The Royal & Ancient Game of Tennis: A Short History

by Allison Danzig

An etching of people playing Royal Tennis

Compliments of The United States Court Tennis Association & The United States Court Tennis Preservation Foundation

IF PERCHANCE you read that Pierre Etchebaster and Jay Gould were the two greatest tennis players of the past half century, quite understandably, gentle reader, you might rise in righteous wrath to demand, “Pierre who? Jay who? What about Tilden, Budge, Cochet, Lacoste, Perry, Kramer, Laver, Gonzales, Rosewall?”

And you would be perfectly justified – unless you are an Englishman. For “tennis” in England does not mean the same thing it does in the United States. There it is the name of a game going back to the Middle Ages. When the British refer to the sport in which Tilden, Laver, et al excelled, they are talking about lawn tennis – whether it is played on a lawn, on clay, dirt, cement, asphalt, concrete, wood, or a composition surface.

What the British call “tennis” (also known to them as real tennis or royal tennis) is labeled “court tennis” in the United States. It was in this game that Gould and Etchebaster were supreme, and it is the game from which lawn tennis was derived late in the 19th century.

Whereas it is estimated that 12 million Americans today play lawn tennis on one or more of the many surfaces available, the game of court tennis is virtually unknown in this country, except to approximately one thousand men and women who play it on ten courts – all in the East and costing well up in six figures each – and to their families and friends.

But it is a fascinating game of ingenious complexity, challenging the mental and physical powers of the players as do few other games. Strange nomenclature, standardized opening and abutments in the enclosures in which it is played, an inexhaustible variety of strokes – all add to the intriguing quality of the game.

Tennis was the game of Napoleon, Henry VIII, and many other of Europe’s leading monarchs; it was played in the Louvre and at Versailles, and is mentioned in literature more than any other sport.

It has been said of court tennis that it is a game of moving chess, that it combines the exactitude of billiards, the hand-eye coordination of lawn tennis, and the generalship and quick judgment of polo.

A game of singles at the Racquet and Tennis Club in Manhattan.

When Maj. William C Winfield invented lawn tennis in 1874, its royal ancestor was already centuries old. Today, millions play lawn tennis and a handful of men and women keep the original game alive.

Like lawn tennis, court tennis is played by two contestants (four in doubles) with racquets and balls on a court divided by a sagging net, and the scoring is virtually the same in the two games. There the similarities end. Not only are the court, racquet, and ball all different from those used in lawn tennis, but the rules of play are so complex and different that the lawn tennis player is baffled on first sight of action in the ancient game.

Terms such as penthouse – as well as dedans, tambour, grille, winning gallery, hazard, giraffe, railroad, chase the door, chase better than a half, chase more than a yard worse than last gallery – describe strokes and features of the play, and add to the mystery of the game.

The court is an indoor, four-walled structure of concrete. There are numerous openings in the walls, and a “penthouse” or roofed shed runs along one sidewall and both endwalls.

In playing the game, the service must first strike on the penthouse roof, and thereafter the ball may be played off the floor, in midair, off the shed roof or the walls of the court. Points are scored in some ways similar to lawn tennis, as when the ball goes into the net or out of bounds, or hits on second bounce in certain areas of the court. But points are also scored by hitting the ball into openings in the walls.

On top of these wrinkles to the game is one known as the chase, the “divine chase” as one enthusiast called it, in which by precise placement of the ball one player can defer final decision of a point to a new situation (the chase) in which his opponent’s field and options of play are severely limited. (Play of the game is illustrated on the following pages.)

While strength and stamina are important, accuracy and strategy are keys to successful play.

Laying down difficult chases is the heart of the game, and to do this calls for skill in cutting the ball down with the characteristic court tennis stroke, imparting spin to keep it low and make it fall near the endwall on second bounce. Length of stroke pays off as in lawn tennis, but too much depth results in the ball striking the floor so near the endwall as to rebound from the wall far out in the court to establish a chase (or deferred point) not difficult to beat.

Jay Gould, U.S. amateur champion from 1906 until he retired in 1926, champion of England in 1907 and 1908, and winner over world open champion G. F. Covey of Britain in their 1914 challenge match in Philadelphia, was particularly feared for his ability to lay down chase “better than a half” (or within half a yard of the endwall), as well as for his “railroad” service.

Pierre Etchebaster of France, world open champion from 1928 until he retired undefeated in 1954, and a resident of this country for virtually all those years and since, was masterful in his artistry in playing the floor game. Tom Pettitt, who came to this country from England at the age of 12 in 1876 and won the world championship in 1885 in Hampton Court, England, was a tremendous hitter who relied less on finesse and touch than on power and accuracy in attacking the winning openings.

The origin of court tennis is shrouded in antiquity. Its beginnings have been traced all the way back to the fertility rites of the Egyptians and Persians, in which the ball was the symbol of fertility. As long ago as 450 B.C. Herodotus referred to tennis. More definitely, the game of today began to take shape many centuries later as a pastime of monks and other ecclesiasts in France.

In the formative period of the game it was played outdoors and the ball was struck with the hand. The racquet was not introduced until early in the 16th century, after the use of a glove, then thong bindings, and next a paddle, known as a battoir when a handle was added. The name of the game was jeu de paume (game of the palm).

The game in the open air was being played at least as early as the 12th century, when it was mentioned by ecclesiastical writers. A bishop about 1200 was reprimanded for neglecting evensong to play tennis, and in 1245 the Archbishop of Rouen prohibited priests of France from playing jeu de paume. Private courts were built as the game became secularized, the earliest on record being at Poitiers in 1230.

The introduction of paume into towns and its confinement in indoor courts there marked one of the great changes in the game, leading to its wide appeal. Walled-in courts were built in the latter part of the 14th century. Charles V built one in the palace of the Louvre in 1368. In time these indoor courts were known as jeu de courte paume (short tennis), while outdoors they were called jeu de longue paume (long tennis).

The indoor courts, as Malcolm Whitman concluded after years of careful research in writing his Tennis Origins and Mysteries, appears to have been a gradual evolution from rooms of various shapes in many types of structure – cathedrals, cloisters, chateaux, castles, moats, and even cowsheds. Relics of these medieval structures are found in the modern court, with features supposedly reminiscent of church architecture in the present-day court’s tambour (flying buttress), grille (buttery hatch), penthouse (part of cloisters), and galleries (cowsheds).

From being the game of bishops, priests, and monks, paume became the pastime of monarchs and the royalty surrounding them and was taken up in the towns in gambling establishments. It became so popular and public gambling was so widespread and for such enormous stakes that in 1369 Charles V restricted the playing of the game in Paris.

From France tennis was introduced into England, supposedly by French cavaliers by way of coastal towns. That the game was well established by the latter half of the 14th century is evident from the enactment in 1365 of statutes against playing it and other games in England. These restrictions affected servants and laborers, but not the upper classes.

During the reign of the Tudors – Henry VII and VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth I – tennis achieved its greatest vogue in England, with royalty and gentlemen of the court devoted to it. During the period of the Stuarts, beginning with James I in 1603, its popularity continued. In France too the game flourished in the 1500s and 1600s, and it was the pastime of all classes in both countries, as well as in Germany, Spain, Italy, and other countries of Southern Europe. In 1600 the Venetian ambassador to France wrote that there were 1,800 courts in Paris alone.

In England, with the country plunged in civil war during the rebellion in the reign of Charles I (1625-1649), the tennis courts were deserted and remained so during the period of the Commonwealth, with Puritans frowning on amusement of any kind. But with the Restoration and accession of Charles II, the Cromwellian asceticism ended and tennis was the pastime of the upper and middle classes for the rest of the 1600s and in the 1700s.

With the rise of professionalism, heavy betting on the matches and swindling brought the game on public courts into disrepute in the latter half of the 1700s in both England and France. The Revolution and the downfall of the monarchy and aristocracy were virtually the death knell of the game in France, almost every court being closed, and in England the game was played only by the upper classes.

In both England and France the game picked up in the 1800s. In France there was a definite recovery during the time of Napoleon III, especially with the reopening of Versailles in 1885 for use as a tennis court. (Today it stands as a museum dedicated to the French Revolution.)

In 1862 Napoleon gave permission to build the Jeu de Paume in the Tuileries Gardens near the Place de la Concorde. A second court was added in 1880 and the two courts were headquarters of the game in Paris until closed in 1907 to become exhibition halls, which were remodeled in 1958 as a museum for impressionist paintings. To replace the courts, amateurs built new ones at Rue Lauriston, where competition for the Coupe de Paris was inaugurated in 1910.

Jeu de paume is still played there, along with squash racquets, by a small group of British, American, and French members, but the game has never since remotely approached the wide popularity it knew in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The spectacular rise of the French Basque, Pierre Etchebaster, to become world champion in 1928, six years after he took up the game, stimulated a revival at Rue Lauriston. There was a revival too at Bordeaux, and at Pau. In Italy few traces remain of the old game.

Whitman reproduced a proclamation dated 1659 by Peter Stuyvesant as governor of New York, proscribing the playing of tennis and other games during divine services on a day of fasting and prayer.

In England many private courts were built in the 19th century; prior to World War I there were close to 100. Since then mounting taxes and the closing of large estates led to most of the courts being dismantled or becoming idle. But a small loyal following of enthusiasts keeps the game alive in about 25 club and private courts.

In the United States the game was thought to have first been played in 1876 when Hollis Hunnewell and Nathaniel Thayer, who had played the game in England, brought an English professional, Ted Hunt, home with them from Oxford. They built a court in Buckingham Street in the Back Bay section of Boston and put Hunt in charge of it, assisted by the 12-year-old Tom Pettitt, who came with Hunt.

But in 1932 Malcolm Whitman, in his Tennis Origins and Mysteries, disclosed that court tennis had been played here more than 200 years earlier. Whitman reproduced a proclamation dated 1659 by Peter Stuyvesant as governor of New York, proscribing the playing of tennis and other games during divine services on a day of fasting and prayer, October 16. The proclamation was found in the archives of the city hall in Amsterdam, Holland.

Whitman also printed an advertisement from the New York Gazette of April 4, 1763, announcing the public auction of a house which “had a very fine tennis court.” There is no description of this court, and the 1876 Boston court remains the first in the U.S. of which anything definite can be said.

There is no record of how many people played the game in America in colonial days and in the 1700s. Probably only a few, and in the modern era since 1876 the game never has had a following of more than a few people belonging to exclusive clubs or having the privilege of playing in private courts. Following the opening of the court in Boston in 1876, the next one in the U.S. was built in 1880 at the Newport Casino in Rhode Island, where the first championship of the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Association was also held, a year later.

A second court was built in Boston in 1888 at the Boston Athletic Association. In New York, the Racquet Court Club, opened in 1876, merged in the Racquet and Tennis Club and moved. It added a court tennis court in its new quarters in 1891 and a second 13 years later. In 1918 the club moved again into its present quarters at 370 Park Avenue and built two new courts, one of which, the East Court, is the most famous in the country.

The game was introduced in Chicago in 1893. In 1900 the Tuxedo Club in Tuxedo Park, New York, opened a court. The same year George Gould, the financier, built a private court on his estate at Lakewood, New Jersey. It was here that his son, Jay Gould, at the age of 12, was taught the game by Frank Forester, an English professional.

Gould reigned as amateur champion of the U.S. from 1906 through 1925, and in 1914 defeated G. F. Covey, an English professional, in a challenge match for the world open championship, the first amateur ever to win a title match.

In 1902 a court was opened at the Myopia Hunt Club at Hamilton, Massachusetts, and a semi-private court, sponsored by William C. Whitney, was opened in Aiken, South Carolina. A third Boston court was built in 1904. Philadelphia, one of the leading centers of the game today, was not introduced to court tennis until 1907. The next year Harvard became the only American university to have a court. It was operated by private owners for the use of students.

A third private court was built in 1909, on the estate of Clarence H. Mackay in Roslyn, Long Island. Surpassing the Mackay court and all others in its appointments was the one Payne Whitney opened in 1915 on his Greentree estate in Manhasset, Long Island.

In 1923 a new court was opened at the Chicago Racquet Club, and it was not until 1997 that the next new court was built and opened at The Regency Sport and Health Club in suburban Washington, D.C.

The courts now in use number ten – two at the Racquet and Tennis Club in New York, one each at the Philadelphia Racquet Club, The Boston Tennis and Racquet Club, The Tuxedo Club, The National Tennis Court at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, (restored in 1980) the new court at the Regency Club near Washington, D.C., and two private courts – The Georgian Court in Lakewood, New Jersey, (restored in 1982) and Greentree, the Whitney court owned by Mrs. John Hay Whitney.

The U.S. amateur court tennis championship was started in 1892 and was won by Richard D. Sears (winner also of the first championship in lawn tennis in 1881). The great U.S. amateur court tennis players, in addition to Gould, have been Alastair B. Martin, Northrop Knox, Ogden Phipps, George H. (Pete) Bostwick Jr., James Bostwick, and James H. Van Alen.

Gould, Knox, and the Bostwick brothers have also ruled as world champions, Jimmy Bostwick being the current title holder since dethroning his brother in 1972. Tom Pettitt was the first player from this country to win the world crown, and the Frenchman, Etchebaster, has lived in the U.S. since he won the title in 1928. He resigned as champion in 1954. The world championship is determined not by a regular tournament, but by challenge of the reigning titleist.

The game in the United States is directed by the U.S. Court Tennis Association, organized in 1955 “to act as a central coordinating authority between the member clubs and all amateur and professional players, so as to foster and promote the game of court tennis.”

William L. (Sammy) Van Alen of Philadelphia was president from the association’s founding until 1971, when he retired. He had been winner of the U.S. doubles title in 1940 with his brother, James H.

Van Alen, who was thrice U.S. singles champion and was also president of the National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame.

In 1971, William Van Alen was succeeded as association president by John E. Slater, who had played lawn tennis at the Longwood Cricket Club and squash racquets at the Union Boat Club in Boston after being on the Cornell tennis team as an undergraduate.

“New converts are coming to the sport regularly,” Slater has said. “Mostly from squash, but once someone who’s tried racquets or squash or lawn tennis has tried this, he’s hooked. This is as challenging as trying to go to the Masters for a golfer.”

Mr. Slater resigned in 1988 and for the past ten years the USCTA president has been Edward J. Hughes of Bedminster, New Jersey. Hughes, a former college basketball player and lawn tennis professional, had been told of the game by his father, but first played the game of court tennis at the restored court at Newport in 1981.

While court tennis goes back more than three centuries in this country, its offspring lawn tennis only celebrated its centennial in 1974. The game was unveiled in Wales in December 1873 and patented under the name of “Sphairistike,” or lawn tennis, by Maj. Walter C. Wingfield. British officers brought the game to Bermuda, where an American, Mary Ewing Outerbridge, acquired a set including a net, racquets, and balls. Her brother, who was secretary of the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club, got permission for her to set up the hourglass-shaped court of that day at the club in 1874. The court has, of course, since become rectangular in shape.

By the 1920s the U.S. had produced the player generally ranked as the greatest of all time, William T. Tilden 2nd. (Tilden was one of only three men to win the U.S. singles title seven times; the other two were the first champion, Richard Sears, and William Larned.

Today lawn tennis is played across the U.S. and in a hundred nations of the world, and has been undergoing a phenomenal growth since the sanctioning in 1968 of open tournaments in which amateurs can compete with professionals.

But for all the present-day popularity of lawn tennis, it has yet to develop the legends that attach to its parent, court tennis.

Not only was tennis the sport of Wellington and of Napoleon and scores of French and British kings, but it figures as well in the history and literature of Europe.

Court tennis was played in the court at Versailles where in 1789 the deputies of the Tiers Etat took the famous Serment du Jeu de Paume, or Tennis Court Oath, never to abandon their efforts until they had given a constitution to France.

Shakespeare mentioned the game in six of his plays. In Henry V, the king’s answer to the French Dauphin’s slight in sending him a ton of tennis balls is the most quoted reference. Chaucer, Erasmus, Edmund Spenser, Rabelais, Pepys, Gower, Chapman, Rousseau, Ben Jonson, John Locke, Montaigne, and Galsworthy are among the men of letters who made mention of tennis.

France’s Louis X was reported to have died in 1316 from a chill contracted while playing tennis. England’s Henry VIII, one of the keenest players among the monarchs, had an elegant blue and black velvet jacket that made his reddish hair all the more vivid. The story is that he was playing tennis when Ann Boleyn went to the block in the Tower of London.

In 1767, the French Royal Academy of Science adopted a formal description of the game and a statement declared it “the only game which can rank in the list of arts and crafts.” A writer in the London Spectator in 1912 declared of the sport, “It is not only the sum of ball games. It is the absolute in games. No one, it is probable, has yet sounded the depths of court tennis, and players of the greatest genius cannot master its fine potentialities.”

The above article was originally published by the Cornell Alumni News in April of 1974. ©1974 Cornell Alumni Association. It was issued as an authorized reprint by the United States Court Tennis Association in 1976, and has been re-edited and updated with the permission of the Danzig estate, USCTA Publications Committee ©1997. No part of this reprint can be copied, edited, altered or reproduced in any form without the written consent of the USCTA and the USCTPF. It has been reproduced again in 1997 for distribution to those who are interested in discovering more about the game of court tennis in America and around the world.