NEWPORT LIFE – Posted May 15, 2014
by Courtney Toomey | Photography by Jonathan Clancy
The oldest racquet sport is still alive. Court tennis – known in many countries as “real tennis” – is played on only 10 active courts in the US. But the oldest court was built in 1880 and still operates as the National Tennis Club within The International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport. The game’s number one player practices there, and the facility will host the annual Schochet Cup in June, welcoming international players to the historic indoor court.
Not to be confused with the more famed “lawn tennis,” court tennis has deep roots dating back to the 11th century. The game’s exact origins are not known, but it is believed that court tennis was first played by monks in monastery cloisters (based on the construction and appearance of early courts) using first their bare hands, then a glove, eventually a bat and then finally, a racquet. By the 16th century, the game moved onto an enclosed court using an established set of rules and was played mostly within castles, exclusively by royals. During the late 19th century, a number of court tennis courts were built in the US at private racquet clubs and country estates. Today, with support of dedicated players and the United States Court Tennis Association (USCTA), the game is becoming more and more accessible to the masses and is no longer just for kings. “People thought this sport went extinct years and years ago, but it is thriving and flourishing,” says Richard Smith, head professional at The National Tennis Club here. “Real tennis is one of those sports that you can never be the best at. You are playing a mix of chess, ballet and tennis together. It’s all about putting your opponent out of rhythm.”
With an interestingly shaped court and a lengthy set of rules that are likely to make any layman raise an eyebrow, Smith has a point. The game is an intricate one, but unlike many popular sports, it favors strategy, smarts and finesse over physical strength. Court tennis is played with wooden racquets not much larger than a human hand and specially designed balls that are handcrafted by each club so they’re different depending on where you play. The object of the game is to win sets of six; scoring is tracked using a typical 15-30-40 point system, similar to lawn tennis, and any shot that fails to clear the net or goes out of bounds results in a lost point. Courts tend to have the same basic layout – 110 x 39 feet – but many have slightly different dimensions. “Courts can be different, so home professionals definitely have an advantage,” reiterates Smith. However, this is where the game gets interesting.
In stark comparison to typical lawn, clay or hardcourt tennis, court tennis is played inside with high walls, a lofty ceiling and three sloping roofs known as “penthouses.” Beneath the penthouses are various openings known as “galleries,” as well as a “tambour,” which sticks out into the playing area. The ball can be played off any of these surfaces, so players need a high level of strategic thinking to understand how hard to hit the ball and where. “Squash and lawn tennis become monotonous to me. I can’t say they are boring because they are not, but it can be a game of who is the fittest and there isn’t much strategy,” says Smith. “With real tennis, anything can happen. There are so many variables: handmade ball, handmade racquet, 27 playing surfaces. That’s where the fun is for me.”
Camden Riviere, the number one ranked court tennis player in the world, started playing real tennis when he was only five years old in North Carolina. “My dad and grandfather used to sneak me on the court and hit balls with me,” he says. “When I was 10, I started playing with adults. Then I started traveling to play a lot and one day my dad asked me if I wanted to play professionally someday. I said I wanted to be the best.” From there, he played five to six days a week, two to three hours per day. After high school, Riviere studied at Salve Regina but moved to England to become a professional. “In this game, you can outthink someone,” says Riviere. “I’m only 5’8″ and in other sports, bigger and stronger always beat you. But in this game, you have to be athletic, talented and also able to think.” Smith says Riviere is, “5’8″ in person and 6’5″ on the court.”
Ross Cann, former USCTA representative for the Newport Tennis Club and principal for A4 Architecture, loves the game’s history as well as its finesse. “Real tennis has a great architectural history,” he says. “I was on the court for less than five minutes and knew instantly it was what was missing from my life. It is rich in strategy and has the elements I enjoy in other sports all rolled into one.”
Riviere, who has dedicated much of his young life to the game of court tennis, looks forward to defending his title at the Schochet Cup in June. “My favorite part of the game – besides winning of course – is the uniqueness of the courts and the history behind it all. The court in Newport is actually my favorite in the world,” he says. “You play real tennis for love, not money. You love the history, the play and that’s why you keep coming back.”