No Two COURT-tennis courts are exactly alike.
On the world’s largest, at Hampton Court Palace, Henry VIII and other men of grace and favor are said to have played three on a side. The cavernous chamber, festooned with fungus, stretches thirty-two feet longer and three feet wider than a regulation lawntennis court and is bordered by thirtyfoot-high side walls.
Each point begins with the server batting the bali off the rooftop of the “penthouse” (a wooden shed running along three sides of the court) and into the receiving, or “hazard,” court of his opponent. On the server’s left, beneath the penthouse, are eight windows, the last of which, on the hazard side, contains a small bell and is called the winning gallery. Though points can be won “on the floor,” as in lawn tennis, in court tennis any ball hit into the winning gallery, the “grille” (a three-foot-square wooden hatch in the hazard rear wall), or the “dedans” (a yawning, netted opening behind the server, through which spectators view the game) also scores a point.
The final architectural idiosyncrasy-and the tactical pillar of the game–is a peculiar buttress called the tambour, which juts into the hazard court and deflects balls at fierce and unpredictable angles. In all, a player may choose from at least forty possible service options and thirteen surfaces off which to play a ball capable of traveling 150 miles an hour. The number of permutations is mind-boggling.
At the heart of the game is a confounding element called the chase, which can entail players’ switching sides half a dozen times in the middle of a game to replay a point. The chase is nearly impossible to understand without actually participating in the game. In practice it means that the best shots are those that on their second bounce land near the rear of the court.
Thus the classic court-tennis stroke is a low, gracefully undercut ball that skitters and dies against the back wall.
As in pitching pennies, the closer to the wall the better. Importing the top spin of lawn tennis or the blood and thunder of squash can be suicidal in court tennis. The game is not an advertisement of power but is, as Taileyrand observed, “plus fait de douceur que de violence” (more gentle than violent). He added, “Etsurtout pas de zele” (And above all, played with reserve).
Court tennis is generously weighted in the server’s favor, which largely accounts for Chris Ronaldson’s success. Ronaldson is known for the astounding variety of his serves, which have names like the giraffe, the railroad, the boomerang, the caterpillar, the chandelle, the bobble, the demi-piqu6, and the classical underhand twist. His versatility and steady stroke mirror his nature. Relentless, shrewd, but never flashy, Ronaldson rarely makes mistakes and is most dangerous when trailing.
FOURTEEN YEARS AGO, on the grounds of Merton College, Oxford, Chris Ronaldson played his first courttennis game. Slowly and steadily he ascended the ranks of the world’s 2,500 players, and five years ago he won the world championship, a title steeped in considerable history. Last season he became the first player ever to win the “Grand Slam”–the French, British, Australian, and U.S. Open court-tennis singles championships. Today Ronaldson lives at 53 Tennis Court Lane, in Hampton Court Palace, with a family no less keen on the sport than he is. Lesley, his wife, is a former British women’s champion, and Ivan, their son, holds the British “Under 12” title.