It’s been likened to chess on a tennis court. And it was a favourite sport of King Henry VIII, who had a court built at Hampton Court, while his daughter Elizabeth I became a keen spectator.
Four hundred years later and this regal sport of real tennis – often called ‘the sport of kings’ – has a relatively small, but committed, following centring on one of the world’s 50 or so courts.
And we are lucky enough to have it right here on our doorstep.
Seacourt Tennis Club, in Hayling Island, boasts one of the UK’s 26 courts and attracts players of all standards from across the south.
More than just a sport, real tennis and the social side around it is a way of life for many.
I visit Seacourt and meet a couple whose life revolves around real tennis – and their passion certainly shines through.
Tory Wall, 50, from Hayling, works part-time for the Tennis & Rackets Association, the governing body of real tennis, while her partner, Paul Weaver, a retired company director, now leads junior real tennis in the UK.
Tory says: ‘My son Ben started to play real tennis and I used to take him to Saturday morning junior lessons.
‘I used to sit and watch and as he got better I began to think I’d quite like to have a go.
‘The game is very strong on etiquette and behaviour, as well as obviously hitting the ball.
‘There are a lot of funny rules to the game which have belonged through its long history.
‘I think this is probably one of the reasons people get hooked on the game – it is interesting as well as giving you a good workout.’
The sport involves hitting a ball over a net, but that’s where its similarity with the modern game of tennis ends.
Paul, 65, explains: ‘There’s no other sport like this.
‘The original game was started in the courtyard of a French monastery.
‘As luck would have it, one end of the court had a wall that stuck out.
‘The game developed around what was around the courtyard.
‘Real tennis is the original racket sport.
‘Originally they played it without a racket, they played it with their hand.
‘Eventually I imagine the monks got pretty fed up with hitting the ball with their hand and developed some sort of a racket.
‘Now you think of all the racket sports all over the world and it all comes back to this.’
The fact that a court survives in Hayling Island is amazing.
The original building was built in 1911 by businessman John Marshall, who picked up the sport while at Cambridge University and wanted his own private court in his back garden on Hayling seafront.
‘It’s really quite bizarre there is a court on Hayling Island,’ explains Paul.
‘In about 1950, nobody used the court. The roof caved in and eventually it was sold for building land.
‘One of the guys who is now part of the families that own the club remembered it from when he was a young man.
‘He went and saw the builder and bought the land back off him.
‘It was that close to being a cul-de-sac,’
Today Seacourt has around 800 members.
Tory says: ‘It can be played by all standards of players because there is a handicap system which works really well.
‘So a really good player can still have a great game with a not so good player.
‘We are really lucky to have a court on Hayling Island.
‘The ball and the racket are both very heavy so you have to have your wits about you when the ball is coming towards you.’
Paul loves the variety of the game, which includes more than 20 different types of serves.
‘It’s much more interesting than a normal game of tennis,’ says Paul.
‘I used to play lawn tennis quite a lot and once I discovered this game, I sometimes go out and play lawn tennis and it’s just so simple.’
Tory says she gets a feel-good buzz whenever she steps on court.
‘You feel a sense of the past,’ she says.
‘So many traditions are still a big part of the game that you can’t help feeling something special.’