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 punish ing salvo to the world champion’s backhand. Ronaldson shuffles into the corner and, feigning a shot to the grille, catches Davies fiat-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-and racket 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 thirteenth century 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 thick-handled 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 calledjeu depaume 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.)