PARIS: A fuzzy orange-sized ball runs along a sloping ledge before falling to the ground and bouncing off the strings of a waiting wooden racket.
The game begins again in a real game of tennis, a sport that began in the Middle Ages and continues to this day, kept alive by around 10,000 enthusiasts from Boston to Melbourne.
“We are amateurs in the true sense of the word,” confides Matthieu Sarlangue, six-time French amateur champion among other titles.
The game is teeming with eccentricity, from the asymmetrical court whose parts include “penthouses”, “hazard” and “inside”, to a multitude of serving styles with names like railroad, giraffe and boomerang. .
Most unusual is a complex set of rules surrounding what is called “chase”, which occurs when the ball bounces twice.
The point is held “hanging” until the players change ends and the player who has let the ball bounce twice must try to “beat the chase” by hitting a shot deeper than his opponent.
“Other sports are more monotonous,” says Sarlangue. “With real tennis you learn new things every day, different strokes, different situations … It’s harder than it looks.”
Few concessions to modernity
Sport has made few concessions to modernity. White dress is still required, even for informal practice. The balls are still painstakingly handcrafted, although the felt coatings on the balls turned bright yellow in the 1980s for better visibility, as in modern tennis.
The ball, whose cork core is wrapped in fabric under the thick felt, weighs 73 grams (2.6 ounces), about 30 percent more than its modern tennis cousin.
Because they are made by hand, no two balls are the same. Likewise, no two pitches are the same size, which gives home players a considerable advantage.
“It’s the effervescent side of real tennis,” said Tim Batten, France’s team captain for the Bathurst Cup, the Davis Cup national team tournament equivalent of modern tennis. “You have to adapt to different terrains. ”
With its Art Nouveau ceiling of ironwork and glass, the only Parisian courtyard still in use, opened in 1908, is the highest in the world at some 11 meters (35 feet) – easily accommodating the giraffe service.
In real tennis, tactics are as important, if not more, than physical strength, which helps explain the longevity of its top players.
Rob Fahey of Australia has been dubbed the Roger Federer of real tennis. He has 10 world titles to his name from a championship dating back to 1740.
“He could almost get out of bed and win most tournaments,” said Simon Marshall, a pro at the Paris club.
It is only now, at 46, that Fahey is starting to look over his shoulder to the next generation, having lost the world number one last year to American player Camden Riviere, 19 years his junior at 25 years.
Sarlangue meanwhile carries on his 22-year-old shoulders the hope of a revival of true tennis in his ancestral homeland.
The grandfather of today’s racquet sports evolved from a game played by medieval French monks with their bare hands – the French name, jeu de paume, literally means game of the palm.
Eventually gloves appeared, followed by flat wooden bats, and then rackets designed to resemble the hand, with the face slightly bent away from the grip – a shape that makes it easier to retrieve low-rebound balls.
At the height of the game’s popularity in the late 16th century, France had around 1,500 courts, of which around 250 were in Paris alone, according to real expert and tennis player Gil Kressmann.
Today that number has dropped to just one in Paris, and the only other court in all of France is at the Royal Chateau of Fontainebleau.
The center of gravity shifted long ago to England, which today has the strongest tennis scene in the world, with three dozen clubs and the world’s busiest venue at Hampton Court, the historic home of Henry VIII.
“In England most of the kids were dragged to Hampton Court so they all saw the game play out,” Marshall said. “You have to book two or three weeks in advance to play it.
The Duke of Orleans, a French nobleman imprisoned by Henry V for two decades in the early 15th century during the Hundred Years War, is believed to have brought the sport to England.
The very name of the game of tennis, the same in English and French, reflects a linguistic back-and-forth across the Channel, as the word derives from the French “tenez” (to hold or take care), which a player would say. before serving.
Likewise, the word “ace” for a service winner in modern tennis almost certainly derives from “ais”, the French word for a wooden stick that once stood in a corner of the real tennis court that was worth an automatic point. if he was hit, Kressmann mentioned.
And “love,” the curious word for the starting score, comes from the egg, the French word for egg, once used in real tennis to indicate failure to earn a point.
The “sport of kings” was a staple for generations of royalty, not only in France and England, but throughout Europe.
The long line of kings of France who were true tennis enthusiasts ended with Louis XIV, whom doctors banned him from playing because he suffered from gout, Kressmann said.
The Sun King instead turned to billiards, launching a new fashion for royalty and high society.
Reused for Molière
Kressmann says two-thirds of the courts in Paris had disappeared by the time of the French Revolution, mostly victims of real estate speculation as the population grew.
A key place has been preserved as a museum – the site in Versailles of the “tennis court oath” of June 1789, considered to set in motion the French Revolution.
Many courtyards were transformed into theaters at a time when a biting satirist like Molière was unable to stage his plays in the bourgeois halls of the time.
The 17th century playwright “was very frowned upon. You didn’t criticize royalty, ”Kressmann said, adding that the resulting rectangular theaters would be known as“ a la française ”, or a la française.
The Jeu de Paume art gallery on Place de la Concorde is the most important converted tennis hall in Paris. It was its closure that led to the construction of the Parisian club where Sarlangue, Batten and Kressmann play.