Court Tennis

WITH A CLUMSY racket that appears to have been run over by a bus, the world’s best court-tennis player, Chris Ronaldson, whacks a hand-sewn cloth ball and sends it skipping up along the roof of what looks like a wooden shed. It ricochets from roof to wall, and onto a stone-floor court in the vicinity of his opponent, Wayne Davies, who stands on the other side of a conspicuously drooping net. Ronaldson’s “giraffe” serve has the wickedest of spins, but Davies knows Ronaldson’s game like a favorite tune. He swats a punishing salvo to the world champion’s backhand. Ronaldson shuffles into the corner and, feigning a shot to the grille, catches Davies flat-footed. The champ drives the ball into a bell-equipped window to his left, called the winning gallery. Bong! Point, game, Ronaldson.

Ronaldson and Davies’s game, court tennis, is a diabolically complicated pastime thought to be the oldest ball-andracket sport known to man. Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, and lesser-known athletes of the sixteenth century flocked to what is now Ronaldson’s home club, Hampton Court Palace, south of London, to play the perplexing game. Then as now, players used lopsided rackets on an indoor tennis court to send balls bouncing off the walls, floor, and sloping gallery roofs, or sailing over a net that sagged like a hammock. Points were awarded for hitting balls through portals and for striking bells in windows. The sport, which resembles a fusion of jumbo pinball and racquetball within a Gothic cathedral, requires the logic of a mathematician and the stamina of a mule.

The objective in court tennis, as in lawn tennis, is to hit a little white or yellow ball over a net before it bounces on the ground twice. Both sports are scored 15, 30, 40, game, and the first player to win six games takes the set. There the similarity ends. Court tennis is thought to have originated with the thirteenthcentury jeu de paume (palm game), in which bored French monks swatted a wad of rags around a monastery courtyard with their bare hands. In the fifteenth century England’s kings complicated the game by introducing a thickhandled racket with a pear-shaped head that not only put more “English” on the ball but also sped up the game and made it considerably more popular among the hoi polloi. But the playing area remained unchanged: the court that Henry VIII built at Hampton Court Palace was intended to copy, as were hundreds of other asymmetrical court-tennis courts constructed in European chateaux, the ancient abutments and fenestrations of the original Gallic cloister.

“Henry VIII was reputed to have played every day of his adult life—even received the news of the beheading of Anne Boleyn during a game here at Hampton Court,” says Ronaldson, a lanky, soft-spoken thirty-six-year-old. “Quite a good player, he was, and being king didn’t hurt his score either,” he adds, gesturing into the corner “grille" where Ronaldson’s wife, Lesley, has painted a portrait of Henry VIII, regal and plump as a partridge. King Henry, once an object of deference, is now a target for tennis balls. A direct hit on the monarch’s mug scores an automatic point.

“The game is a combination of ordinary tennis, squash, and chess,” Ronaldson explains. “The ball is harder than a tennis ball, and it takes spin, which is where tactics come in. Experience and guile count more than pure strength and fitness. Anyone who has played will tell you that real tennis is a much better game than lawn tennis.” (Court tennis, known as royal tennis in Australia, and still called jeu de paume in France, is frequently referred to by English purists as real tennis or Tennis with a capital T, to distinguish the 700-year-old sport from that slam-bang adulteration played at Flushing Meadow and Wimbledon. Lawn tennis, as the modern derivative is correctly called, was not invented until 1873.)

No TWO COURT-tennis courts are exactly alike. On the world’s largest, at Hampton Court Palace, Henry VIII and other men of grace and favor are said to have played three on a side. The cavernous chamber, festooned with fungus, stretches thirty-two feet longer and three feet wider than a regulation lawntennis court and is bordered by thirtyfoot-high side walls.

Each point begins with the server batting the ball off the rooftop of the “penthouse” (a wooden shed running along three sides of the court) and into the receiving, or “hazard,” court of his opponent. On the server’s left, beneath the penthouse, are eight windows, the last of which, on the hazard side, contains a small bell and is called the winning gallery. Though points can be won “on the floor,” as in lawn tennis, in court tennis any ball hit into the winning gallery, the “grille” (a three-foot-square wooden hatch in the hazard rear wall), or the “dedans” (a yawning, netted opening behind the server, through which spectators view the game) also scores a point. The final architectural idiosyncrasy— and the tactical pillar of the game—is a peculiar buttress called the tambour, which juts into the hazard court and deflects balls at fierce and unpredictable angles. In all, a player may choose from at least forty possible service options and thirteen surfaces off which to play a ball capable of traveling 150 miles as hour. The number of permutations is mind-boggling.

At the heart of the game is a confounding element called the chase, which can entail players’ switching sides half a dozen times in the middle of game to replay a point. The chase is nearly impossible to understand without actually participating in the game. In practice it means that the best shots are those that on their second bounce land near the rear of the court.

Thus the classic court-tennis stroke is a low, gracefully undercut ball that skitters and dies against the back wall. As in pitching pennies, the closer to the wall the better. Importing the top spin of lawn tennis or the blood and thunder of squash can be suicidal in court tennis. The game is not an advertisement of power but is, as Talleyrand observed, “plus fait de douceur que de violence” (more gentle than violent). He added, “ET surtout pas de zèle” (And above all, played with reserve).

Court tennis is generously weighted in the server’s favor, which largely accounts for Chris Ronaldson’s success. Ronaldson is known for the astounding variety of his serves, which have names like the giraffe, the railroad, the boomerang, the caterpillar, the chandelle, the bobble, the demi-piqué, and the classical underhand twist. His versatility and steady stroke mirror his nature. Relentless, shrewd, but never flashy, Ronaldson rarely makes mistakes and is most dangerous when trailing.

FOURTEEN YEARS AGO, on the grounds of Merton College, Oxford, Chris Ronaldson played his first courttennis game. Slowly and steadily he ascended the ranks of the world’s 2,500 players, and five years ago he won the world championship, a title steeped in considerable history. Last season he became the first player ever to win the “Grand Slam”—the French, British, Australian, and U.S. Open court-tennis singles championships. Today Ronaldson lives at 53 Tennis Court Lane, in Hampton Court Palace, with a family no less keen on the sport than he is. Lesley, his wife, is a former British women’s champion, and Ivan, their son, holds the British “Under 12” title.

Ronaldson is employed in the palace as the resident court-tennis professional. He arranges matches, gives lessons, and strings the heavy rackets with sheep’s gut (the innards of ten animals are needed to string one racket). Every few weeks Ronaldson restitches by hand each “royal set,” consisting of seventytwo of the traditional court-tennis balls, which are as hard as baseballs but slightly smaller. Court-tennis balls were fashioned from lumps of dog hair and covered in tunic scraps during the Middle Ages, but today they are made of cotton webbing, linen thread, and felt, wrapped and sewn tightly around a wine cork.

Over the past several years Ronaldson, the author of Tennis: A Cut Above the Rest, an exhaustive 172-page instruction manual and memoir, has become Mr. Court Tennis, a sort of roving ambassador who is helping to make what was a nearly extinct sport one of the fastest growing (albeit still one of the least known) in the world. During the past decade the number of active players has doubled; new courts have opened recently in Australia, France, and England, and enthusiasts in Chicago talk of refurbishing a court there.

Today Hampton Court Palace is open to commoners, and some 200 enthusiasts keep the court busy from 8:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M. The court is booked a month in advance; the wait to become a member and pay the $40 annual fee is year and a half. In southern England hundreds of women and youngsters are taking up the sport, which was once reserved for upper-crust gentlemen.

THOUGH INCREASINGLY popular, court tennis may never quite regain its Renaissance-era popularity. During its heyday, in the sixteenth century, the sport was the national pastime on both sides of the English Channel. In 1598 Sir Robert Dallington, on his travels abroad, wrote: “There be more Tennis Players in France than Ale-drinkers or Malt-Wormes (as they call them) with us.”

In that Golden Age, Paris (population 300,000) alone contained more than 250 courts. The dashing Francois I built a court on his 2,000-ton warship. La Grande Françoise. And Catherine de Medici introduced the coiffure en raquette, a waffled hairdo much imitated by trendy ladies of the realm. Long before the “power breakfast” and the three-martini lunch were invented, the strivers and drivers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance cut their deals and did their social climbing on tennis courts. At its toughest, court tennis proved to be a killing workout for overzealous sovereigns. Half a dozen kings (Louis X, “the Quarrelsome,” of France among them) literally expired from sheer exhaustion and pneumonia after furious tennis matches. Another crowned casualty of court tennis was the affable but maladroit French king Charles VIII, who keeled over shortly after a head-on collision with the lintel of a tennis-court door in his chateau at Amboise.

The mighty, it seems, wished to keep court tennis for themselves, and began to fret when the game became popular among their subjects. Nobles complained that tennis-playing merchants and yeomen would neglect their work and the country’s defense. Tennis was repeatedly, if incompletely, banned. France’s Henry IV, for example, condemned to six days in prison any commoner playing court tennis on a weekday. In spite of such prohibitions the jeu de paume craze raged on in hundreds of underground tripots, athletic speakeasies notorious for bootlegged tennis equipment, cheap wine, and reckless games of chance. (To this day when a Frenchman gambles away his paycheck, he still curses: “J’ai paumé.”)

In the France of Louis XIV the game’s popularity suffered as a consequence of increasingly repressive legislation and the king’s indifference (he was a billiards man). Eventually courts were abandoned by players and fell into use as playhouses or public meeting places. In fact, a meeting that took place on June 20, 1789, in the jeu de paume court at Versailles changed the course of history. Deputies of the Third Estate assembled there and took the historic oath that sparked the French Revolution.

Though court tennis originated in France, today it has unquestionably been Anglicized. Of the world’s thirtyfour courts currently in use, only two are in France. Britain boasts nineteen, Australia four, and the United States nine (two courts in Manhattan’s Racquet and Tennis Club, plus one apiece in Boston; Newport; Philadelphia; Aiken, South Carolina; Lakewood, New Jersey; and Manhasset and Tuxedo Park, New York). A year ago, in a charity fund-raising stunt, Chris Ronaldson and Lachlan Deuchar, an Australian, played sets on seventeen of Britain’s courts in the space of thirty-six hours.

AFTER RONALDSON, the world’s top three players come from Down Under. Perhaps the most talented and tempestuous is the second-ranked player, Wayne Davies, age thirty. A schoolteacher’s son from Geelong, fifty miles south of Melbourne, he has worked for the past four years at the Racquet and Tennis Club in New York City, comfortably quartered on Park Avenue. If Ronaldson is the Borg of court tennis, Wayne Davies is the McEnroe—the extrovert, the rager. This challenger has talent to squander. Davies comes armed with a punishing cross-court volley, and he frequently gambles on the quick kill. Smaller and frailer than the six-foot-twoinch, 180-pound Ronaldson, Davies is a scrapper.

“Wayne is more naturally talented, and his footwork more beautiful, but he has a brittle temper and doesn’t have Chris’s intellect,” says Jerome (Karl) Fletcher, a Dustin Hoffman look-alike who wears a single silver earring, piratestyle, and who read French and Spanish at Oxford. A former court-tennis professional himself, Fletcher knows Ronaldson and Davies well. “Chris will play within well-defined parameters, but you’re never sure what Wayne will do. At his best he is better than Chris, but Wayne is always an unknown quantity.”

Although Davies has defeated Ronaldson in tournament play in England, he has lost two official challenge matches (best seven of thirteen sets) to the champion. This month, however, Ronaldson will cross the Atlantic for what are likely to be showdowns with Davies at the U.S. Professional Singles Championship at Tuxedo Park and, a week later, at the U.S. Open in Philadelphia.

They will play the world’s most enduring, and perhaps ultimate, racket game for an audience of fewer than a hundred spectators and a purse of $500, hardly enough to cover the winner’s hotel bills. The matches will not be televised, and if they are covered at all in the U.S. press, the results will probably be buried in the back pages of even the most encyclopedic publications. Five years ago Ronaldson became the twenty-second person to win the title first bestowed upon a Frenchman named Clergé in Paris in 1740. In early February Davies, the heir-presumptive from New York, will attempt to become the twenty-third in that rarefied lineage.

To some, Wayne Davies is the court jester of court tennis. “I wear pink, shocking pink,” Davies says. He has played in international tournaments with his fingernails painted pink and his hair dyed pink while carrying an iridescent pink racket with a skull and crossbones emblazoned on the strings.

“I always play with an inner consciousness,”Davies says. In meditation while riding the commuter train from New Jersey he plays out entire games in his head. “I visualize Chris in color, hear the sound of his tennis shoes, feel the ball in my hand, see myself hitting a hard railroad serve. Chris makes a perfect return to my backhand corner, I dig it out and hit for the tambour. Chris lunges and ...”Davies’s voice trails off and he smiles. Perhaps he is hearing the gentle huzzahs of the crowd at Tuxedo Park as Ronaldson slices the final volley into the net. This time, at least in the mind of the challenger, it is point, game, Davies.