Ronaldson is employed in the palace as the resident court-tennis professional.
He arranges matches, gives lessons, and strings the heavy rackets with sheep’s gut (the innards of ten animals are needed to string one racket). Every few weeks Ronaldson restitches by hand each “royal set,” consisting of seventytwo of the traditional court-tennis balls, which are as hard as baseballs but slightly smaller. Court-tennis balls were fashioned from lumps of dog hair and covered in tunic scraps during the Middle Ages, but today they are made of cotton webbing, linen thread, and felt, wrapped and sewn tightly around a wine cork.
Over the past several years Ronaldson, the author of Tennis: A Cut Above the Rest, an exhaustive 172-page instruction manual and memoir, has become Mr. Court Tennis, a sort of roving ambassador who is helping to make what was a nearly extinct sport one of the fastest growing (albeit. still one of the least known) in the world. During the past decade the number of active players has doubled; new courts have opened recently in Australia, France, and England, and enthusiasts in Chicago talk of refurbishing a court there.
Today Hampton Court Palace is open to commoners, and some 200 enthusiasts keep the court busy from 8:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M. The court is booked a month in advance; the wait to become a member and pay the $40 annual fee is a year and a half. In southern England hundreds of women and youngsters are taking up the sport, which was once reserved for upper-crust gentlemen.
THOUGH INCREASINGLY popular, court tennis may never quite regain its Renaissance-era popularity.
During its heyday, in the sixteenth century, the sport was the national pastime on both sides of the English Channel. In 1598 Sir Robert Dallington, on his travels abroad, wrote: “There be more Tennis Players in France than Ale-drinkers or Malt-Wormes (as they call them) with US.”
In that Golden Age, Paris (population 300,000) alone contained more than 250 courts. The dashing Francois I built a court on his 2,000-ton warship, La Grande Francoise. And Catherine de Medici introduced the coiffure en raquette, a waffled hairdo much imitated by trendy ladies of the realm. Long before the “power breakfast” and the three-martini lunch were invented, the strivers and drivers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance cut their deals and did their social climbing on tennis courts. At its toughest, court tennis proved to be a killing workout for overzealous sovereigns. Halfa dozen kings (Louis X, “the Quarrelsome,” of France among them) literally expired from sheer exhaustion and pneumonia after furious tennis matches. Another crowned casualty of court tennis was the affable but maladroit French king Charles VIII, who keeled over shortly after a head-on collision with the lintel of a tennis-court door in his chateau at Amboise.
The mighty, it seems, wished to keep court tennis for themselves, and began to fret when the game became popular among their subjects. Nobles complained that tennis-playing merchants and yeomen would neglect their work and the country’s defense. Tennis was repeatedly, if incompletely, banned.
France’s Henry IV, for example, condemned to six days in prison any commoner playing court tennis on a weekday. In spite of such prohibitions thejeu depaume craze raged on in hundreds of underground tripots, athletic speakeasies notorious for bootlegged tennis equipment, cheap wine, and reckless games of chance. (To this day when a Frenchman gambles away his paycheck, he still curses: “J’ aipaumi.”)
In the France of Louis XIV the game’s popularity suffered as a consequence of increasingly repressive legislation and the king’s indifference (he was a billiards man). Eventually courts were abandoned by players and fell into use as playhouses or public meeting places. In fact, a meeting that took place on June 20, 1789, in thejeu depaume court at Versailles changed the course of history. Deputies of the Third Estate assembled there and took the historic oath that sparked the French Revolution.