Sorry, U.S. Open: Tennis Is Way Rowdier 16th-Century Style

"Real tennis," the primogenitor of modern tennis, was a more complicated game with a shadier reputation—and a few staunch devotees want to engineer its comeback.

The U.S. Open, with its rowdy crowds and blaring pop tunes on changeovers, has long suffered a reputation as the enfant terrible of the tennis tour. In 1977, a stray bullet fired from a nearby apartment building hit a spectator in the leg; in the early '80s, play was suspended when fumes from burning garbage threatened to overwhelm the crowd. Romanian tennis star Ilie Nastase once stripped down to his jockstrap at a change of ends at the U.S Open, and the following year, he brought a companion to cheer him on from the players’ box—his pet chimpanzee. The championship’s PR embarrassments persist even today: This year, disturbances broke out at the entry gates when newly installed metal detectors caused hour-long bottlenecks.

The American Grand Slam has come a long way since the old days, but tennis has long prided itself on its gentlemanliness—so some Wimbledon-reverent purists may always consider the U.S. Open an affront to the world’s most genteel game. But there’s another, smaller contingent of people who might consider the noisy, unpredictable U.S. Open the only tournament that carries on the traditional spirit of authentic tennis—that is, real tennis.

Among those staunch few are the real tennis players of the world, and there were about 10,000 of them at last count, according to a 2012 story in The Wall Street Journal. “Real tennis," often called "court tennis" in the U.S., refers to tennis as it was played in chivalric Europe. Historians tend to agree that it has changed little from the game French monks invented in the 12th century, which was the progenitor of all modern racquet sports. They also agree that real tennis venues were the sites of some of the most lurid mischief and scandal of the time.

Today's real tennis enthusiasts have a beef with modern tennis—or “lawn tennis” as they call it, regardless of the surface—and it centers on what they characterize as an intellectual property theft that took place more than a century ago.

“It never should have been called tennis,” Lesley Ronaldson, a former real tennis doubles champion and a lecturer at Hampton Court Palace in London, England, said of lawn tennis. “It’s a completely different game. In the Victorian era, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield decided to move it to a lawn and call it Sphairistikè. There’s a ball and a net and that’s where the similarities end.”

When I asked if she had watched any of the U.S. Open, Ronaldson feigned a gag. “We’re much more interested in cricket. Except maybe when Andy Murray is playing.”

The layout of the real tennis court at Hampton Court Palace offers a hint as to why aficionados of the Tudor-era game consider lawn tennis a watered-down vulgarization of their sport. The sheer number of surfaces to play a point off of is overwhelming: Modeled on a medieval marketplace, the court is hemmed on three sides by penthouses, essentially long cowsheds with sloping roofs. It also includes an array of bemusing architectural features, such as an angled replica of a flying buttress called a “tambour,” a huge netted opening on one end called a “dedans,” and a window called a “grille” that's a sudden point-ender. At Hampton Court Palace, the grille frames a portrait of a pudgy Henry VIII, one of the sport’s greatest champions before all that banqueting caught up with him.

All of these peculiarities make for a game that feels at times more akin to pinball than a racquet sport.  “It’s so much more interesting because of that element of unpredictability,” Ronaldson told me. “It’s all about finesse, technique, and last-second adjustments rather than brute power.” She promised me that any lawn tennis player who tried real tennis would undergo a conversion experience.

Some who try it, though, may find themselves converted to nothing but frustrated wrecks. The ball hurtles at you from innumerable directions. It thuds off the slanted roof behind you, dropping down at your feet, or glances off a sidewall, skidding at you slantwise, or comes barreling with severe slice off the racket of the opposing player, barely clearing the sagging net. The key to the game, as I was reminded again and again, is anticipation, reading several steps ahead where the ball will bounce and moving there in time to take a decent swing at it—a task that weds hand-eye coordination with a knack for on-the-fly trigonometry. The balls themselves, heavy cork cores wound in cloth and covered in hand-stitched felt, have little bounce, and the racquet face is minute—only a hand-span across—reflecting the game’s roots in the French “jeu de paume,” or handball.

For all its confounding difficulty, though, there‘s something transporting about playing on a court that has been in continuous use since the 1530s, like the one at Hampton Court Palace. It was here, legend has it, that during a match King Henry VIII received news that Anne Boleyn had been beheaded.

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.