The Royal Tennis Court
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The Game


Photo Sphere of The Royal Tennis Court

But canstow playen racket, to and fro?
— Troilus and Criseyda, Chaucer

The rules of tennis have not changed for centuries. Stripped of its special rules for serving and chases, the game is simple to understand. Each player strives to get the ball over the net and in doing so may use any wall - as in squash. The scoring is the same as in lawn tennis (15, 30, 40, deuce, advantage), except that the score of the winner of the last point, and not that of the server, is called first. A set is won by the first player to win six games. So, if the score is five games all, there is a final deciding game. At the conclusion of each game the winner of that game has his score called first.

As in lawn tennis singles or doubles can be played. The length of the Royal Tennis Court is approximately one and a half times the length of a lawn tennis court: its width a fraction more than the width of a doubles Lawn Tennis Court. Halfway between the two ends a net stretches from side to side of the court. In the centre the height of the net is the same as a Lawn Tennis net. At either end the net is higher, in fact, five foot.

Various features of a tennis court are still known by their original French names. Thus the long opening at the end of the service side of the court (behind which spectators can sit and watch a game) is known as the "Dedans". At the opposite end of the court the buttress projecting from the wall is known as the "tambour" and the wooden opening near it is called the "grille". These details are shown on the court plan:

Plan of a real tennis court

Plan of a real tennis court


To see Good Tennis! What divine joy
Can fill our leisure, or our minds employ?
Let other people play at other things;
The King of Games is still the Game of Kings
— Parker's Piece, J.K. Stephen

The game of tennis is the same everywhere. The name given to the game differs in different countries. In Great Britain it is called Tennis or, to distinguish it from Lawn Tennis, Real Tennis or Royal Tennis. In the USA it is called Court Tennis: in France Jeu de Paume (hand ball): and in Australia Royal Tennis. The various names throw light on the development of the game. Tennis was played in 5th century Tuscany when villagers used to strike balls up and down the streets with bare hands.

In Great Britain, as in France, royal patronage ensured the continued popularity of the game. French Kings in the 16th century and Stuart Kings in the 17th century were enthusiastic players. George IV (1763-1830), Prince Albert (1819-1861) - there is a locker in the changing room at Hampton Court Palace which still bears his name - Edward VII (1842-1910) and George V (1866-1936) have all supported the game.

Lawn Tennis, which derived from Real Tennis in about 1874, is played on a marked-out surface without side or end walls. Court Tennis, to use the American name for Tennis, indicates that Tennis is played in a specially court with walls on four sides.

No two tennis courts are exactly alike. That at Hampton Court is marginally wider than others. Other differences occur in the width or angle of the penthouse roof above the corridor and in the width of the tambour.

The number of courts has risen in the last thirty years. There are now 27 in Britain, 10 in the USA, 3 in France and 6 in Australia. Despite there being no more than a few thousand Tennis players in the world, they make up in keeness for any lack in numbers. There are amateur, professional open and world competitions.

Service & Chases

His present, and your pains, we thank you for:
When we have match’d our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God’s grace play a set,
Shall strike his father’s crown into the Hazard:
Tell him, he made a match with such a wrangler, That all the Courts of France will be disturb’d with chases.
— Henry V, Shakespeare

The game is begun by a service which is always from the same end of the court (the service side). The opposite end of the court where the receiver stands is called the hazard side. The service does not alternate with each game as in lawn tennis. The server changes ends and ceases to serve only when a chase has been laid. The meaning of a chase will be explained below. To be a valid service the ball has to touch the penthouse roof at least once on the hazard side of the net and drop in the service court. If it does not touch the penthouse roof or if it hits a window or the roof it will be a fault. A second serve is available, as in lawn tennis.

A chase is laid on the floor where the ball bounces for the second time, other than in the winning area on the hazard size, without being hit by the player. On the service side a chase is laid wherever the ball bounces for a second time. On the hazard side a hazard chase is laid if the ball bounces the second time between the net and the line parallel to it furthest from the net. If it lands a second time between that line and the back wall, it is a point for the server.

The galleries on either side of the net also count as chases with the exception on the hazard side of the winning gallery. If the ball enters the winning gallery after crossing the net, either without touching the floor or after one bounce, it is a point for the server. Other winning openings which provide outright winners are the dedans on the service side and the grille on the hazard side.

If a chase is laid, the point is not won by that shot, and instead the point is kept in abeyance until the player changes ends. When the players change end, the receiver (who was previously the server) has to beat the chase. The players change ends if two chases have been laid or if one player reaches game point and there is one chase. If it is a hazard chase, the receiver will beat the chase by playing any shot which the server cannot return, either on the floor or by hitting one of the galleries on the service side. If it is a service chase, the receiver will beat the chase by the second bounce landing nearer the back wall than where the chase was laid. To assist in determining where precisely a ball bounces the second time, lines are marked on the floor at intervals of one yard. The figures above the lines on the opposite wall show the number of yards measured, on the service side, from the back wall and, on the hazard side, from the service line. The nearer a chase on the service side is to the back wall, the more difficult it is to beat.

When the players change ends, the first point to be played is the chase. The marker will call out the chase which the receiver hopes to beat. If the chase is exactly on a yard line, the marker will call out the number of yards, eg "chase 2 and 3" means two and a half yards from the back wall. If the chase falls between a yard and a half-yard line, the marker will call out "better than" or "worse than" the yard line, depending on whether the ball fell nearer the back wall, or further from the back wall, than the yard line. If the ball went into a gallery, the marker calls out the name of that gallery, eg the Last Gallery. Each gallery has a line on the floor opposite to the centre of the gallery. If the chase is laid on the floor between galleries, the marker calls out "better / worse than" say, the Second Gallery.

The Skill of Tennis

The exercises that I have you to use.... are running, leaping, wrestling, fencing, dauncing, and playing at caitche or tennise.
— King James I, to his son

It can be said with some justification that tennis is the most difficult of all ball games to play. A correspondent of The Times newspaper described it as "running, jumping and hitting chess". The reason is that since the ball is solid, it can be hit hard and fast and can be spun in all directions. Furthermore the angle of wall and floor and the peculiar hazard of the tambour (which diverts the ball across the court) makes an inexperienced player very uncertain in which direction a ball will travel. Finally the racket head is small and to hit the ball in the middle of the racket is at all times extremely difficult. To spectators it may seem easy to hit the ball. To players it often seems unbelievably difficult.

If the ball is undercut, then, when it strikes the wall at the other end of the court it will drop sharply downwards, making it difficult to return. For this reason good players cut the ball and do not, as in lawn tennis, top spin the ball which causes it to bounce high off the back wall and presents an easy shot to the opponent. The winning openings provide both players with ever present opportunities of winning points; and the tambour is tactically very important since a ball hitting it will change direction abruptly through about 90°.


The players can, as in lawn tennis, score for themselves. But, as some of the other pages have shown, to remember the score correctly requires effort and to mark a chase accurately requires skill. For these reasons a marker who shelters in the box adjoining the net is a great help. Originally the "marqueurs" were apprentices to the "paumiers" or ball-markers.

Today the markers are the court professionals. There are at present about 50 professionals in Great Britain and about 30 professionals in other countries, or unattached touring professionals. The continued existence of the game is largely to be ascribed to their efforts since they train successive generations of players. Furthermore they have been leading exponents of the game and often world champions.

Balls and Racquets

The barber’s man hath been seen with him; and the old ornament of his cheek hath already stuffed tennis balls.
— Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare

A tennis ball is solid. The balls are hand made by a process which has changed little since the 15th century and hardly at all since the 18th century. A full set of balls is nine dozen. Each ball contains a core wrapped around with some thirteen yards of webbing in half inch widths. The webbing having been wetted is tightly wound like wool into a ball and is then moulded on a special bench into a spherical shape. When moulded, the ball is then tied with twine, again on an attachment fitted to the special bench, the process being repeated three times before a ball tightly bound with only triangles of webbing showing through the binding is ready for covering. The covering is made of wool cloth which is hand sewn on to the core with thin thread. In view of the heavy use to which most balls are put, each ball will have to be re-covered about once a month. The core, however, rarely wears out. Many balls in use today started their life over a century ago. It used to be said that the uniform of French prisoners-of-war imprisoned in England during the Napoleonic Wars 1799-1815 was used with great success in making the balls for the Royal Tennis Court.

A whole set of tennis balls should be made by the same person to achieve consistency of weight and bounce. For many years the professionals at the tennis court at Lord's Cricket Ground, London, have been supplying hand-made tennis balls for tennis courts in Great Britain, the USA and Australia.

Recently a rubber composite ball has been introduced as a substitute ball. The advantages of the composite ball are that it is cheaper than the hand-made ball and has a truer bounce. On the other hand, the composite ball wears out and cannot be recovered and seems to be a little heavier than the hand-made ball because it has less give.

The shape of a tennis racquet has changed little over the last century. It seems heavy and cumbrous. However this is necessary since the balls are solid and heavy. A light framed racquet would be quickly broken by the weight of the balls. The curious shape of the head of the racquet"is designed to help the player to cut the ball by having a large area of strings across which a ball can sweep diagonally.

Usually the racquet is held halfway up the handle so as to balance the weight of the head against the handle. This means that the player has to move more rapidly to get near enough to the ball to hit it. On the other hand the fifth Marquess of Salisbury, passionately fond of playing tennis, used a racquet with a handle which he had made longer to compensate for his increasing lack of mobility as he aged.

Tennis racquets are usually made from hickory or ash. Heavy sheep gut is commonly used for the strings of a racquet. It is interesting to note that, before the invention of a new method of stringing a tennis racquet in 1856, the old way of stringing consisted of looping the side strings round the main strings. This produced a rough and smooth effect in the strings and hence came the practice of calling "rough" or "smooth" to win the toss at the beginning of a lawn tennis match.