|Terms such as penthouse - as
well as dedans, tambour, grille, winning gallery, hazard, giraffe,
railroad, chase the door, chase better than a half, chase more than a yard
worse than last gallery - describe strokes and features of the play, and
add to the mystery of the game.
The court is an indoor, four-walled structure of concrete. There
are numerous openings in the walls, and a "penthouse" or roofed shed runs
along one sidewall and both endwalls.
In playing the game, the service must first strike on the
penthouse roof, and thereafter the ball may be played off the floor, in midair,
off the shed roof or the walls of the court. Points are scored in some ways
similar to lawn tennis, as when the ball goes into the net or out of bounds, or
hits on second bounce in certain areas of the court. But points are also scored
by hitting the ball into openings in the walls.
On top of these wrinkles to the game is one known as the
chase, the "divine chase" as one enthusiast called it, in which by precise
placement of the ball one player can defer final decision of a point to a new
situation (the chase) in which his opponent's field and options of play are
severely limited. (Play of the game is illustrated on the following pages.)
While strength and stamina are important, accuracy and
strategy are keys to successful play.
Laying down difficult chases is the heart of the game, and to
do this calls for skill in cutting the ball down with the characteristic
court tennis stroke, imparting spin to keep it low and make it fall near
the endwall on second bounce. Length of stroke pays off as in lawn tennis,
but too much depth results in the ball striking the floor so near the endwall
as to rebound from the wall far out in the court to establish a chase (or
deferred point) not difficult to beat.
Jay Gould, U.S. amateur champion from 1906
until he retired in 1926, champion of England in 1907 and 1908, and winner
over world open champion G. F. Covey of Britain in their 1914 challenge
match in Philadelphia, was particularly feared for his ability to lay down
chase "better than a half" (or within half a yard of the endwall), as well
as for his "railroad" service.
Pierre Etchebaster of France, world open champion from 1928 until
he retired undefeated in 1954, and a resident of this country for virtually
all those years and since, was masterful in his artistry in playing the
floor game. Tom Pettitt, who came to this country from England at the age
of 12 in 1876 and won the world championship in 1885 in Hampton Court,
England, was a tremendous hitter who relied less on finesse and touch than
on power and accuracy in attacking the winning openings.
The origin of court tennis is shrouded in antiquity. Its
beginnings have been traced all the way back to the fertility rites of the
Egyptians and Persians, in which the ball was the symbol of fertility. As long
ago as 450 B.C. Herodotus referred to tennis. More definitely, the game of today
began to take shape many centuries later as a pastime of monks and other
ecclesiasts in France.
In the formative period of the game it was played outdoors and
the ball was struck with the hand. The racquet was not introduced until
early in the 16th century, after the use of a glove, then thong bindings,
and next a paddle, known as a battoir when a handle was added. The
name of the game was jeu de paume (game of the palm).
The game in the open air was being played at least as early as
the 12th century, when it was mentioned by ecclesiastical writers. A bishop
about 1200 was reprimanded for neglecting evensong to play tennis, and
in 1245 the Archbishop of Rouen prohibited priests of France from playing
jeu de paume. Private courts were built as the game became secularized,
the earliest on record being at Poitiers in 1230.
The introduction of paume into towns and its confinement
in indoor courts there marked one of the great changes in the game, leading
to its wide appeal. Walled-in courts were built in the latter part of the
14th century. Charles V built one in the palace of the Louvre in 1368.
In time these indoor courts were known as jeu de courte paume (short
tennis), while outdoors they were called jeu de longue paume (long
The indoor courts, as Malcolm Whitman concluded after years of
careful research in writing his Tennis Origins and Mysteries, appears
to have been a gradual evolution from rooms of various shapes in many types
of structure - cathedrals, cloisters, chateaux, castles, moats, and even
cowsheds. Relics of these medieval structures are found in the modern court,
with features supposedly reminiscent of church architecture in the present-day
court's tambour (flying buttress), grille (buttery hatch), penthouse (part
of cloisters), and galleries (cowsheds).
From being the game of bishops, priests, and monks, paume
became the pastime of monarchs and the royalty surrounding them and was
taken up in the towns in gambling establishments. It became so popular
and public gambling was so widespread and for such enormous stakes that
in 1369 Charles V restricted the playing of the game in Paris.
From France tennis was introduced into England, supposedly by
French cavaliers by way of coastal towns. That the game was well established by
the latter half of the 14th century is evident from the enactment in 1365 of
statutes against playing it and other games in England. These restrictions
affected servants and laborers, but not the upper classes.
During the reign of the Tudors - Henry VII and VIII, Edward
VI, Elizabeth I - tennis achieved its greatest vogue in England, with royalty
and gentlemen of the court devoted to it. During the period of the Stuarts,
beginning with James I in 1603, its popularity continued. In France too the game
flourished in the 1500s and 1600s, and it was the pastime of all classes in both
countries, as well as in Germany, Spain, Italy, and other countries of Southern
Europe. In 1600 the Venetian ambassador to France wrote that there were 1,800
courts in Paris alone.
In England, with the country plunged in civil war during the rebellion
in the reign of Charles I (1625-1649), the tennis courts were deserted
and remained so during the period of the Commonwealth, with Puritans frowning
on amusement of any kind. But with the Restoration and accession of Charles
II, the Cromwellian asceticism ended and tennis was the pastime of the
upper and middle classes for the rest of the 1600s and in the 1700s.
With the rise of professionalism, heavy betting on the matches
and swindling brought the game on public courts into disrepute in the latter
half of the 1700s in both England and France. The Revolution and the downfall of
the monarchy and aristocracy were virtually the death knell of the game in
France, almost every court being closed, and in England the game was played only
by the upper classes.
In both England and France the game picked up in the 1800s. In
France there was a definite recovery during the time of Napoleon III, especially
with the reopening of Versailles in 1885 for use as a tennis court. (Today it
stands as a museum dedicated to the French Revolution.)
In 1862 Napoleon gave permission to build the Jeu de Paume
in the Tuileries Gardens near the Place de la Concorde. A second court
was added in 1880 and the two courts were headquarters of the game in Paris
until closed in 1907 to become exhibition halls, which were remodeled in
1958 as a museum for impressionist paintings. To replace the courts, amateurs
built new ones at Rue Lauriston, where competition for the Coupe de
Paris was inaugurated in 1910.
Jeu de paume is still played there, along with squash racquets,
by a small group of British, American, and French members, but the game
has never since remotely approached the wide popularity it knew in the
16th and 17th centuries.
The spectacular rise of the French Basque, Pierre Etchebaster,
to become world champion in 1928, six years after he took up the game,
stimulated a revival at Rue Lauriston. There was a revival too at Bordeaux,
and at Pau. In Italy few traces remain of the old game.
a proclamation dated 1659 by Peter Stuyvesant as governor of New York,
proscribing the playing of tennis and other games during divine services
on a day of fasting and prayer.
In England many private courts were built in the 19th century; prior to
World War I there were close to 100. Since then mounting taxes and the
closing of large estates led to most of the courts being dismantled or
becoming idle. But a small loyal following of enthusiasts keeps the game
alive in about 25 club and private courts.
In the United States the game was thought to have first been played
in 1876 when Hollis Hunnewell and Nathaniel Thayer, who had played the
game in England, brought an English professional, Ted Hunt, home with them
from Oxford. They built a court in Buckingham Street in the Back Bay section
of Boston and put Hunt in charge of it, assisted by the 12-year-old Tom
Pettitt, who came with Hunt.
But in 1932 Malcolm Whitman, in his Tennis Origins and Mysteries,
disclosed that court tennis had been played here more than 200 years earlier.
Whitman reproduced a proclamation dated 1659 by Peter Stuyvesant as governor
of New York, proscribing the playing of tennis and other games during divine
services on a day of fasting and prayer, October 16. The proclamation was
found in the archives of the city hall in Amsterdam, Holland.
Whitman also printed an advertisement from the New York Gazette
of April 4, 1763, announcing the public auction of a house which "had a
very fine tennis court." There is no description of this court, and the
1876 Boston court remains the first in the U.S. of which anything definite
can be said.
There is no record of how many people played the game in
America in colonial days and in the 1700s. Probably only a few, and in the
modern era since 1876 the game never has had a following of more than a few
people belonging to exclusive clubs or having the privilege of playing in
private courts. Following the opening of the court in Boston in 1876, the next
one in the U.S. was built in 1880 at the Newport Casino in Rhode Island, where
the first championship of the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Association was also
held, a year later.
A second court was built in Boston in 1888 at the Boston
Athletic Association. In New York, the Racquet Court Club, opened in 1876,
merged in the Racquet and Tennis Club and moved. It added a court tennis court
in its new quarters in 1891 and a second 13 years later. In 1918 the club moved
again into its present quarters at 370 Park Avenue and built two new courts, one
of which, the East Court, is the most famous in the country.
The game was introduced in Chicago in 1893. In 1900 the Tuxedo
Club in Tuxedo Park, New York, opened a court. The same year George Gould, the
financier, built a private court on his estate at Lakewood, New Jersey. It was
here that his son, Jay Gould, at the age of 12, was taught the game by Frank
Forester, an English professional.
Gould reigned as amateur champion of the U.S. from 1906
through 1925, and in 1914 defeated G. F. Covey, an English professional, in a
challenge match for the world open championship, the first amateur ever to win a
In 1902 a court was opened at the Myopia Hunt Club at
Hamilton, Massachusetts, and a semi-private court, sponsored by William C.
Whitney, was opened in Aiken, South Carolina. A third Boston court was built in
1904. Philadelphia, one of the leading centers of the game today, was not
introduced to court tennis until 1907. The next year Harvard became the only
American university to have a court. It was operated by private owners for the
use of students.
A third private court was built in 1909, on the estate of Clarence
H. Mackay in Roslyn, Long Island. Surpassing the Mackay court and all others
in its appointments was the one Payne Whitney opened in 1915 on his Greentree
estate in Manhasset, Long Island.
In 1923 a new court was opened at the Chicago Racquet Club,
and it was not until 1997 that the next new court was built and opened at The
Regency Sport and Health Club in suburban Washington, D.C.
The courts now in use number ten - two at the Racquet and Tennis
Club in New York, one each at the Philadelphia Racquet Club, The Boston
Tennis and Racquet Club, The Tuxedo Club, The National Tennis Court at
the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, (restored
in 1980) the new court at the Regency Club near Washington, D.C., and two
private courts - The Georgian Court in Lakewood, New Jersey, (restored
in 1982) and Greentree, the Whitney court owned by Mrs. John Hay Whitney.
The U.S. amateur court tennis championship was started in 1892
and was won by Richard D. Sears (winner also of the first championship
in lawn tennis in 1881). The great U.S. amateur court tennis players, in
addition to Gould, have been Alastair B. Martin, Northrop Knox, Ogden Phipps,
George H. (Pete) Bostwick Jr., James Bostwick, and James H. Van Alen.
Gould, Knox, and the Bostwick brothers have also ruled as world
champions, Jimmy Bostwick being the current title holder since dethroning
his brother in 1972. Tom Pettitt was the first player from this country
to win the world crown, and the Frenchman, Etchebaster, has lived in the
U.S. since he won the title in 1928. He resigned as champion in 1954. The
world championship is determined not by a regular tournament, but by challenge
of the reigning titleist.
The game in the United States is directed by the U.S. Court
Tennis Association, organized in 1955 "to act as a central coordinating
authority between the member clubs and all amateur and professional players, so
as to foster and promote the game of court tennis."
William L. (Sammy) Van Alen of Philadelphia was president from
the association's founding until 1971, when he retired. He had been winner
of the U.S. doubles title in 1940 with his brother, James H.
Van Alen, who was thrice U.S. singles champion and was also president
of the National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame.
In 1971, William Van Alen was succeeded as association president
by John E. Slater, who had played lawn tennis at the Longwood Cricket Club
and squash racquets at the Union Boat Club in Boston after being on the
Cornell tennis team as an undergraduate.
"New converts are coming to the sport regularly," Slater has
said. "Mostly from squash, but once someone who's tried racquets or squash or
lawn tennis has tried this, he's hooked. This is as challenging as trying to go
to the Masters for a golfer."
Mr. Slater resigned in 1988 and for the past ten years the USCTA
president has been Edward J. Hughes of Bedminster, New Jersey. Hughes,
a former college basketball player and lawn tennis professional, had been
told of the game by his father, but first played the game of court tennis
at the restored court at Newport in 1981.
While court tennis goes back more than three centuries in this
country, its offspring lawn tennis only celebrated its centennial in 1974.
The game was unveiled in Wales in December 1873 and patented under the
name of "Sphairistike," or lawn tennis, by Maj. Walter C. Wingfield. British
officers brought the game to Bermuda, where an American, Mary Ewing Outerbridge,
acquired a set including a net, racquets, and balls. Her brother, who was
secretary of the Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club, got permission
for her to set up the hourglass-shaped court of that day at the club in
1874. The court has, of course, since become rectangular in shape.
By the 1920s the U.S. had produced the player generally ranked
as the greatest of all time, William T. Tilden 2nd. (Tilden was one of
only three men to win the U.S. singles title seven times; the other two
were the first champion, Richard Sears, and William Larned.
Today lawn tennis is played across the U.S. and in a hundred
nations of the world, and has been undergoing a phenomenal growth since the
sanctioning in 1968 of open tournaments in which amateurs can compete with
But for all the present-day popularity of lawn tennis, it has
yet to develop the legends that attach to its parent, court tennis.
Not only was tennis the sport of Wellington and of Napoleon
and scores of French and British kings, but it figures as well in the history
and literature of Europe.
Court tennis was played in the court at Versailles where in 1789
the deputies of the Tiers Etat took the famous Serment du Jeu de Paume,
or Tennis Court Oath, never to abandon their efforts until they had given
a constitution to France.
Shakespeare mentioned the game in six of his plays. In Henry
V, the king's answer to the French Dauphin's slight in sending him
a ton of tennis balls is the most quoted reference. Chaucer, Erasmus, Edmund
Spenser, Rabelais, Pepys, Gower, Chapman, Rousseau, Ben Jonson, John Locke,
Montaigne, and Galsworthy are among the men of letters who made mention
France's Louis X was reported to have died in 1316 from a
chill contracted while playing tennis. England's Henry VIII, one of the keenest
players among the monarchs, had an elegant blue and black velvet jacket that
made his reddish hair all the more vivid. The story is that he was playing
tennis when Ann Boleyn went to the block in the Tower of London.
In 1767, the French Royal Academy of Science adopted a formal
description of the game and a statement declared it "the only game which
can rank in the list of arts and crafts." A writer in the London Spectator
in 1912 declared of the sport, "It is not only the sum of ball games. It
is the absolute in games. No one, it is probable, has yet sounded the depths
of court tennis, and players of the greatest genius cannot master its fine
The above article was originally
published by the Cornell Alumni News in April of 1974. ©1974
Cornell Alumni Association. It was issued as an authorized reprint by the
United States Court Tennis Association in 1976, and has been re-edited
and updated with the permission of the Danzig estate, USCTA Publications
Committee ©1997. No part of this reprint can be copied, edited, altered
or reproduced in any form without the written consent of the USCTA and
the USCTPF. It has been reproduced again in 1997 for distribution to those
who are interested in discovering more about the game of court tennis in
America and around the world.