After spending most of Friday afternoon at the downtown Tennis & Racquet Club, I’m not sure what to say about court tennis, other than to insist you go see it for yourself. You have until Friday to take it in, and please, report back here with your findings. Your flummoxed correspondent could use your keen eye to help figure it out.
I mean, what the . . . ?
To give you an idea of the game’s lovable quirkiness, the court includes not one but two cowbells in the field of play. Right, cowbells. By the time I bolted the welcoming old joint on Boylston Street, host to the ongoing US Open, I was only surprised there was no live cow. Or at least a tiny windmill replica, where a perfectly placed final shot leads to a free game . . . or, like on the “The Price is Right’’ . . . a new car!
Think of the typical court in these terms: It’s Fenway Park with more twists, turns, juts, nooks, crannies, and random acts of architectural nuttiness. Tom Yawkey’s old ballyard looks mid-’60s cookie cutter by comparison.
Every court tennis court has two long sidewalls, one with a beveled roof (term: penthouse) running horizontally over a viewing area aside the court floor, the other far less cluttered, save for its large vertical and beveled tambour toward one end, which is meant to mimic a castle wall. That’s castle, like knights, moats, racks, and beds of nails. The whole shootin’ match is in play. The basic rule of the game is to get to the ball, smack it against anything, and get it over the net. It’s even OK if it bounces on the floor twice sometimes.
The viewing area beneath that sidewall penthouse roof brings spectators snug up against courtside, only a net sparing some from being nailed by a hard ball (sometimes traveling at 140 miles per hour) or swatted by a rock-hard wood racket.
“They are literally in your face,’’ said Rob Fahey, an Australian and reigning world champ whose legacy in the game is of Ruthian proportions. “It’s very gladiatorial in that way. It makes you watch your mouth a bit when you’re playing.’’
Oh, and the net, because after all this is tennis, measures 5 feet high at each end, but slopes down to only 3 feet at its midpoint.
“If you think of lawn tennis as checkers,’’ mused Cam Riviere, currently No. 1 in the world in court tennis rankings, “then our game is chess.’’
OK, got it, finesse game, lots of thinking, running, factoring angles, and guile. But what about the net that sags worse than the back of a broken down $1,200 claimer?
“I can’t tell you the reason for that,’’ said Riviere, 27, who fashions himself a bit of a court tennis historian. “It’s just the way it is.’’
Very cool, though, that the Treaty of Versailles, according to Riviere, was signed on a court tennis court. The game in the late 19th century was all the rage in France, with 1,000 courts in Paris alone. Today, only three courts exist in all of France.
Really, I’ve never seen anything like the game, which is a bit telling in itself because court tennis — better known as Real Tennis or “realers’’ — has been played for the better part of 800 years. Maybe I should have heard a little something about it by now? Even if there is only one court in all of Boston, a grand total of two in New England (see: Newport) and only, oh, something like 40 or 50 worldwide. New courts cost upward of $1.5 million to construct. So economics and esoterics both factor considerably in the game’s slow growth rate.
For the record, no one is positive about the exact number of courts, which makes the sport a lot like the NFL, with rules and standards subject to change, depending on need and circumstance.
Overall, the sport has no grand aspirations of landing on ESPN or hauling in large sponsorship dollars. If you go to uscourttennis.org, you can catch a live stream of the US Open. That’s about it for worldwide exposure at the moment, a single camera tucked in a corner.
“We want clubs full and busy,’’ said Fahey, 46, considered by many to be the sport’s grand master. “And beyond that, we only hope there’s a court built every 5-10 years somewhere in the world.’’
Court tennis is considered the mother of all racket games, including squash, rackets, lawn tennis, racketball, badminton, the entire racket-and-object jumble of fun.
Its roots trace back to the streets of medieval France, where it is still known today as jeu de paume. According to legend, it was England’s King Henry VIII, a totally bonkers Real Tennis devotee, who framed the rules (often to his advantage) and gave it profile in British sports. The same legend has ol’ Hammerin’ Hank on court, racket in hand, at the very moment (May 19, 1536) he was having his second wife, Anne Boleyn, beheaded. A look at the box score reveals he was not flagged that afternoon for unsportsmanlike conduct.
For the first time in US Open history, a woman is playing in this year’s tournament. Claire Fahey, Rob’s wife of less than year, is also the only woman in the field. The draw is such that it could be Fahey vs. Fahey for Thursday’s singles title.
“How about that?’’ said Claire, 23, who began playing when she was but 11 years old and has been ranked world No. 1 for years. “The marriage could be on the line!’’
Win or lose, the delightful Claire will fare far better than Anne Boleyn. Real tennis, a game somewhat lost in time, really has come a very long way.
The U.S. Open will be played daily through Friday at the Tennis & Racquet Club, located at 939 Boylston Street in Boston. For information regarding tickets and playing times, check online here or phone 617-536-4630.