When it comes to identifying the greatest sportsman of all time, many people point to the usual suspects. Michael Phelps, Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, the list goes on. When looking back on the careers of such greats, one word springs to mind: dominance. While other athletes came and went, these individuals reached the pinnacle of their sports and stayed there – for years. But one man who can boast of even greater dominance is Robert Fahey. Haven’t heard of him? Well he was world champion of his sport for a remarkable 22 years. I hadn’t heard of him either until I picked up a Real Tennis racket for the first time two years ago.
Real Tennis is the outlandish precursor to the modern game of lawn tennis. Over the years, the eccentric sport has been played by royal aficionados including Henry VIII, Prince Edward and a long list of French kings.
“Having attempted everything from kabbadi to korfball, the competition for the ‘roguest sport I have ever played’ is incredibly fierce. But Real Tennis takes the biscuit.”
More recently, money has been dedicated to giving young people the opportunity to play. This has led to the formation of University Real Tennis Clubs across the country, of which one of the largest and most successful is here at Exeter University
Having attempted everything from kabbadi to korfball, the competition for the ‘roguest sport I have ever played’ is incredibly fierce. But Real Tennis takes the biscuit. To give you an idea of how obscure it is, it can only be played at 24 different places in the UK including Queen’s Club, Lord’s and Hampton Court Palace.
It is played on indoor courts longer and wider than lawn tennis, encompassed by four walls off which shots can be played. Three of these have sloped roofs called penthouses, beneath which are a series of targets which when hit can win you a point. For example, at the service end, there is a large opening called the ‘dedans’, which you must protect. If your opponent hits the ball in there, they win the point automatically.
“The game is a mixture of tennis, squash and chess.”
To succeed you need hand eye coordination, tactical nous and a certain degree of luck. The points are the same as lawn tennis: 15, 30, 40, deuce, advantage, game. Unlike tennis, however, there are no tiebreaks, with sets played as the first to six games. One interesting aspect of the game is the handicap system, which allows all matches to be played off a ‘level playing field’ regardless of differences in ability. When playing a weaker player, individuals find themselves hampered by a scoring deficit. For example, instead of the game starting at ‘love all’, the game would start at ‘negative 15 – love’.
Along the floor of a court, you will find a series of numbered lines which ascend as you approach the net. The aim is to get the second bounce of your shot as close as possible to the back wall of the court, i.e. the lowest numbered line. This number is known as the chase, and the closer to the back wall the better the chase. Basically, this makes the court much smaller for your opponent. At game point, players switch sides and the other player has to try and land a lower ‘chase’ by getting their second bounce closer to the back wall than yours. If they manage to do so they win the point.
Simple? Not really. But as you play more, the once ludicrously complicated rules will become second nature, revealing a whole new world of tactical nuances. Play the ball off one wall, two walls, cut the ball, aim for a target, pin your opponent into a corner and force a bad shot? All are possible.
Describing something as complex as real tennis with words is a nigh on impossible task, but don’t let my inability to articulate the beauty of the game deter you. I can genuinely say that it’s the most enjoyable and varied sport I have ever experienced. It speaks volumes that this medieval game has survived the centuries and is still alive and kicking in 2017. The general rule is that if you love sports you’ll love real tennis, and I would encourage anybody and everybody to give it a go. If you don’t like it, at least you have a story to tell. But if you do, it will open the doors to so many opportunities, such as the chance to play at Lords and Queens, or the chance to mix it with the big boys and play against the bankers and CEOs with which the game is so popular – a networking dream.