Playing Real Tennis

Real tennis is the original racket sport from which the modern game of lawn tennis (and most other racket games), is descended.

Origins of real tennis

RT History

Real Tennis has its origins in Europe and started as a form of handball played by monks in the cloisters of French and Italian monasteries in the 11th century. It has evolved over the centuries, although the game’s main features – the court, the rackets, balls, scoring system and other rules – have been standardised since around 1600. It is thought the monastic style buildings of the Middle Ages lent themselves to games played within the quadrangles and games that utilised the walls. The balls were first made from the monks’ discarded robes.

Among the English kings Henry VII, Henry VIII, Charles I and Charles II and James II are all known to have played. Henry VIII was responsible for The Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court Palace in England. This is the oldest indoor court in use today and was built by Charles I in 1625 (on the site of Henry VIII’s earlier court). While the world's oldest tennis court still in use is at Falkland Palace Scotland, built for James V of Scotland in 1539, and is unique in being the only active real tennis court without a roof.

Interest in the game spread to Australia and North America in the 19th century. A court was built in Davey Street, Hobart, in 1875 and in Boston in the USA just one year later. The Melbourne Tennis Club was established in Exhibition Street, Melbourne, in 1882.

New real tennis courts are being built, and there are an ever-increasing number of new players, including a substantial number of converts from lawn tennis and squash. The newest courts are at Radley College near Oxford UK (2008), the Racquet Club of Chicago, US (2012), Wellington College, Berkshire UK (2016) and Jeu de Paume Bordeaux, France (2020).

Real Tennis World Championship

The Real Tennis World Championship is the longest running continuous world championship of any sport, with the first champion being Clergé, The Elder who held the title from 1740 to 1765.

Australia’s first real tennis World Champion was Judith Clarke who won the women’s World Championship in 1984.

Australia held the men’s World Championship for nearly 30 years thanks to the formidable achievements of Wayne Davies (1987-1994) and Robert Fahey (1994-2014, 2018-2022). Robert is a former HRTC and RMTC professional, defended the title for a remarkable 20 years and regained the title in 2018 against Camden Riviere from the US. Camden had won his first World Championship in 2016, and then regained the title in 2022.

The current women’s World Champion is Claire Fahey (née Claire Vigrass) from the UK. Claire won her first world championship in 2011 at RMTC and continues to raise the bar for women’s tennis.

The court

RMTC Court 201120

Click here for a larger version of the court layout in a new window.

A real tennis court is enclosed by walls on all four sides, three of which have sloping roofs, known as “penthouses,” beneath which are various openings (“galleries”) from which spectators can watch the game. There is also a buttress (tambour) which intrudes into the playing area off which shots may be played.

The length of a real 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 and then rises to a height of five feet at either end.

Rules of Play

The rules of tennis have not changed much for centuries. Stripped of 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 is called first, and not that of the server (for reasons that become obvious once you start to play the game).

The first player to win 6 games wins a set. So, if the score is 5 games all, there is a final deciding game. At the conclusion of each game, the winner of that game has his or her score called first. As in most racket games, singles or doubles can be played, although given the court and nature of play, real tennis doubles is an especially fascinating game.

Whilst there is no universal set of real tennis rules accepted at all courts, the closest we have are the UK rules that are documented on the web site of the International Real Tennis Professionals Association (IRTPA).

In addition to these rules, you need to know of any local rules for the club you are playing at. The RMTC has a local rule: if a ball goes over the girders supporting the roof, but does not hit them or the roof, and does not otherwise go Out of Court, then the ball is in play.

Serving and Chases

RMTC Chases

The service is always made from the same end of the court (the "service" end); a good service must touch the side penthouse (above and to the left of the server) on or over the white service line on the receiver's ("hazard") side before touching the floor in a marked area on that side. There are numerous and widely varying styles of service.

Corresponding chase lines extend from the centres of the side galleries on both service and hazard ends, including the first, door, second and last. Gallery posts and the net post are marked with circles. Shaded areas are the winning openings, the dedans, grille, and winning gallery. Click here for a larger version of the court layout.

When the ball bounces twice on the floor at the service end, the serving player does not generally lose the point. Instead a "chase" is called where the ball made its second bounce and the server gets the chance, later in the game, to "play off" the chase by swapping to the receiving end. To win the chase being played off, their shot's second bounce must be further from the net (closer to the back wall) than the shot they originally failed to reach.

A chase can also be called at the receiving ("hazard") end, but only on the half of that end nearest the net; this is called a "hazard" chase.

Chases sounds much more complex than they really are; the key is to play a few times with an experienced player or pro and it becomes quite a natural way to swap from receiver to server.


RMTC Handicap

Real tennis is unusual in having a handicap system that is used globally to allow players of all levels to challenge each other to a competitive game. There are no fixed limits to handicaps; although most are in the range 10 to 80, which is actually negative or minus (ie. '-10' to '-80'). The very best players, have positive handicaps better than zero - these handicaps are prefixed by 'plus' (e.g. '+ 17’ is the handicap for the world No. 1 Camden Riviere as at Nov 2020).

When you play, the difference between your handicap and your opponent's handicap determines the starting score for each game.

If you're not sure, the RMTC Online Booking System will tell you your handicap, and your opponent's handicap, and the starting score for each game in your match. Tables on the Club notice board, and by the entrance to each court, show the start score for each game. Or ask the Pros if in doubt.

Handicaps are tracked on Real Tennis Online (RTO).

Getting On Court

RMTC Getting On Court

Your scheduled start time is determined by what court you are playing:

  • George Limb (North) Court games start on the hour;
  • Alan Hamer (South) Court games start on the half hour.

It is a courtesy to be ready to play 5 minutes before, and wait in the Dedans for your start time. To select an end one player usually spins a racket and the other calls 'forehand' or ‘backhand' (refers to which face a right-hander would hit a ball with). The winner of the spin can choose whether to serve or receive (99% of the time the decision is to serve).

The server takes the basket of balls to the Dedans, and the receiver waits by the net post to receive the empty basket.

After each point, the server should announce the score or chase.

When changing ends, the new receiver should tell the new server the score and the chases. Then, just before playing a chase, the server should announce the chase.

It is considered the responsibility of the loser of the match to enter the results into the RT Online booking (RTBooking) system to maintain accurate handicaps.

Conduct and Dress

RMTC Ethos

At RMTC all clothes, and caps, worn on court must be predominantly white. This includes wearing predominantly white clothing without imprinted designs or advertising. If designs or advertising marks are imprinted on the clothing, such marks should not be overt or offensive.

Footwear with non-marking soles must always be worn on all courts. If tennis shoes have been worn elsewhere, members should ensure that there is no grit caught in the soles which could damage the court surface. If in doubt as to the suitability of footwear, check with one of the Professionals. Note: suitable footwear and on-court clothing is available for purchase from the Pro Shop.

During all forms of play, including tournaments, members agree:

  • to respect the game of real tennis
  • to maintain the highest standards of behaviour and etiquette on and off the court, and
  • to display the highest degree of sportsmanship and to avoid acts that are unsporting or may diminish respect for the game.

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