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13 November 2014

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You are in: Tyne > Places > Places features > Like chess on a tennis court

Real tennis court in Jesmond, Newcastle

The court was built in 1894

Like chess on a tennis court

Jesmond Dene, in Newcastle, is home to one of the last remaining real tennis courts in the world.

Tucked away among the council nurseries at the top of Jesmond Dene is a building of historic importance.

The grade II-listed building, built in 1894, houses a real tennis court - one of only about 40 such courts in the world.

The outside of Jesmond Dene real tennis court. Photo: JDRTC

The court is on Matthew Bank

Though little-known today, the game of real tennis has been played for hundreds of years.

It was popular with French and English royalty in the 16th and 17th Centuries and was the forerunner to the modern game of lawn tennis, with which we are much more familiar now.

It's thought that at one time there were more than 200 real tennis courts in Paris alone.

What's in a name

The Jesmond Dene court was built for the private use of Sir Andrew Noble, the then owner of Jesmond Dene House.

Now it's home to Jesmond Dene Real Tennis Club, which is keen to spread the word about the sport and get new members on court.

"People have been playing real tennis for 7-800 years, in various ways," says Simon Harris, the court manager.

"Nobody really knows how it originated, whether it was a street game, whether it was played in the streets of France or in cloisters - because a lot of the features are a bit like cloisters at a church, with the galleries down the side [of the court] and the penthouse rooves on three sides."

Looking through the gallery onto Jesmond Dene Real Tennis court

Looking through a gallery onto court

Also known as court tennis, royal tennis, and in France as jeu de paume, real tennis was once just plain old "tennis". The "real" was added in the 19th Century as lawn tennis took off and took over the name.

There are some similarities between the two games.

The scoring is the same in both versions (15, 30, 40, deuce, advantage, game) and both are played in sets.

But there are many differences too.

If the ball bounces twice in real tennis it doesn't necessarily mean the end of the point and you can hit the ball at the surrounding walls and galleries.

The service is always taken from the same end and doesn't automatically alternate between players at the end of each game as it does in lawn tennis.

Real tennis racquets are heavier than lawn tennis racquets and so are the balls, which are made by hand.

Because the balls are heavy they don't bounce very much and have to be hit close to the ground. The wooden racquets are asymmetrical in shape to make it easier to do this.

Paul Hetherington, real tennis professional. Photo: JDRTC

Paul is the club pro at Jesmond Dene

Like chess

Paul Hetherington, from Benton, is the Jesmond Dene club professional. He first played real tennis in his teens.

"One of the nice things about it is just being able to hit the ball hard, which in lawn tennis unless you're good you can't really do, because it goes out," he says. "Here you have walls and everything to keep it in."

Paul also enjoys the mental side of the game.

"It's quite strategic so if you play it properly you use strategy a lot more than you would [in lawn tennis]… there's a lot of thinking involved."

Simon agrees. "Some people equate this to trying to play chess on a tennis court because there are so many different tactics and things," he says.

Grilles, hazards, chases, galleries, dedans, tambour… to a beginner the terms and rules of real tennis can sound like a different language.

Real tennis balls in various stages of being made

The balls are made by hand

But Simon and Paul say that you soon get the hang of it.

"Initially you're a bit daunted thinking 'Oh, I'm never going to understand these rules!' But you find that after three or four times on court you do learn them quite easily," Simon says.

"It's the concept of them that is a little bit alien," adds Paul.

"Once you start playing you pick up the rules very very quickly, but you have to play. It's difficult to learn without actually doing it."

Paul runs introductory taster sessions and lessons for beginners and is hoping to gradually increase membership of the club and get more youngsters involved.

And the North East has a good record, with several of the top world-ranking players hailing from the region, including Nick Wood, who started out at Jesmond.

last updated: 18/09/2008 at 16:57
created: 18/09/2008

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