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Original Issue


Something's wrong here. It's a world championship tennis match, but everything on this court is slightly warped. The rackets look as though they have melted. The balls are as hard as baseballs and only approximately round. And the court isn't a neat rectangle divided across the center by a tight net. Rather, it's a walled-in cloister broken up by little windows in one wall and strange openings along the others, a sloping roof above the windows, a big buttress jutting out from one of the walls, and a net that is sagging in the middle.

The players don't behave normally, either. At the beginning of the match, they salute each other and the spectators by placing their rackets over their faces. During the match they applaud a good shot by banging their rackets on the dark-gray cement floor. They switch sides at irregular intervals. They struggle to return balls that are absolutely dead in the corner of the court and then happily let other balls bounce right before them without lifting a finger. The marker, or scorer, calls out, "Chase!" but no one runs. And hey, what's with the scoring? The terms are familiar—love, 15, 30, 40, deuce, advantage—but you can't tell who is winning by the score. The marker, as if to punish unvigilant spectators, first gives the score not of the server but of the person who won the most recent point. If you missed seeing the last shot, the score won't help you.

Despite the apparent chaos, no one is alarmed. The players never argue the score with the marker, who stands in a doorway at one end of the net. Instead, they often thank him when he clears up a question, and he thanks them when they do the same for him. The 30 or so fans look calm, too. Although they are absorbed in the game, the loudest noise in the spectators' gallery is the clatter of teacups in their saucers.

Is this some strange initiation rite designed to confound intruders? Do these people really know what's going on, or are they just politely pretending? Welcome to tennis in a time warp.

The 1989 Ladies Court Tennis World Championships at the Racquet Club of Philadelphia is as arcane a world event as one is ever likely to see. Although it is taking place on an American court for the first time, this is a cozy British affair. Both finalists—Penny Fellows, 26, a secretary for Lloyd's Bank in London, who holds the British, French, Scottish and Australian titles, and Sally Jones, 34, an Oxford-educated anchor on the BBC's televised breakfast show, who holds the U.S. title and has played court tennis with the likes of Prince Edward, Virginia Wade and Gabriela Sabatini (whom she beat 6-0, 6-0)—come from The Queens Club, in London.

All the spectators are acting terribly civilized, as if to ward off the possibility that this sport will go the way of its ill-mannered offspring, lawn tennis (that is, regular tennis, the game -that was created by impatient court-tennis players waiting on the lawn for a court-tennis court).

But court-tennis fans needn't worry about their sport becoming common. There are only 37 court-tennis facilities in the world—19 in Britain, nine in the U.S., four in Australia, two in France and one each in Czechoslovakia, Ireland and the Soviet Union—and almost all of them are in private clubs, private schools or private estates.

It hasn't always been such a precious sport. Court tennis (which is called jeu de paume in France, real tennis in England, royal tennis in Australia and just plain tennis by the 2,000 or so people who play it) was invented sometime during the 12th century by bored French monks who started batting rag balls (made of their shredded habits) around monastery courtyards. They called it jeu de paume (palm game) because they used their palms, rather than rackets, to hit the balls. Jeu de paume quickly became a craze. In the 13th century, monks and priests spent so much time playing and betting on the game that the Church banned it. But it didn't die.

The game quickened as players began batting the balls with rackets. It spread from France to Britain and from the clergy to the crown with some fatal results. Louis X of France drank a beaker of cold water after a rugged match and soon died of a chill in 1316, and Charles VIII of France died of injuries after hitting his head on the lintel of the doorway to the court in 1498. In the 16th century the sport had its heyday, not just in France and England but also in Germany, Italy and Spain, and not only among royalty and the aristocracy but among commoners, too. By 1600 there were estimated to be more than 1,800 courts in Paris alone.

Despite its popularity, court tennis retained its royal aura and suffered wherever democracy stirred. In the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell's England frowned on the game and its attendant betting. And in France, court tennis, a bastion of the nobility and the aristocracy, was all but destroyed during the revolution. The court at Versailles came to be known not as a place for kings to play but as the site where the Third Estate met, took the "oath of the tennis court" and inadvertently launched the political designations right and left, as the conservatives at the meeting gathered on the right side of the court and the radicals on the left.

If court tennis is generally obscure today, women's court tennis is much more so. Of an estimated 2,500-odd players, only 100-200 are women. And until recently, women had but a glancing connection to the sport. Catherine de Mèdicis, while she was queen of France, started a fad by arranging her hair in a do that looked like a court-tennis racket, and Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife, was beheaded while he was playing on the tennis court in 1536 (a court in Lakewood, N.J., commemorates her death with the Anne Boleyn Memorial tournament each year, the trophies being silver hatchets). Indeed, it was not until about 1970 that women first took up the pear-shaped rackets and began to play. They were not welcomed wholeheartedly. Many clubs with court-tennis courts were then closed to women, and some of them still are.

Today, women court-tennis players are insiders and outsiders, simultaneously enjoying and suffering the eccentric elitism of their sport. All have great respect for the game ("Once you've played court tennis," says Katrina Allen, one of the semifinalists, "lawn tennis seems like an idiot's game"), and some are even willing to fly across the Atlantic (paying their own way) to compete for the world championship with women from their home club in London, as Fellows and Jones have done.

Ah, Jones and Fellows are entering the court now. They salute each other and the spectators by putting their rackets over their faces, and smile as if they know how silly this looks.

The court isn't symmetrical. It is modeled after a Gallic courtyard. There are window openings, called galleries, running along one sidewall—the service wall—and a wooden shed roof, called the penthouse, which sits atop the cloisterlike enclosures running along three sides. On the back wall of the hazard side there's a small, square window, called the grille (modeled on the window through which monks used to talk to their families), and a buttress, called the tambour, that makes the ball ricochet unpredictably.

Asymmetry never did much for the simplicity of a game, and court tennis is no exception. The ball can be played not only off the floors but also off the walls, the tambour and the penthouse. The rackets, with their odd-shaped heads, are designed for scooping balls off the floor and for reaching into corners. And players score points when an opponent smacks the ball into the net or out of bounds (which, in this game, is the ceiling) and when she hits the ball into the dedans, the grille and the winning gallery, the last of the windows on the service wall of the hazard side—the side of the net on which the receiver stands. To add to the eccentricity of the event, the winning gallery and grille both have bells that ring when a player scores.

The world championship match begins. Fellows sends off a "railroad" serve, which runs along the penthouse as if on a track before plunging into the hazard court. (In court tennis every serve must hit the penthouse before it hits the receiver's court.) Suddenly, the air is filled with low, thudding shots to the back corners, squeaking sneakers, the thump of the ball hitting the tambour, and the ring of the bell in the grille.

So far, so good. It's like tennis with a little squash and pinball thrown in for good measure. But when the first game is over, Fellows blithely keeps on serving, and no one stops her. She chooses her serves from a dizzying array of about 30—including the "giraffe," which bounces up high off the penthouse and lands close to the hazard wall; the "boomerang," which strikes the side penthouse, hits the back penthouse, and then ricochets back to the side penthouse; the "piquet," which flies out of the corner between the service wall and the back wall; and the "bobble," which dribbles along the penthouse and then into the receiver's court. Fellows does not give up her serve until Jones wrests it from her by laying a chase. Ah, the chase, the heart of the court-tennis game. Cognoscenti like nothing more than to approach an innocent novice spectator and ask, with a glint in their eyes, "Understand the chase yet?" Just say no.

In court tennis the serve doesn't alternate with every game but instead is earned through a chase. A player lays a chase when she hits the ball so that her opponent can't return it before it bounces twice. The marker notes where the ball falls on its second bounce on the floor (as with pitching pennies, the closer it is to the wall, the better) and holds the point in suspension until the chase is played off. To do that, the players switch sides. The person who made the chase tries to defend it (tries to make sure her opponent does not hit the ball so that it bounces better—closer to the back wall—on its second bounce), and her opponent tries to better it. Whoever succeeds gets the point. Got it? Just say no.

The first chase of this match comes in the second game. After a couple of heroic corner-to-corner rallies, Jones hits a forehand cut to the back of the service side, and Fellows can't get it before it bounces twice, near the back wall. The marker calls out, "Chase worse than two." That means the ball bounced a little farther than two yards from the back wall on its second bounce.

For the moment, no one gets the point. It's held in suspension until the chase is played off. The players switch sides, and Jones comes over to Fellows's side to serve and defend her chase. In other words, she tries to make sure that Fellows does not hit the ball so it bounces closer than two yards to the back wall on its second bounce, while Fellows tries to hit the ball so that it bounces closer. Jones defends her chase successfully and gets the point. What's more, she now has control of the serve until Fellows lays a chase.

However, Fellows's strokes are lethal. They undercut the ball so that it dies in the back corners of the court, as the classic court-tennis shot should. Jones rescues these half-dead balls over and over again with calm strokes. But she cannot save them all, and she loses the first set 6-3 and quickly drops four games in the second.

It looks as though Fellows has the world title in her pocket. But then Jones begins cutting the ball deep into the corners and hitting it into the grille, and she takes the set 6-5. The match is beginning to resemble the U.S. Open, held in Newport, R.I., in which Jones lost the first set 6-0 and then came roaring from behind to take the second set. This piece of history is not lost on Fellows. In a fury, she quickly takes the first five games of the third set.

Now Jones lays a better-than-two-yard chase and comes over to serve and defend not only her chase but also the whole match. She serves, Fellows hits the ball back, and Jones calmly watches it bounce once, twice. Has she lost her will? "Well left!" cheer the spectators. Jones wins the point because Fellows's shot hits short of the two-yard mark. Fortified by her brave move, Jones slowly climbs out of her hole—5-1, 5-2, 5-3. But the hole is deep. With a deft stroke, Fellows zings the ball into the grille. The bell rings faintly, tolling game, set and match—the end of one of the most understated world events ever.

Sarah Boxer has written several stories for "Sports Illustrated."