This odd, fossilized pastime would perhaps seem to be the preserve of a dwindling pool of Luddites and nostalgists, but after going dormant for much of the 20th century, the sport has seen a robust revival. A new facility was built in 2012 in Chicago, bringing the global tally of courts to 50. And the sport continues to attract more and more followers outside its historical blue-blood set.
Case in point: Johnny Borrell, frontman of the popular UK band Razorlight, is now one of the sport’s most vocal—and, yes, perhaps only—celebrity proselytizers. He owns a house in a remote French Basque village and bought this particular property because its garden borders one of the oldest real tennis courts in existence.
Seeing a rock star swap his skin-tight threads for tennis whites and fling himself around a centuries-old court can prompt some dizzying cognitive dissonance. Borrell is famous for the raw emotion of his performances and his audacious, headline-grabbing statements, but as I watched him play at the Hollyport Real Tennis Club near London, he genially called out scores—“15 serving 40 second chase one yard worse than last gallery”—sometimes complimenting an opponent’s skillful “giraffe serve” or a pinpoint strike of the cowbell hanging in the winner’s gallery (whatever that signifies). But Borrell likened real tennis to a game of high-velocity, multi-dimensional chess—as much psychological as physical. “The main difference between real tennis and lawn tennis is the capacity for self-expression,” he said. “With real tennis, you have so many more options with which to develop a personal style. It’s like boxing. You can be a brawler or hold to classical form.”
With its sometimes baffling archaisms and courtly decorum, real tennis seems to open a rip in time. For Borrell, the sport affords an escape from the din of the Twitterverse and pop culture, and to him, lawn tennis is only so much more telegenic emptiness. As he put it, “Real tennis is Caravaggio. Lawn tennis is Page 3”—referring to the daily feature found in UK tabloid The Sun that displays a topless model.
It was a revealing comparison: The great Baroque artist Caravaggio, a murderer and infamous roué, was no stranger to the lowlife. And real tennis courts themselves, originally the playground of the ecclesiastical orders, later degenerated into gambling halls that doubled as trysting spots for gentlemen and their mistresses. The viewing galleries were even designed with the concealment of certain sex acts in mind (the archaic French slang for a tennis court, “tripot” lent its name to the verb “tripoter,” meaning “to fondle”), and in 17th-century England, the sport was outlawed in order to contain a betting epidemic.
Even in the rarefied world of real tennis, then, the sacred is never far separated from the profane. Maybe the rough pageantry of the U.S. Open isn’t such a perversion of the so-called “sport of gentlemen” as the tennis establishment would have you think.