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The Game

Introduction to the game

Real Tennis is the king of all racquet sports, a game where subtlety and thought are more prized than power and fitness. It is played in an asymmetrical court which contains many unusual features, sloping roofs, openings (the galleries) in the walls and a main wall which has a kink in it (the tambour) so the ball on hitting the sloping face moves across the court instead of continuing down the line of the main wall. It has the classic elements of warfare where a failed attack is punished by a counter-attack.

The game is played with racquets made of wood, of reasonable dimensions (not those over-sized snow shoes favoured by lawn tennis players), and with hand-made balls re-covered every week with new cloth. The ball can be given spin either by the player or by contact with the wall and the action of this spin can be even more deadly than Shane Warne; reading the spin is an important part of the game; initially one is totally bewildered by the spin but soon one begins to judge where the ball will move after contact.

Service is from one side of the court and there are about a dozen different types of serve and each has a few variations….

The scoring is intricate but not complicated. Games and sets are scored as in lawn tennis (lawn tennis, a comparative new comer, took its simpler scoring system from tennis) but the unusual feature of tennis is the chase. A chase is a point held in abeyance and occurs when a ball bounces twice without being struck or enters some of the galleries (but there are three openings wherein the entry of the ball wins the stroke not a chase). The chase is recorded, e.g. chase better than four means that the second bounce of the ball was nearer than four yards from the back wall. However no stroke is scored. There are lines on the floor to help measure the chase. If one chase is laid and the score is within one point of game or if two chases have been laid, the players change sides (and service) and the other player has to ensure that the second bounce of his or her return is nearer the back wall than the chase(s) marked. The opponent may leave any ball that seems to fall further from the back wall than the chase marked and so win the point. And there are some wonderfully esoteric chases, e.g. more than a yard worse than or hazard one and two, which exist just to keep one’s brain ticking over.

Some hand–eye coordination and physical mobility is essential but it does not require the sort of fitness and agility required by squash in order to enjoy the game. The game can be enjoyed at many skill levels and a system of handicapping has been devised in order to make games competitive between players of different ability. Age is no barrier and many octogenarians play the game, and to a good standard.


If you are interested in playing this game why not arrange an introductory lesson or an introductory course by contacting one of the professionals? After these initial sessions you should be proficient enough to play a game and the professional will arrange one for you with other members of the club


The Rules

1. Scoring was inherited by lawn tennis so is the same. To win a game a player wins four points (15, 30, 40, game) and be more than two points ahead of his opponent (40-all is deuce). The first player to win six games wins the set but it is not necessary to be ahead by two games; the eleventh game is decisive.

2. It is the score of the player who won the last point that is called first. (This is different to lawn tennis)

3. Service is only from one end of the court.

4. For the service to be correct:

  • The ball must touch the half of the side penthouse on the receiver’s side; the ball may also touch the side penthouse on the server’s side and/or the side wall.
  • The first bounce of the ball must be on or beyond the service line at the hazard end.
  • The server must stand further from the net than the second gallery line.
  • The ball must go over the net but it can first strike the wall or penthouse on the striker’s side.

5. The ball is out if it strikes the side walls above the green painted line or hits one of the rafters or lights.

6. A ball entering the dedans, the grille, or the winning gallery wins a stroke for the striker.

7. A ball entering any other opening or bouncing twice on the floor records a chase at the mid-point of the opening or at the point of bouncing twice as appropriate. There is no change to the score. If the score is within one point of game or if two chases have been laid, the players change sides (and service) and the chases are played in the order in which they occurred. The player who has not laid the chase has to win the chase by ensuring that the second bounce of his or her return is nearer the back wall than the chase being played.

8. The gallery posts are considered to be part of the gallery nearer the net.

9. The stone sides of the openings are not considered to be part of the opening.

10. Hitting the net post loses the stroke.


Court etiquette

Real tennis has its courtesies and accepted practices. Cambridge’s accepted etiquette is details on the membership pages, but for completeness are detailed here too. Players should take note of the following points:

If you arrive while a game is in progress and you need to pass through the gallery passage, you should wait for a gap in play before walking. Usually this means waiting for the players to change ends (ie after one or two ‘chases’).

Players should agree before starting their match between themselves what handicap difference (if any) they will be applying. A handicap system exists to smooth out the differences between playes so that players of differing handicaps can play each other, but players of unequal handicaps may nevertheless choose to play level, i.e. start each game at love all.

It is usual to spin a racket to determine who will start out as the server. Before the game commences, it is common practice for the receiver to take the basket of balls from underneath the net, put the balls in the dedans for their opponent and replace the basket, before taking their position at the hazard end. This is not something that you should assume your opponent will do, but it is a courtesy to be encouraged.

When changing ends, if you are about to leave the service end, you should wait for the other player(s) to cross the net first. It is also usual to place a couple of balls on your opponent’s racket, before moving to the hazard end.

When you finish your match, please gather any loose balls (including those in the galleries) into the basket.

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