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The Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court

The Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court Palace will host its inaugural Real Tennis Champions Trophy between 11-16 July 2017, with the world-class competitors draw being reduced down to the eight top-ranking players from the UK, United States, Australia and France. The qualifying rounds open on 11 July, with a pro-am tournament on 12 July, resulting in three tournament days which conclude with the pro-am final on 16 July, with the tournament final at 2 pm on the same day. Booking opens for this unique trophy championship on 15 May.

Real tennis is an ancient game, sometimes referred to as the “game of kings, the king of games”. Undoubtedly a royal sport, it is the forerunner of the game of lawn tennis (by which we understand the modern term of ‘tennis’ today) and is known as ‘court tennis’ in the United States, as ‘royal tennis’ in Australia and as ‘courte-paume’ in France. The ‘courte-paume’ (literally, “palm game”) is derived from the older ‘jeu de paume’, a ball and palm game, which was popularised in France and was initially played without racquets, although these were introduced later. Its earliest forms had the players hitting the ball with their bare hands – a kind of aristocratic precursor to volleyball – until gradually, gloves were added to the game after which a type of paddle-bat or ‘battoir’ was used.

Real tennis is still played today at a number of select special courts in the United States, UK and in France, there being less than fifty of their kind worldwide, 26 real tennis courts being numbered in the UK alone, the highest amount in any one country or state. Although the word ‘real’ is thought to have been a variation of the word ‘royal’, which harked back to the game’s popularity among royalty and nobility since the medieval period into the 16th and 17th centuries, the term ‘real tennis’ also appears to have been used into the 19th century to distinguish it from ‘lawn tennis’, as players of real tennis today tend to refer to their game as ‘tennis’, ‘lawn tennis’ being indicative instead of the familiar, modern racquet sport.

Real tennis was played by English royalty with enthusiasm, King Henry VIII being a notable example. Tudor balls for real tennis were made of stuffed leather, but today they are covered with wool cloth which is hand-sewn onto the ball’s core, nine dozen making an exact set. The Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court Palace dates mostly from 1625, from the reign of Charles I – who was a particularly talented player and had his own special tennis attire designed for him, in various luxury materials such as silks, velvets and satins, worn together with sports stockings and shoes. Three of the new walls of the Court date from the 1620’s, while the other dates from the time of Cardinal Wolsey, who had the first tennis court built here between 1526-1529. Other members of the Royal Family that have played tennis here include Prince Albert, the Prince Consort – who went there in 1848 – and although the locker that he used still bears the plaque which reserved it for him, the Prince did not become a regular player as the result of his visit. Today, The Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court is home to a Club of over 500 members and according to the Royal Tennis Court’s website, HRH The Earl of Wessex has also played here.

Royal examples of real tennis courts outside of that at Hampton Court include the oldest surviving of its kind in Britain at the Renaissance palace of Falkland in Fife, Scotland. Falkland Palace was built by the Scottish Kings James IV and James V – the latter the father of Mary, Queen of Scots – and it would seem reasonable to assume that Mary, Queen of Scots also played tennis here. European examples are The Jeu de Paume Tennis Court, which was built in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris in the 17th century and, following its use as a storage facility for confiscated works of art during the German occupation of France, the Court became a Museum after the close of World War II and is today known as the ‘Galerie Nationale de l’Image’, which showcases the history of photography and video, as explored in multimedia form. Another notable example of a real tennis court in France is the famous ‘jeu de paume’ Court at the royal palace of Fontainebleau. Although originally constructed in the reign of Henry IV, it was rebuilt in 1732 following an earlier fire and restored again in 1812. Tournaments also take place at Fontainebleau, as indeed they will now do also at Hampton Court Palace.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.

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