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.
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.
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.