Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ever Onward!

The game of court tennis—also called real tennis, royal tennis, and jeu de paume, depending upon who’s doing the talking—is frozen in time, which for me is a pity since it at least partially explains its rarity.

Court tennis is the mother racket game from which all others have sprung. Historians say that an open-air version of the game was played in the early 12th century, and most likely much earlier. According to United States Court Tennis (see, “a bishop about 1200 was reprimanded for neglecting evensong to play tennis,” a testament to the sinfully addictive nature of the game. Private courts began to be developed, the earliest being at Poitiers in 1230.

The game was originally played by an open hand batting the ball, hence the French name for the sport, ‘jeu de paume’, for ‘game of the palm.’ The innovation of rackets occurred much later, in the early 16th century.

And, pretty much, there things have remained....

The racket that is used is an absurdly heavy hunk of lumber that should probably be endorsed by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, since it has surely left many of the sport’s proponents reeling from tennis elbow or tears of the rotator cuff. The ball that is used looks outwardly like a standard tennis ball but is actually comprised of a cork center on which is hand-sewn a felt cover. Because it is handmade the bounce of a court tennis ball can vary markedly. And the scoring system is famously convoluted, so that it is said that if you truly know how to score you must be one of the top players of the sport.

Court tennis is what happens to a sport that is so obsessed with its history that it gradually relinquishes its right to be considered anything other than a curiosity. Sad, because it happens to be a fun game. The court itself looks a lot like a standard tennis court, but the room in which it is played is festooned with abutments and windows called the dedans, tambour and penthouse, all of which add an extra dimensionality to play. (For a look at a court, see Court Tennis .) The problem is that court tennis has refused to evolve, so that while tennis and squash rackets have grown lighter while increasing in power, their court tennis cousins are still as heavy as ever, scaring away potential players; the balls are still quirky and expensive to obtain; and the arcane scoring system continues to be largely unfathomable and a hindrance.) And the courts themselves are hugely expensive, well into 6-figure investments.

Squash, too, has its history-centric proponents. Here’s one example: I recently overheard a leader in the NY-area squash community say, “I would never lift the restriction to whites-only clothes on court because I respect the traditions of the game too much.” That unfortunately is what the court tennis leaders have said now for a thousand years or so, and look where that attitude got them. The original restriction to white clothing was actually a practical matter: back in the day, colors were likely to run in the wash, so to get around the problem, all clothes were white. Voila, problem solved. But that restriction makes scant sense nowadays, since athletic clothing is color-fast.

All this seems like a minor thing, so why not just keep with tradition? But in an age when the fortunes of the sport of squash are partially weighed against its perceived televisual appeal, it is not a minor thing at all, and proponents of squash shouldn’t avoid experimenting and approving change when change makes sense.

We’ve all read articles about the clothing worn by female tennis players, some of which are designed to be downright sexy as well as athletic. Serena Williams has created a sensation with her skintight tennis outfits, including a catsuit that she wore playing at the U.S. Open as a 17-year-old. She has even taken her passion for design to the next level by developing her own line of clothing called Aneres, her first name spelled backward. And Maria Sharapova often looks like she is dressed for a night on the town rather than a few hours of top-flight tennis.

Stories covering the latest court fashions have received quite a bit of press. Or is press coverage just another change history-centric squash players would like to avoid?

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