrich, April 30, 2020 at 7:33 am said:

Seems another pertinent reason to dislike Major Wingfield; lawn tennis attracts the ladies. Something for male real/court tennis players to ponder:)

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Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 9:24 am said:

Grabbing the “outdoor franchise” turned out to be pretty important. Sadly….

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Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 9:29 am said:

Thanks Steve, another story in the monthly series to follow on June 1.

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RSM, April 30, 2020 at 6:47 am said:

Haven, let us all hope that we can soon get back on court ….. even though our rests are no longer long. Best wishes.

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Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 9:28 am said:

If one country opens up first, will players from all over the world flock there to play? We’d hate to be the source of another flareup.

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Peter W. Bragdon, April 30, 2020 at 7:07 am said:

For some reason the words of an Episcopal blessing come to mind: “Hold fast to that which is good.”
That is what you, Haven, and others have done. To use an Aussie expression, “Good on you.”

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Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 9:25 am said:

Thank you. It also helped to extend an at best modestly successful athletic career.

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Peter W. Bragdon, April 30, 2020 at 9:35 pm said:

What is this “moderately successful” stance, Haven? Have you forgotten that at dusk in the ‘cove rink: on the black ice of St. Paul’s you, a Fourth Former, split the defense in overtime to score the winner and nail down the Championship for “The Big I” — the mighty Isthmians — in 1962. Scored the winner for the youngest of the three clubs, a team labeled “The Doormats” by the school paper at the outset of the season — a name we adopted. That is excellence under pressure– nothing moderate about that, Haven.

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Garrard Glenn, April 30, 2020 at 8:52 am said:

Is squash a bastardization of Court Tennis?

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Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 9:22 am said:

Tracing the origin of games is difficult because many were so obvious. Lots of people would have thought of the same thing. For example, Aztecs had a ball game. If court tennis was the origin (an many believe it was) the family tree passed through racquets (rackets in UK), which was allegedly first played in a prison.

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Temple Grassi, April 30, 2020 at 9:43 am said:

The Major goes out in a field and lays out the first ‘crass lawners’ court (a name used by court tennis players when referring to the ‘new game’- there’s a men’s club in Edinburgh called The New Club because it wasn’t started until 1730!) I digress

What tool/machine that was invented about the same time as Winfield started ‘his’ tennis that really ‘thrust a dirk’ into court tennis and almost killed our game!? Haven, shhhh😉

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Francis Hamilton, April 30, 2020 at 2:07 pm said:

Temple

Spot on, as usual. The clue is in the name. The Major’s invention of what became lawn tennis was only possible because efficient lawnmowers had been invented. Good grass was the key – and still is at Wimbledon, Newport RI etc.

Of course Wingfield’s other advantages were that his lawn version was much easier to play and score, and the courts much cheaper. They could be installed in back gardens anywhere.

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Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 2:18 pm said:

Well played Francis. Quick with the correct answer. I was distracted by the horticultural advice given to an American by an English gardener. The American asked how the English created such lovely lawns. The gardener replied “use good seeds, use natural fertilizer, have lots of rain and roll it weekly for 200 years.”

charles g houghton, April 30, 2020 at 9:50 am said:

Great article – many thanks

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Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 2:28 pm said:

they will be monthly from now until the end of a tour of all the courts in the world

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Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 9:51 am said:

Good thought, Temple. Let’s see who comes up with that excellent answer. [Readers note, I had to call Temple to discuss this with him. It is not easy.]

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Richard Moroscak, April 30, 2020 at 10:07 am said:

Another excellent informative article about the game we all love and are missing terribly right now.

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Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 1:39 pm said:

This weekend would have been the Georgian Court tournament. Bummer. It would have been fun.

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Chip Oat, April 30, 2020 at 10:16 am said:

In the late 1970’s, the daughter of a member who lived at Tuxedo Park was said to be the only woman in the history of U.S. court tennis who was given permission by a club to learn the game and play it (albeit not in competition). Tom Creavy (and, presumably, her father) thought it was an excellent idea and sold it to the club’s leadership. It helped that she was a promising young lawn tennis player who was looking for a way to enjoy Christmas vacation from boarding school – there being very little to do in Tuxedo Park in the winter unless you were male.

I don’t remember her name, and it didn’t really create a stir, but it was noticed that 1) she was pretty good, 2) she was a popular doubles partner for social matches but not so popular an opponent in singles😁 and 3) no other club in the US was willing to give the members’ daughters/wives/girlfriends a similar opportunity.

I’m pleased to hear that women players are not so uncommon anymore. The building of new courts has undoubtedly created opportunities there. Perhaps Aiken was a likely incumbent to follow Tuxedo? Were women permitted to try their hand at Green Tree when you were young?

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Russell Seitz, April 30, 2020 at 12:58 pm said:

Chip should recall that one American real tennis venue t was part of a womens college for over a hundred years. It was built in 1899 on Jay Gould’s estate , which became Georgian Court College in 1908, remained in play until after WWII, and was refurbished at the turn of this century.

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Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 1:31 pm said:

That court is played on today. In fact there was supposed to be a tournament there this coming weekend. Confusingly, there were two Jay Goulds — uncle and nephew. The uncle was a robber baron whose behavior was so despicable that even fellow robber barons shunned him. (This might well have been caused by his despicable behavior toward them.) The nephew, whose father built what is now Georgian Court College, was the only Olympic Gold Medal winner in the sport (London 1908). The building in which the court tennis court is located was called the Casino, not for gambling but as a place of fun. The walls surrounding the indoor polo field are painted with outdoor scenes to make it feel less confining. It was quite remarkable what could be done before the existence of securities or income tax laws.

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Russell Seitz, April 30, 2020 at 2:53 pm said:

Just so- Jay Gould’s less notorious brother George Jay Gould owned the eponymous estate.

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Russell Seitz, April 30, 2020 at 3:02 pm said:

The College came down on the side of mixed doubles by going coed and becoming a University in 2013.

Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 1:38 pm said:

In the last years of play at Greentree there was a women’s handicap tournament played there. About a dozen women played and the winner was Brenda Sabbag, who had to overcome a huge handicap in the final. Actually it was a declining handicap because her novice opponent kept getting better and better as she adapted her lawn tennis skills to the new game. How do I know this? I am married to the finalist.

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RSM, April 30, 2020 at 2:16 pm said:

It was Tommy Greavy. Longtime professional at Tuxedo

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Bill Gordon, April 30, 2020 at 10:24 am said:

Well now I know where the term “kill it in the corner” comes from! Great history lesson and very fun Utube video to provide the visual cliff notes.

I’ll ski with you anywhere, I might even join you on a hockey rink some day. I am quite confident, however, unless the big party happens first to cloud my judgement, I will not join you on the king’s court!

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Haven Pell, April 30, 2020 at 1:33 pm said:

You would love it and we should make it a mission to have you give it a try. Sadly, I look nothing like those guys when I play.

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james burke, May 01, 2020 at 11:34 am said:

Next to one of the doubles squash courts in the Racquet Club of Chicago there is an old lithograph which reads something like:” Horsman’s Outdoor Tennis”. It shows men in long pants and women in ruffled dresses at an outdoor court. I don’t recall the fine print, but it gives the impression that Horsman gave rules to the new outdoor game. One gets the impression that he invented it.
With no access to the club I can’t research the picture any further.
I enjoyed reading your well written piece.

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Haven Pell, May 01, 2020 at 11:55 am said:

Many thanks. I had not heard of “Horsman”but you sent me to the internet to find out. Here is what I discovered at http://www.antiqueathlete.com/vintage-tennis-rackets.shtml. “This antique tennis racket is simply the finest we have ever offered. The racket was made by E. I. Horsman out of New York. Horsman is the oldest American tennis racket maker and a highly sought after brand. This is a fine vintage tennis racket made by a quality racket maker and it’s the condition of this scarce flat-top design that makes this racket a true museum quality rarity. The racket originated in an 1880 – 1890’s Horsman boxed tennis kit, which is certainly a significant factor to explain the incredible NR-MT to MINT condition. If the racket has ever been used, it was used very little. There exists no real evidence of it being used, there are a few imperfect strings at the top but this is likely a result of climate changes where it was stored. One trademark of a 19th century tennis racket is the cloth wrap below the throat of the racket. The cloth band on this racket is pristine. The markings, handle and butcap also remain in pristine condition. Vintage tennis rackets of this age, quality and condition are practically impossible to find. An incredible tennis racket to consider for your antique tennis collection! SOLD” My guess is that your man might have been a racket maker more than a game inventor. The reference to “boxed tennis kit” suggests he jumped into the market after Wingfield let his patent expire. The racket itself is quite handsome making a quick follow of the link worthwhile.

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Matt Churchill, May 02, 2020 at 1:25 pm said:

“But slowly the drip, drip, drip of addiction sets in and the novices are hooked. Their lives have changed forever and they will likely keep playing well into their 80’s.”

Amen. Thanks Haven.

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Haven Pell, May 02, 2020 at 5:47 pm said:

welcome, we could create a support group if necessary.

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Vaughan Williams, May 03, 2020 at 2:38 am said:

The nephew of Jay Gould the world champion and still I believe the reigning Olympic champion, (London 1908) , owned a house called Mongewell Park, very near where I live in Oxfordshire U.K., ( and thus near Hardwick ) , where he built a Sticke court and employed a professional . He also owned an estate in Scotland near Forres. As war approached in 1939 he sold up. The house has Since been through a number of incarnations , for many years being the only Jewish private school in the country , Carmel College, but now sadly is derelict , and the sticke court long gone.

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Haven Pell, May 03, 2020 at 9:00 am said:

A stické professional? I suppose that makes sense but I had never heard of one before. What equipment was used before there was an adequate supply of defunct lawn tennis rackets and dead tennis balls?

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Temple Grassi, May 07, 2020 at 11:54 am said:

I’m world ranked in sticke – I could prove it with the certificate that I was awarded at Hartham ( sp) Park by the sticke ‘czar’, but alas it is locked up at Prince’s Court!

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Haven Pell, May 07, 2020 at 1:03 pm said:

and well deserved it was!

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