Many thanks to David Lowry for bringing this to our attention. Originally appeared on p.24 of the Sport section.
Anyone for real tennis?
Johnny Watterson gets the low-down on an ancient game as Ireland's only real tennis court faces demolition
They say that a gaggle of monks, cracking a ball around the cloisters in an abbey to break the boredom of monastic life, might have given birth to the game of real tennis. The game's advocates argue that it is just that — real tennis — the ancient forerunner to the comparatively modern pursuit of Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis.
Not surprisingly, the monks were told to pray more and play less but the game had already taken flight. So much so that the sport can now produce lists dating back to 1740 when a Mr Clarge's hand was raised in the air as world champion.
But real tennis, which might only have crept into people's consciousness through short scenes written into English period dramas or Merchant Ivory productions to convey a sense of mild eccentricity or blue-blooded exclusivity, may come across to some as a museum piece in terms of popular sporting culture.
Certainly the Office of Pubilc Works (OPW) take that view as they prepare to demolish the only surviving court in Ireland to make way for what is sure to be a splendid 320-seat recital hall.
But those in Cumman Leadoige na hEireann (Irish Real Tennis Association), fighting a campaign to have the marble-floored court in Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin restored to its former glory as a sporting venue, feel differently and believe that, aside from the importance of the court as a piece of Irish heritage, the game also has vigour.
Understanding that, in cultural terms, sport invariably plays the role of quasimodo to the higher art's Lear or Hamlet, a recital hall, to some ears, has a more lively ring to it than a neglected musty court built by a rich Dubliner called Guinness. Why else, after the first Earl of Iveagh handed over the facility to the State in 1939 as part of the Guinness bequest for safe keeping, would it now be in danger of extinction.
“I think they see it as a piece of red brick real estate which is convenient to where they are located,” says Ted Neville, secretary of the Irish Real Tennis Association.
In a letter to the then Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, which is now in the National Archives, Lord Iveagh wrote: “I am, of course, loath to think of the tennis court being destroyed as I think it is unique in its own way and might be appreciated by players in Dublin.”
The game itself is interestingly complex. Forget lawn tennis or squash to which it holds a similarity. The court is completely asymmetrical. There are long grilles in one back wall called dedans and a smaller one, apparently representative of the monks cells, at the other into which the ball can be driven to extract an advantage.
There is an angled piece of wall, awkwardly protruding like a chimney breast, into one side of the court called the tambour. This is used to give the ball a wicked kick. There is also a service wall, a hazard back wall and penthouses along which the ball can be played until it falls back to earth.
There are a series of lines marked across the court on the ground called chases which again influence the scoring, depending on where the ball bounces at certain times throughout the game.
Bewildering? Well, think of lawn tennis in a large panelled room without removing the furniture. Scoring accumulates like lawn tennis with the first to eight games winning a set and the best of five sets winning the match. The racquet is like a squash racquet with one side flattened somewhat as the ball does not bounce so high.
“The game is enjoying a significant rise in popularity in the 40 or so playing centres worldwide, with old courts being returned to play and even new ones being built,” says Neville.
“The Guinness court was imaginatively and expensively constructed of large cut slabs of native Irish black marble from Galway, a rare solution to the need to see the flight of the speeding white ball.”
The exterior of the court is red brick with the inside covered in a very hard, close fine-grained marble stone which does not chip or flake and is extremely rich in lime. Originally the marble was polished but the ball simply slithered off the surface regardless of the spin applied by the player. The polished surface was then removed by sand rubbing and rather than black it is now in it's raw state colour of dark grey.
Some of the marble inlays are enormous with the average two inch thick stones laid in 6ft x 3ft slabs. The largest slabs are in the floor, one of them measuring 11ft 6ins x 6ft.
In the last week of May — 108 years ago — the only World Championship match was played on the Earlsfort Terrace court. The defending champion was Tom Pettit who came from a poor immigrant background in America and he again emerged champion, winning 7–5 in sets in over 106 games.
At present the court is an engineering store room and laboratory. Some slabs are cracked and a steel beam is driven into the side walls. But as Neville optimistically points out: “The old machinery for cutting the stone at Merlin Park in Galway is still there, it's rusting, but it's still there.”
The game goes on.