The first ‘real tennis’ court at Hampton Court was built by Cardinal Wolsey between 1526-29. Today’s court, which still boasts one of Wolsey’s original walls, is one of around 50 still in use around the world, which is why the sport, the forerunner of the modern game, is closely associated with the Tudor period. Henry VIII was a keen sportsman in his youth and loved playing tennis. He proved such a smash that in 1519, the Venetian ambassador had commented: “It was the prettiest thing in the world to see him play.”
Real tennis, also called royal tennis, was based on a game in 12th-century France where players used their hands to bat the ball around. Over the years, the racquets were added, the rules were developed, and the reasons why the scoring of points went 15, 30, 45 (later changed to 40) were lost.
The game was played on indoor courts with high walls – that the ball could be hit off, as in squash – sloping roofs, viewing galleries, lots of lines on the floor marking where the ball can land, and, of course, a net across the middle.
Only the wealthy could gain access to such sophisticated playing areas. !e rules of real tennis could fill this entire magazine, but generally it shares a lot with tennis today. Points win games, games win sets (the first to six, usually, but sometimes nine) and sets win matches.
This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed