HRH Real Tennis Tour 2018

Updated: 05 Dec 2018 RTC update
Published: 30 Jan 2018

The Earl of Wessex is undertaking a yearlong programme of engagements aimed at generating support for The Duke of Edinburgh's International Award. Through a combination of DofE events, Real Tennis tournaments and fundraising activity, His Royal Highness will enable a new generation of young people to start their DofE journey in the UK and abroad.

HRH Real Tennis Tour 2018
HRH Real Tennis Tour 2018
HRH Real Tennis Tour 2018
HRH Real Tennis Tour 2018
HRH Real Tennis Tour 2018

Real Tennis Tour 2018

“Why on earth do you want to do that?” This is the sort of question you might think, but should rarely ask out loud. Particularly when discussing an apparently mad endeavour such as running a marathon every day, or climbing some notorious, far-flung mountain, or rowing across an ocean or skiing across a frozen continent; for what might seem mad to you or me can give someone else enormous pleasure. Well, actually, it’s probably less to do with pleasure and more to do with the satisfaction of setting and overcoming a particular challenge.


From many years of experience of The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award I have learnt that this strange human characteristic is not particular to any one culture, but can be found anywhere in the world. It’s been a long time since I did my Gold Award, but I now find that I have succumbed, once again, to this peculiar trait and have set myself a bit of an ambition; not an overly dramatic one I hasten to add, but perhaps an appropriately eccentric one: I have decided to play every Royal or Real Tennis court in the world.

This is not an unusual ambition among Real Tennis players, but I’m not aware of anyone who has tried to do it in one calendar year. Inevitably, once I started discussing this with the some of the experts I soon discovered courts I had hitherto unheard of, such as “trinquet” and “tripot”. We have produced a list of about 50 courts in 5 countries (taking into account benign ownership, permissions, playability etc.) and my aim is to play three sets of doubles on each court.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award

Apart from the personal need to do this sooner rather than later (in other words while I still think I can!) there are some other factors behind my rather bizarre choice of activity. The common element is The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Real Tennis was my choice of Physical Activity to achieve my Gold Award, which inspired a bit of a passion and a sport which I have continued to enjoy. 2018 marks thirty years of The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award Association, formed to help the growing spread of the DofE around the world which today operates in more than 130 countries and territories and involves more than one million young people. Above all I hope to open young people’s eyes to the opportunities out there, sports clubs to be more open and welcoming to potential players and adults to be more encouraging; to experience the satisfaction of helping a young person to achieve a goal of their choice.

Financial Legacy

To this end, the whole tour has an additional economic purpose with an attempt to leave a financial legacy for the benefit of young people. Clubs have been asked to find different players for each set, who could be novices, juniors, seniors or professionals, hopefully sponsored. The DofE will also benefit from fundraising activities and opportunities generated by the tour.

Charting My Progress

The Real Tennis Tour started on 18th January in Cambridge where I learnt to play. Today there are two courts, there was only one in my day and it was unbelievably cold as the photographs from that time show. A number of players have asked me to record my observations of each of the courts, how they differ and how they play. So I will endeavour to chart my progress around the courts for those who are interested or who simply think I’ve gone mad and are still wondering, “Why on earth do you want to do that?”!

Courts 1 and 2 – Cambridge University Real Tennis Club

Huge thanks and congratulations to CURTC who hosted the most brilliant start to my Real Tennis Tour on Thursday 18th and Friday 19th January. A great mix of ages and abilities involved on court from novices to juniors to seniors; great engagement with the community; a productive fundraising dinner at Jesus College for the DofE and the actual tennis wasn’t too shabby either!

The event kicked off with around 40 complete novices from a number of local schools and colleges were given the chance to try their hand at the game producing the usual mixture of bemusement, frustration and amazement. Most said they would be back to give it another go and some even said that they would like to get involved with the next junior competition. Of course, it was not only the young people being exposed to the sport, but also the school staff. All-in-all a great investment in the future.

Green Court

The first of the two courts I had to play on is known as the Green Court, although there is nothing particularly ‘green’ about it. This is the one I learnt to play on way back in the mists of time when I was an undergraduate and when it was the only one in use. Those were the days when Brian Church was the professional, a legend of the sport, renowned for his exploits both on and off the court! His playing style and coaching skills are still remembered.

My abiding memory of those days was the temperature of the court which never seemed to rise much above freezing. The decision to play in January must therefore rank as being somewhat questionable, nevertheless we were lucky with the weather and I was pleasantly surprised by the ambient temperature. My playing companions for the first three sets were junior members, all of whom were below the age of 15 or so, which certainly put me under plenty of additional pressure. By common agreement this is the truer court which takes a reasonable cut; the Tambour is not particularly pronounced so the ball tends to head for the back wall just over half way easily catching out the unwary by getting behind the defender. The Penthouse is quite sharp and I never really got the pitch or length right, not that my receivers complained!

Blue Court

The Blue Court was recently restored having been used as squash courts in my day. The last and only time I played on this court was when I was invited to re-open it! My companions for the next three extended sets were some of the senior members (or ones over the age of 15 or so!) and some pretty even play, at least all but a handful of games going to deuce. This court has a unique roof design with a series of glazed pitches which allows a lot of natural light without direct glare; its most unusual feature being the hessian covering of the brick walls above the out-of-court line. This court is much livelier with the ball bouncing more, however the main wall does induce a bit of drag which can make the corners tricky to read. The Penthouse and Tambour are similar in design and effect.

Not sure my tennis was all that good (which I’ll put down to a very good evening at Jesus College and a slightly too hearty breakfast!), but I’ll take the members’ reported comment that they were relieved they were involved in the first event as a compliment! Once again, my thanks to one and all for rising to the challenge and kicking off the Tour in such fine style and with plenty of enthusiasm. As for me, well there’s no turning back now!

Court 3 – Bristol Real Tennis Club

Returning to the court nearly 20 years to the day since I opened it, I was delighted to discover a thriving and enthusiastic club. Another great day of celebration for the game, several novice spectators, a wide variety of ages represented on court, a range of DofE activities and fundraising, a packed dinner at the Merchant Venturers’ Hall and some very welcome cake!

There are two unique and immediately noticeable characteristics of this court; firstly there is no natural light and secondly the acoustic. For some curious reason there is no reverberation or echo so the sound of the ball being struck is completely deadened. Of course, that shouldn’t affect the play, yet in some ways it takes a while to become accustomed to it.

Another characteristic is that the main wall seems to produce considerable drag, especially at the Server’s end, which makes it really challenging to read let alone return a ball which connects with both the main and back wall. Thankfully some locals struggle as much as I did and were equally amazed when a ball which should, by all the laws of physics, have come almost straight off the back wall dived across the court a good yard behind the player! A well weighted ball also had the habit of simply dying when it struck the back wall under the Dedans, stranding the unaccustomed player too far down the court.

The whole afternoon was well supported with a good crowd in the Dedans, Galleries and in the upper Gallery who moved around for each of the three sets so that they got a different view of the game. My playing companions were a good mixture of ages and backgrounds, including University of Bristol students, as well as some DofE Award holders. During the day I also met one DofE Gold Award achiever at Clifton College who had also used Tennis for his Physical Activity. All in all, I think we managed to play 32 games so the tea and cake, including a 20th anniversary one, was much appreciated! Huge thanks to one and all, most especially Kevin King and Ben Coleman for coaching the novices and marking; having said that there was at least one occasion when we were leading a game at one end, but curiously lost the game at the other end after one point . . . just as well they were friendly matches!

Court 4 – Holyport Real Tennis Club

With winter making its presence felt both without and within the court, this turned out to be quite a chilly event. The boys and girls from the local Holyport College who came to try their hand at the game were suitably bewildered and might have enjoyed it more if they’d been wearing more clothes! I was impressed that they were all DofE Bronze Award achievers and most were doing their Silver. Hopefully some may have got the bug and return at a future date.

Holyport is one of my “local” courts and so I’m pretty familiar it.For the aficionados this is a Joseph Bickley design with plenty of daylight. On the whole it’s a pretty generous court with a relatively slow floor so responds well to a good cut. The tambour is fairly straightforward and pushes the ball straight across the court. It has been relit recently which has made a significant difference.

Half a dozen or so members gave up a Tuesday morning to come and play the required three sets which turned out to be quite lively with some very mixed styles and power. There was a really good crowd of supporters for the first set who, for some reason, decided that they all had better things to do after that and retreated to the club room. My partners for the second set were left wondering about their playing reputation!

Huge thanks to the members who came to play, to John Evans and especially Drew Lyons for marking. It’s never an easy task and I’m quite sure that more balls end up in the Marker’s box when it’s occupied than whenever it’s empty! A most welcome and delicious lunch, with some DofE supporters who had witnessed the game for the first time, was awaiting us in the nearby Royal Oak in Paley Street; recently made even more famous by its sous chef, Craig Johnston, becoming the youngest ever winner of MasterChef: The Professionals.

Courts 5 and 6 – The Queen’s Club

This day will be forever etched on everyone’s memory by the temperature. In true British and DofE style we all carried on trying to pretend it really wasn’t all that cold and enjoyed a heightened sense of achievement that we’d managed not just to play, but also survived! The negative temperature on court was more than compensated for by the warmth of the welcome, the spirit and humour with which all the games were played and by the hospitality of everyone at Queen’s. It was also a great way to promote their Foundation which supports juniors to engage in all the sports offered at the Club.

West Court

To be honest I think I’d forgotten how cold Real Tennis courts can get. I thought it was just Cambridge, but the West Court at Queen’s was definitely below zero on this day. In fact, on several occasions we were somewhat distracted when snow began falling inside the court! A group from Fulham Boys School, who normally go to Queen’s to play rackets, had been diverted onto the Tennis court for the first time. Here was another group woefully unprepared for the temperature or were just mad keen on demonstrating their dedication to the DofE brand by only sporting T-shirts! Mind you, the girls from Lady Margaret’s failed to get there at all, which did bring their DofE credentials into question, but then I’m not sure how much the Headmistress’ influence may have swung that decision.

The morning session was dedicated to the juniors (with a couple of brave fathers willing to subject themselves to ritual humiliation at the hands of their children). In spite of cold hands (and cold everything else) there was some spirited tennis and some entertaining moments. The West Court is the second of Queen’s two courts although they appeared to play pretty much the same to me. Neither court was at its best since the windows at the apex of the roofs were covered in snow and therefore blacked out. I didn’t measure them, but the Dedans in the West Court seems marginally lower than in the East, I’m only saying this because several balls which I felt had no right to go into the Dedans (so I left) did on the West Court, but when I tried the same thing on the East Court they didn’t!

We did discover one particularly unique characteristic. During the coaching session, the Assistant Pro (no names here) managed to roll a ball up the Penthouse whereupon it stayed, neatly perched against the wall and defied both gravity and all our attempts to dislodge it throughout our three sets.

East Court

The afternoon session was with a number of senior members with a wide range of skills, experience and flexibility, if you get my gist. This is, of course, the show court where many an Open Championship has been played as well as many other tournaments and which will be the host of this year’s World Championships. I don’t believe anyone, but the most nonchalant, can step onto this court without a tingle of nerves and sense of history. It’s also a court which has regularly made feel like a dunce, since I have always found the floor just that bit faster than most so the ball is there quicker than you and your racket are.

Well either my warm up (if you can realistically call it that) in the morning helped or my playing partners were being especially kind, but I found the East Court much less trouble than I had feared. It also seems bouncier than I recall and requires considerable cut or pace to keep the ball down off the back walls. The enclosed new extension off the Members’ Bar with its three windows has produced a very smart (and warm) viewing gallery above the Dedans. It was noticeable that nearly all the spectators stayed up there rather than venturing into the Dedans. It was also noticeable that the temperature on the East Court, while still seriously cold, was at least above freezing and we didn’t experience any snow during our games.

A special word of thanks must go to our Marker, Neil MacKenzie, who endured some four hours of mostly standing at the net, although I did notice a certain keenness to call “time” to gather or collect balls at very regular intervals. All three sets in the afternoon were pretty close and I think we ended up playing 50 games in all. I will recall one point, if I may, when my partner was forced to run after a ball at the Hazard end while playing off a chase which he deftly tipped over the net. Our opponents then lobbed it back onto the roof in the forehand corner. As I was making my over to that side of the court to cover my partner’s absence I could still hear him trundling down the court under some momentum and before the ball had even rolled off the roof I heard the Marker shout “stroke”. To all of our amusement, and to the Marker’s obvious delight, my partner had only stopped because he had reached the net and in touching it had forfeited the point; a first in our Marker’s career. For those who know Queen’s you may be wondering why no mention of Ben Ronaldson. Well he had a pretty good excuse considering he had just become a father again; many congratulations to Ben and Eleanor!

Court 7 - Manchester Real Tennis Club

Another court I haven’t played on for a number of years. Fantastic effort by the whole Club to really champion the aims of the Challenge: great engagement with local schools, a full house of supporters for the matches and a splendid fundraising dinner on the Racquets Court.

Mel Harding (Secretary) and Ken Townson (President) really rose to the occasion and the opportunity. They secured assistance from the Dedanists and Peter Kershaw Trust to involve six schools delivering the DofE to try their hand at the game and to demonstrate their skills in front of parents, friends and a few others; so not much pressure! Each group had a four coaching sessions over the preceding months before facing three tests: put a ball in the Dedans (2 points), put a ball in the Grille (3 points) and serve a bobble (1 point if correct, ½ point if the ball came off the back penthouse). Believe it or not, just half a point separated the top two schools.

It’s nearly sixteen years since I’ve been on this court, which was when Manchester was hosting the Commonwealth Games. Tennis wasn’t one of the sports, sadly, but since I was staying in the City throughout I made sure I found time to play a couple of times. There are possibly two immediately noticeable features: its high roof with no rafters or girders and the out-of-court lines above the Dedans penthouse. The former allows high serves and lobs, obviously, the latter indicates a sharp penthouse making the ball bounce high. It also indicates a penthouse which can make a serve kick out. Luckily no one tried a Giraffe, but I can imagine it can be pretty deadly on this court. It’s quite a bouncy court which requires a lot of cut. The ball does lots of other things, but I’m not sure that’s entirely down to the floor and may have more to do with the way it was hit.

Our three sets were lively and spirited. The first was with three players connected with the Tour’s Headline Sponsor RSM, two employees (one of whom is a member) and a client. Two of them were novices, only having had one lesson each, albeit with Lawn Tennis and Squash experience, nevertheless it was staggeringly brave. Having said that, they both visibly improved during the course of the set. The next two sets were with more experienced and highly competitive members (including the Secretary and President) where little mercy was shown or given, either to the opposition or to the Marker! Huge credit and thanks must go to Steve Brockenshaw and Darren Long for all the coaching, sharing the marking and dodging all those highly tactical Line chases. However, Markers must resist the temptation to try to catch the ball!

The day ended with dinner on a transformed Racquets court generously supported by lots of members, especially some who’d donated their holiday homes for the Silent Auction, and Pol Roger. A confident and enthusiastic speech by a DofE Award holder and Head Girl of a local girls’ school I had visited earlier in the day no doubt encouraged guests to dig deep, all in all helping to raise nearly £25,000. Well done and a massive thanks to everyone and I take it as a massive compliment that, after all that, the Club asked me to become an Honorary Member; either that or they’re hoping to recoup some of their expenses through future bar bills!

Finally, best wishes and many congratulations to Darren and Zoe for their big day in April.

Court 8 - Lord’s Tennis Court

When I lived and worked in London I used to be a bit of a regular at Lord’s, so this was another return to old haunts for me. The task of organising the day was delegated to the Tennis and Squash Committee under the very able stewardship of Brian Sharp. It also turned out to be an excellent way of introducing the new Chief Executive, Guy Lavender, to the “other” game!

There is something about the darkness of the colour scheme or the architecture which makes the court feel as if it’s quite long and narrow. This feeling used to be accentuated by the rather small, hard, white balls. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, nevertheless you might then be able to understand my surprise and consternation to discover the balls today are the standard yellow. This I found a little disconcerting to begin with, but that’s purely a personal observation.

The court is a lively one, plenty of bounce and requires a heavy cut, which the locals are quite practised at. A high lob is an effective way of winning a low number chase as it bounces most annoyingly straight into the Dedans. The Penthouse seems quite broad or relatively flat which favours a serve with plenty of spin. The Tambour is not all that oblique, by that I mean that a ball played on the forehand along the main wall will kick out towards the forehand corner at the Hazard End.

We had three lively sets with some doubles aficionados which made for three very close matches, playing a total of 51 games in the three hours. In the last set my partner and I had established a small lead, but our opponents had kept up a dogged defence. I seem to recall that when we were around 6-5 up they decided to start serving tea behind the Dedans which not only distracted the supporters, but also the players. At 6-6 the lure of a cup of tea became over-powering, but I wasn’t entirely sure my partner had quite the same idea. Thankfully I was proved wrong and we managed to secure the last two games needed to end the match.

Special thanks must go to Chris Wilshaw, Assistant Professional, who, in spite of a sore throat and croaky voice, marked all three games. All the players, who also came to the dinner in the Writing Room later hosted by the Headline Sponsor of this Tennis Tour, RSM. Then, despite all our efforts to demonstrate the game to the best of our ability, four brilliant amateurs came on and showed us how it can really be played! The MCC were excellent and generous hosts. My special treat of the day was to be allowed to use the Home Team’s Changing Room with that magnificent view of the Cricket Field, only just resisting the temptation to step onto that famous balcony wearing the “other” games’ kit!

Court 13 – Seacourt Tennis Club

The very aptly named “sea” court is at the very southern end of Hayling Island and is just a tennis ball’s throw from the sea . . . well maybe after a swig of Getafix’s magic potion for those of you who came across the Adventures of Asterix the Gaul. Actually, I could have done with a spot of magic potion to cope with this court and some of my opponents!

From the first warm up with three of the club’s juniors I knew I was in for a tough afternoon. The floor and walls are very smooth making them very quick and respond well to cut, or at least everyone else’s cut but mine! The Penthouses are quite short and steep and very prone to backspin. The roof is also relatively low and with lots of beams to catch any, even slightly high, ball and no chance of a lob. The only apparently generous feature is the Tambour which tends to kick the ball out square.

This is a court which has a distinct home advantage and I was quite simply outplayed by both the court and the players. Rarely have I so consciously failed to see the ball or been hit by it in so many places, including the back of the head; a feat I hope not to repeat again! I am seriously hoping that it was a combination of playing in the Queen’s Pro-Am as part of their World Championship week the day before and recovering from my two-week stint in Australia.

Having said all that, the club laid on a terrific day which started with six local schools trying out a variety of racquet sports: Real, Lawn, Table and Paddle tennis as well as Badminton all coordinated by club member Simon Flynn. A selection of young players from the different schools then took part in a Real Tennis masterclass run by the professionals Nino Merola and Aaron Flippence who then kindly marked the following games. The club has a thriving junior section and I’m sure that won’t be the last time I see and hear of the those I had the pleasure of playing with, including Alex Garside’s daughter who I remember coming to a tournament I organised, in which her mother was playing, when she was just a few weeks old! It seems that her recent trip to Australia had had a much more beneficial effect on her game than on mine!

Court 14 – Radley College

Another court I haven’t managed to get back to since I opened it, this time just 10 years ago; even then I can’t quite believe it’s been that long. Under the inspirational Chris Ronaldson, this court is now at almost maximum capacity, being regularly booked for 16 hours a day. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but the notion of a second court is no longer a secret; can’t imagine who could have possibly mentioned it in front of the Warden, a couple of members of the College Council and rather a lot of witnesses!

This court is very similar to Bristol in that it has no natural light and little or no echo. It’s overriding feature is its colour: blue, but quite a strong blue. Its floor is tiled, similar to The Oratory which gives a very even and generous bounce. The walls are relatively slow so the ball doesn’t come back very much and any cut is severe. Even the Penthouses are quite slow so any ball striking the roof and then wall comes down close quite steeply and even a ball that strikes the wall before the Penthouse doesn’t travel that far down the court and the floor slows them down as well. Don’t expect many generous chases from that direction.

The combination of Penthouses and floor means that they respond well to a well-spun, good length serve, which should be to a server’s advantage, but then you need to watch out for all manner of returns! As for the Tambour, it’s just luck if you happen to be in the right place! During my three sets the ball came off at every possible angle and I’m none the wiser how to describe it. Overall, I would say the court is a generous one and has features which make it an ideal place to learn the essentials and be rewarded for applying them well.

Each of the three sets were keenly contested and hopefully entertaining for the viewers, some of whom I noticed were experienced practitioners. There was a good mix of college students, parents and general members playing and supporting. Huge thanks to our markers, Chris Ronaldson and Saskia Bollerman, I only hope that my own efforts under the watchful gaze of the “master” proved to be reasonably satisfactory!

Court 16 – Newmarket Real Tennis Club

This court was rescued in the 1990s and converted from its temporary use as a garage. Thankfully there is no sign of the not inconsiderable doors which were knocked out of the back wall. The first impression of this court is the magnificent steeped roof with its decorative finishes giving a great sense of space and height. Today there are only windows on one side above the main wall, but originally there were matching windows above the Penthouse. There were also outside galleries allowing spectators to watch through the windows, although these haven’t been reinstated.

The walls around the Dedans and along the Galleries have recently been re-plastered and painted giving the court a very smart appearance, although inevitably producing some interesting effects, especially where the main wall meets the Dedans wall. On the whole, this a pretty generous court with a reasonably bouncy floor, the walls and penthouses responding well to spin. I did discover a couple of sections of wall which appeared to be a bit soft meaning the ball simply never came back!

The Tambour requires a little bit of getting used to, the angles varying depending on where you hit the ball from and then how the ball then comes off the back and Penthouse walls. The high roof with metal beams means there’s plenty of space to lob and with the lights can make it quite tricky for your opponent to keep track of it. The Penthouses are quite steep and slow, the ball often dropping quite sharply or worse.

Andrew Knibbs as the only professional had a very busy afternoon, running a masterclass for Newmarket Academy and then marking all three sets for which all the players were most grateful; not forgetting the set of new balls for the occasion, something the members particularly noticed! The club were really pleased by the reaction of both secondary and primary schools and hope to continue the access for them. My only regret was that, in spite of my best efforts, I was unable to demonstrate a Winning Gallery especially as I wanted to find out the noise it made; for instead of a bell they have, most appropriately, three horseshoes


Court 17 – Petworth House Tennis Club

It’s been a few years since I’ve been here and I’d forgotten just what a lovely building and setting it is. The present court was built in the 1870s and is probably the sixth on this site starting in the sixteenth century. It’s a magnificent building with windows on both sides giving plenty of natural light. It’s a traditional black surround, dark red floor with the area behind the Service Line in green. This is a generous court, even surfaces making most bounces and deflections true, requiring a good cut to have an effect. The Penthouses are broad and not steep so can take a wide variety of serves, definitely making the Service End more attractive.

The club made use of the opportunity to extend their links with a few more schools in the area. The first set was with some of their juniors, the second with some members which were a warm-up for the third when I was joined by the two Professionals, Tom Durack and Louis Gordon, with Andrew Page making up the fourth member. As you can probably imagine, this turned into quite a pacey and hard-fought battle right up to the decider. Considering I had suffered one of those instant weight-loss-type bugs over the previous few days I was mightily surprised I survived this day, indeed much to my and everyone else’s surprise, even managing to frustrate most of Andrew’s attempts at the Winning Gallery!

The great excitement of this day for the members was not really the prospect of three sets of tennis, but rather the nerve-wracking, adrenaline pumping, agonising moment of an unveiling by a royal personage. What could possibly go wrong? Philip Jackson, the renowned sculptor, but perhaps less well-known member of Petworth and Real Tennis aficionado, is well-used to this sort of occasion and has had a few close calls in his career. In this case the mechanics worked perfectly and with a satisfying ripping sound (I do love Velcro) the curtain revealed a stunning mural of four ages of Tennis.

The new extension and facilities are a major improvement, although I’m a bit worried about the club’s equality policy since I was made to use what appeared on the door to be the Ladies changing room! However, I can report that they are very smart and, to ensure total equality, (there is, according to the doors, a Men’s changing room as well, but obviously the signs mean nothing) both changing rooms have hair dryers. It’s a nice touch, but for some of us just wishful thinking! Another great day with many thanks to all.

Court 22 – Hyde Real Tennis Club

Once again, a court I haven’t had the opportunity to return to in the 20 years since I opened it and here I was on the anniversary of that day. Situated in the tiny hamlet of Walditch in Dorset it takes a bit of finding, but well worth looking for as it is one of the most striking courts from the outside. Although built in 1883 its appearance is more mediaeval. Inside doesn’t disappoint with a most welcoming club room and modern changing facilities (well at least the ladies’ is – that rather too equal policy again!).

The court itself is spacious with a high pitched roof and wooden beams (apparently there is a prize for the number beams you can lob the ball through without touching one). There is a row of windows along each side set back to reduce direct sunlight. One of the idiosyncrasies of this court is that the windows above the Dedans and Back Wall Penthouses are not out of court. I didn’t try it, but apparently it requires a little patience for the ball to drop off the ledge onto the Penthouse!

The livery is very smart with red painted stone floor, green walls and blue lines to pick out the galleries and service lines. The Penthouses are relatively broad and flat while the Tambour is fairly obtuse. The light is good and I found the floor and walls pretty true. There is one other unique feature of the court which is an electrical duct running up the corner above the Dedans however it didn’t affect our play and to be honest it must be a very rare occurrence.

The club laid on an excellent event, some great tennis, I even managed to surprise myself with some of my volleying considering I had had a three week gap since my last outing. My thanks goes to Jez Brodie for marking all three sets and to everyone who helped with catering lunch, with special credit to the creator of the anniversary cake in the shape of a tennis court complete with galleries and chases!

Court 23 – Canford School

This was my first opportunity to play Canford, close to Wimborne Minster and also in Dorset. It’s slightly older than Hyde, built in 1879 and refurbished in 1913. The school is later, founded in 1923, and is in one of the most picturesque settings imaginable.

While the roof isn’t that high, the double width of glazing on both sides of the apex gives plenty of light and a great sense of space. The metal beams aren’t in play as there’s netting just below them presumably to protect the glass ceiling, however typically the netting isn’t quite fool-proof so that a well-aimed or simply unlucky high ball can find the odd gap and thus remain suspended for the rest of the match to remind everyone of that not-quite-so-well-struck shot!

Like Hyde this also has a dark green livery with blue lines to pick out the galleries, a mottled red painted stone floor is perhaps a giveaway of its age, but it’s also pretty smooth so the ball comes through quickly. The Tambour is relatively obtuse, however it is the Penthouses which are perhaps the most distinguishing feature as they are broad, yet surprisingly steep, which react well to spin both on service as well as backspin. They can also give the ball quite a kick!

Steve Ronaldson, surely the longest serving professional at one court, was on hand to mark along with his assistant James Ryan. At one moment, Steve called what sounded to me like “Chase the gnome!” Thinking I’d misheard or that he was testing to see if I was paying attention, I queried it. He affirmed that’s what he had said, so the next time we reached the Service End I went and had a look and sure enough there was a picture of a gnome at a yard better than the Second Gallery. I also found that instead of a yard worse than the Last Gallery there was an “8”. When I enquired if there should be something equally quirky at the Hazard End Steve just gave me a look, “well, that would be silly, wouldn’t it?”

My thanks, as ever goes to all the players and indeed the many supporters who turned up. Steve and James for helping to make it such fun and for allowing us to use the set of balls from the recent World Championships (and, I was assured, the cause of any odd shaped ones!). To Ben and Harriet Vessey for their generous hospitality, support and permission. To the boys of Castle Court Prep School who were the recipients of the masterclass and outclassed us by wearing their sports caps and one boy nearly turned out in his blazer!

Court 24 – Oratory School

This is one of my local courts and therefore one I play reasonably regularly, although this odyssey means that even the ones I think I know can catch me out; either because I haven’t played there for a while or, more likely, where I played last can affect the way one plays next. The court is part of quite a sports complex including a swimming pool, squash courts, a sports hall and lawn tennis outside. In fact, the school used to joke that the Real Tennis court was really just a corridor connecting the squash courts with the sports hall which grew into something rather bigger!

Three local schools had been invited to try out the various sports on this day, although it was some of the boys from the Oratory who were on the Tennis court when I arrived. For some of the girls it was the eve of their practice DofE Gold expedition to Snowdonia; what better way to prepare?!

This is another enclosed court relying on artificial light, but it’s height makes it feel quite spacious. It also has two levels of glazed viewing above the Dedans. This also has a green livery and white lines, but with a red tiled floor. The Tambour is more acute which is a little more generous than most. The Penthouses are pretty broad and flat, all in all a very true and lively court which does however respond to a well cut ball.

There is an outside door which was letting in a delightful breeze which we all enjoyed every time we changed ends. That is until they lit the BBQ and started cooking lunch about the time we started the third set. The smells that now drifted in through the door were most distracting and may have had something to do with the slightly shorter time it took us to reach the eighth game!

Huge thanks to Joseph Smith for his permission and hospitality, to Marc Seigneur and his team for all their help, Marc having a particularly busy day marking and even playing in the last set (apparently someone didn’t turn up . . .). It was also great to see Mark Eadle make a guest appearance to mark the last set. There was only one wincing moment when our opponents were defending the Hazard end and the ball was neatly lobbed over the head of the forward player who had moved to cover the Tambour and having called “yours” bent down, but his partner now had to play the ball just under the Grille. It probably wasn’t as close as it looked, but we’re all jolly glad the ball missed!

Court 25 – Hardwick House

Among the most obscure and well-hidden courts in the country. It’s setting, next to the Elizabethan House and on the banks of the River Thames, also makes it one of the most picturesque. Certainly the second and possibly the third court on the estate, this one was built for Sir Charles Day Rose at the beginning of the twentieth century (his second at Hardwick and his third in total as he was also responsible for building the court at Newmarket). Sir Charles’ other claim to notoriety is that he is thought to have been the inspiration for Kenneth Graeme’s “Mr Toad” from Wind in the Willows and Toad of Toad Hall.

My sincere thanks go to Sir Julian and Lady Rose for their permission to play on their court and indeed for supporting the day. The Friends of Hardwick Tennis Court came out in force to support the day which was a stunningly sunny one, very different to my first experience more than twenty years ago which was a very wet one. In fact so wet that there were piles of sawdust at various strategic points on the floor of the court to absorb the water dripping through the roof. Amazingly, we played the best of 3 sets of doubles and not once did a ball bounce on a pile nor did anyone step on a pile. As you can tell, one of my more memorable games of tennis!

This is a lovely and unique court with plenty of natural light, the central apex of the roof is glazed and there are windows down either side, some letting in more light than others. The beams are integral to the roof leaving a totally free space over the court. The livery is black with white lines to pick out the galleries, the floor is red painted stone. The Penthouses are a reasonably standard width and pitch, the Tambour relatively acute. The floor plays well, but the walls appear relatively soft so the ball doesn’t come back much and cuts sharply. Anything in the corners or off the side walls is very tricky.

The Dedans resembles a rather cosy sitting room complete with a substantial fireplace (thankfully not needed) and a door into what’s left of the former walled Rose Garden. An excellent lunch was laid on by the Chairman’s wife which was much enjoyed by all. Thanks must also go to David Gordon for marking all three sets and we were all jolly glad when someone took pity on him and gave him something to drink. I’m not sure what was in the glass, but it did seem to have bubbles and it did seem to improve his marking!

Court 26 – Hatfield House

A beautiful day if rather on the warm side; there is only one door into the building so no air flow at all. My first visit to Hatfield was as a member of the Cambridge University team (Brian Church, the Pro at Cambridge, having deemed I’d improved sufficiently). It was also the first ‘foreign’ court I’d ever played and was for me, at least, a very humbling experience. I particularly recall losing too many points by hitting the Penthouse above the Dedans, the ball soaring up and going out of court. This is due to the Out-of-Court line being relatively low along both sides as the windows are especially large.

It was my first, and slightly depressing, experience of the idiosyncrasies of this game and the different courts. What I found far more galling when I next played at Hatfield some years later was to discover they’d changed the rules! Now the Out-of-Court line has been raised around the netting protecting the windows so the ball can bounce off the Penthouse and stay in play. Please don’t get me wrong, the change is absolutely necessary; I just wasn’t sure they didn’t change the markings temporarily at the time to give themselves a considerable home court advantage!!

This is a well-lit court, plenty of natural light, the walls are all black except for the lines, which are pale blue, and the Penthouses, which are purple. The latter are relatively broad with a medium pitch so take a variety of serves, but the side wall is not that high. The Tambour is not too obtuse so it’s possible to intercept the ball before it reaches the end wall.

The court may only have been built in 1842 yet blends in perfectly with the surrounding buildings which are mostly from the Elizabethan period. It has a high-pitched roof, the beams are natural wood although the ball is out if it goes above them. The floor is stone, painted with a gloss finish, the effect makes the stone look brown and the surface shiny yet it isn’t slippery, at least not to shoes. However the smooth finish makes the ball come on quickly and keeps any spin so that the effect when the ball comes into contact with the walls is increased, the wall under the Dedans particularly taking cut more so than at the Hazard End.

Huge thanks to Jon Dawes and James Law (both of whom started at Seacourt) for all their help with the event, marking and running the masterclass. To the club for its generous hospitality, warm welcome, good support and closely fought matches in spite of relinquishing any handicaps and playing off level. However, the image which will remain with me for a long time is of the Lord-Lieutenant in uniform, complete with sword and spurs, wielding a racquet and ball on the court! Hopefully, when more appropriately attired, he may be tempted back to have a proper go.

Court 27 – Falkland Palace

This is one court where you need a fine day and amazingly fortune smiled on us, it was indeed lovely: 210 (in the shade), sunny with broken clouds and a light breeze so that it wasn’t too hot. In case you’re wondering why the weather description, Falkland Palace is this country’s oldest, most northerly and only open air court, it is also uniquely the only example of a Jeu de Carré version of Tennis, so it has no Tambour and no Dedans instead it has four lunes, small rectangular holes high up in the wall, and a stave, a vertical plank of wood where the side Penthouses meet the end wall i.e. just behind the server’s arm. Any ball which goes through a lune is a point (and usually lost as the Mr MacGregor-like-gardeners get most upset with tennis players, rather than rabbits, who rummage around in their flower beds or vegetable patch) as is a ball which strikes the stave, so long as it hasn’t touched the Penthouse first.

The Out-of-Court line is very simple and presumably where the expression comes from. There is a lovely notice in the gardens warning members of the public and tourists to “beware of tennis balls”. It is quite possibly the most ineffective sign ever, as from the gardens there is no obvious tennis court (just a very high wall), there is no indication that the tennis balls will be falling from the sky, nor any particular bit of the sky nor does it mention that the balls are pretty solid! Believe it or not, during our three sets there was one lune, several staves and once one player put a ball out of court it seemed to catch-on, although not by yours truly . . . honestly!

Somehow this feels slightly smaller than most courts, similar to the French courts in Pays-Basque, yet it’s not really. The flag-stone floor and walls are pretty rough as are the Penthouses which slows the ball down a lot and the bounce is incredibly uneven. The club has changed from their Dunlop heavy weight rubber balls to the more traditional hand-made ones, but then cover the stitches in silicon to help preserve them which means that none of them is truly round to even start with! There is a real art to serving on this court to get the pace and the length right simply because the surfaces are so rough. One railroad serve actually managed to hit a bit of planking sticking up which stopped the ball dead and sent it back up the court!

Chase “the door” is genuinely the door, as this still has the two doors onto each end of the court. With the lack of a Dedans it does make the Marker’s job particularly difficult, but then the club doesn’t have a resident Professional so we didn’t have to overcome that problem, but we did have to mark the games ourselves.

Huge thanks to the club members who turned out to play and support, also to the Keeper of Falkland Palace as well as the National Trust for Scotland who run the Palace and to their volunteers who produced a delightful lunch in the gardens. It was great to see some boys and girls from Strathallan trying out the game for the first time (and giving up part of their holidays) and to have two members of the St Andrew’s University Real Tennis Society getting involved. Finally, a collective apology from all the players to anyone who suffered a near miss from a tennis ball while they were wandering nonchalantly around the gardens on 2nd July 2018!

Court 28 – Fairlawne

For any tennis player, permission to play Fairlawne is not just a treat, but also a great privilege. For the estate and court are both in private ownership and on behalf of the lucky few who were given access on this day we are most grateful to the family for their support and permission. Special thanks to Chris Davies and the T&RA for helping to organise the players and guests, and particular thanks to James Schwarz and the estate’s staff for being so welcoming and generous with their hospitality. I think I can speak for everyone when I say that it was a memorable day.

The court was built in 1879 and is beautifully maintained, in fact in better condition than the last time I was lucky enough to play there. On that occasion (someone tried to convince me it was 25 years ago, but I think they must be mistaken; I’m sure I haven’t been playing that long . . .)I discovered that one part of the wall was a bit soft and you could play the ball as hard as you liked at it and the effect was as if you had cut the ball really well! No such luck this time!!

The livery is a rather smart black lower, white upper with blue lines and the galleries in white. The stone floor is painted matt green. The Tambour is acute, so a cross-court shot can end up as a Hazard chase, or if you’ve selected a particularly bouncy ball it is possible to make it into the Winning Gallery. The Penthouses have a medium angle and the walls are all true so all in all a pretty generous court. The lighting is all natural with some additional high level unobtrusive lights. The apex of the roof is glazed, however there are a series of boards suspended at beam level which cleverly diffuse the direct light. There are windows down both sides which have recently been restored so that they open which presumably made some difference to the temperature on the court, but quite frankly it was still energy-sappingly warm.

Many thanks to all the players who came from far and wide, also to Drew Lyons and Steve Ronaldson who both marked and played, as well as providing the all essential balls. There was some good tennis, although I must confess I found the heat tricky and felt I ran out of steam earlier than I probably should have. Doesn’t bode well for my next club if it’s still just as hot as I’ve got to survive two courts in one day.

Courts 29 and 30 – Prested Hall

This was my first visit to Prested and the famous striped courts. However logical they may seem, it still takes a little getting used to. The other well-known feature is the glass end wall, very similar to Romsey, only this one has a slightly sunken viewing area so that when seated a spectator is almost at floor level. A great way to experience how little the ball bounces and how low players have to get, but almost impossible to understand or appreciate chases as you can’t see the stripes beyond Hazard 1 and 2. However there are plenty of other viewing places with more traditional views.

The two courts have slightly different liveries, the one with the glass wall is dark red, the second court is orange – and I mean orange – presumably sponsored by the Dutch or perhaps a brand of fizzy drink and if not, it should be! The courts are parallel to each other in one hangar-sized modern barn, so the roof slopes one way on the red court and the other way on the orange court with a high-level viewing gallery between the two. There is no natural light and while the red court has overhead lights, the orange only has lights along the viewing gallery side which adds to the contrast between the two.

The floors are made of a composite material and painted which produces a seamless matt finish with blue and green stripes for each half yard or chase. So better than a yard is blue, worse than a yard is green and so on with the stripes getting wider when you get to the galleries. As I said, it takes a bit of getting used to. Interestingly the orange court’s floor is a bit faster. The Tambours are not too acute so push the ball across the court, but a cross-court shot won’t produce a Hazard chase. The Main and lower walls are solid, the upper walls i.e. above the Penthouses and out-of-court line, are plyboard, well-fixed, but they do make an unusual noise. The Penthouses are natural wood, slightly different pitches with the red court being steeper, but as such produced little or no spin, or at least I got no reaction to anything I did. The galleries on the orange court have wooden panels behind the netting, so is probably the only court in the world where you can boast a ball out of the Winning Gallery much to the surprise of our opponents. My partner seemed most disappointed when informed that it wasn’t really allowed!

The home team did a fantastic job of contacting local schools and attracting nearly 80 young people to come and try the game and having the 2 courts meant that while we were playing on one the other was being used for more masterclasses. However the noise and general hubbub made marking the first two sets quite challenging! There’s obviously quite a thriving junior section as I played all three morning sets with various young people, all of whom were seriously good. The three sets in the afternoon were all with adults. With the exception of the first set, I was always on the chasing team, which I could put down to new court disadvantage or another very hot day, but frankly I just didn’t feel that I was playing consistently enough. Nevertheless the last two sets went to 7 all, one even to deuce, so perhaps I was beginning to get the measure of these courts or my partners were better able to carry me.

Huge thanks to the club and staff of the hotel and everyone who came along to support the day and the dinner in the evening. Special thanks to Rob and Claire Fahey, Ged Parsons and Zak Smart for looking after so many new enthusiasts, for Ged and Rob for marking. Huge apologies to Chris, my partner in the last set; it was bound to happen sooner or later playing doubles, but in the end it had to be me to hit my partner with a ball. He had played a shot up the court and the return had passed him, I tried to pick it up off the back wall and boast it off the Main Wall to avoid him, only to discover that he had ducked into the path and not away. I probably shouldn’t have played the shot and I think he was rather surprised that I had managed to get across to reach it. Hopefully no harm done, Chris certainly wasn’t going to admit it at the time. The fact that we secured the final and deciding seventy-second game of the day was some recompense. Thank you Rob, for being the consummate professional and allowing the final point to be won with a Grille.

Court 31 – Wellington Real Tennis Club

After a few weeks of school holidays and focussing on our children it was time to get back on court and on with the Tennis Challenge or Odyssey. Wellington is the newest court and which I opened just two years ago in September 2016, however this was my first opportunity to play it. Well, actually, I waited until this Odyssey before giving it a go.

The most striking feature is the colour: a very bright, sort of purple/blue. The upper level, above the out of court line is grey; the Penthouses have been left as natural wood which is quite a contrast. It’s typical of a modern court as it has no natural light, so it’s artificially lit by lamps rather than strip which is unobtrusive. The beams are integral with the roof maximising the height; the floor is concrete, but with a clear, smooth polish finish. The whole plays generously with a good bounce, but the ball does come through quickly and requires a heavy cut to have any discernible effect. As a predominantly learner’s court it’s certainly a good place to start.

The day managed to touch on all the themes and aims of the Odyssey: it started with a masterclass for the younger generation and included children from several local schools. Even my son made an appearance! The first set of players were relative newcomers who had all opted to do Tennis as part of their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award at Wellington. The second set were rather more competent Wellington College players, which is perhaps an understatement as Freddie Bristow has just become the Junior World Champion! The third set were parents and adult club members, and just a touch competitive! We made it to 8 games within our allotted time of 45 minutes and so decided to continue, something of a rash decision on my part, especially as the second game went to deuce 14 times! Never before have I actually willed a ball from my opponents to go into the Dedans!!

The club rooms are really quite spacious and the pros have a great office which looks both ways: the court and the reception room. Support throughout the afternoon was considerable with lots of people coming to look, often for the first time. however, it was evident that the quality of play or appreciation was somewhat lacking since the noise made it really quite difficult to hear what the marker was saying, which considering either Danny or Adam were in the Dedans is really saying something! My thanks to all for a great afternoon and helping to get the great tour back underway.

Court 45 – Jesmond Dene, Newcastle

This was my first visit to the court and I was lucky to have a beautiful day for it as I was able to enjoy the quality of natural light. Probably the most unique aspect of this court are the round windows above the Galleries on the south side of the court and above the Dedans. The north side has the more traditional square windows and the high, wooden, pitched roof has extensive glazing with wrought iron rods as cross beams so the overall effect is light and airy. The artificial lighting is modern and also at high level so unobtrusive.

While the court is the traditional black with green lines, the upper is exposed brick which are not your traditional dark red, but a much warmer mix of mostly yellow and some red. The walls are good and respond well to cut as well as a weighted ball, so care is needed. The floor is red, painted and in good condition. We had a new set of quite large balls which were quite lively off the floor. The Tambour isn’t too obtuse so manageable. The Penthouses are solid and although don’t appear to be steep they do generate backspin so the ball can come down steeply.

Scott Blaber marked all three sets and ran a very well attended masterclass with pupils from a number of schools. My first set was with three juniors including a Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Award participant who had chosen Tennis for his Physical Recreation section and had therefore been partnered with me. What I didn’t discover until afterwards was that he was a virtual beginner and this was his first match, poor chap! I’m not sure I was very good at trying to protect him, failed to provide sufficient encouragement and any tips, meanwhile our opponents didn’t exactly hold back!

The second set with, if I may describe them as seniors, was a little erratic and we reached 8 games within our allotted 45 minutes so I suggested playing on, but changing receivers, at which point one of our opponents disappeared into the changing rooms and reappeared with a rather more sporty set of glasses. He confessed that he had been trying to play with reading or bifocals which explained his performance, but it was the fact that it had taken 12 games before he’d realised it!!

This is a lovely court and well worth a visit. In spite of its proximity to the city centre and on a fairly busy road it’s amazing how many locals have no idea it’s there. The court dates from 1894 when the land was owned by Sir Andrew Noble and was reopened as a Tennis court in 1981 after years of being used solely for Badminton. The Club has successfully acquired the freehold from the local authority, and I witnessed the handover, which will hopefully allow them to complete their refurbishment plans, in particular the roof – perhaps another reason to be thankful it was a lovely day!

Court 46 – Moreton Morrell

Rather scarily, it seems the last time I visited this court was for their centenary in 2005. This was a slightly smaller affair, but nevertheless it was good to meet so many members, friends and a good number of novices who’d been able to attend the masterclass. This is a rural club and transport is always a factor for anyone who wants to play, especially from or after school.

However, the effort to get there is definitely worthwhile. It is evident that a great deal of care and thought was put into the design of the court, the building and the setting. It was built privately by an American, Charles Garland, and some of the features of the court are unique. The out-of-court line, for instance, is a wooden dado and the top of the walls has a painted frieze and decorative wood cornice.

In addition to the Real Tennis court there is also an American Squash court (I’ve also heard it described as a Stické court, yet they are actually different games!), one of the very few left in the world . . . but that’s another story.

The floor is red, painted, but has several cracks and fissures which must surely affect the bounce, although I was unaware of anything untoward on this day. The club has done a lot of research into the composition of a Bickley floor in order to understand how best to restore it. Their conclusion is that what might be considered badly mixed concrete was used, which was relatively soft. It would certainly explain the apparent defects in their present floor and the lack of much bounce! I also found some places quite slippery, especially at the Service end.

The walls are pretty good, traditional black; the Tambour is relatively narrow and acute; the Penthouses not too steep. There is plenty of natural light, in fact it was really quite bright at the Receiver’s end due to windows down both sides, extensive roof glazing and a beautiful sunny day, so much so that a hat might have been useful! The artificial lighting is high and unobtrusive.

There was quite a range of playing partners, but they fully comprehended the instructions and we managed to play a total of 44 games in just under three hours. The last set was particularly lively with the ball fairly fizzing back and forth. I must confess that there was one memorable cross-court volley which not only surprised me, but also our opponents as well as those in the Dedans! My thanks, as ever, to all those who played and supported and especially Tom Granville for marking two of the sets. The middle set was marked by Sacha Wilson, a Bronze Award participant, who coped admirably in spite of being given the particularly mean task of applying a progressive handicap. This increases the more games one side gets ahead and decreases as the scores become more level. As players, we probably didn’t help much by racking up a big difference and then getting it back to level!

Court 47 – Leamington Spa

The other Warwickshire court is tucked away in the centre of Royal Leamington Spa, behind a typically non-descript façade and front door; yet another pretty impressive example of how to hide a Tennis court! Rather amazingly it’s been there since 1846 which makes it the oldest membership Tennis club. It’s also been a few years since I played here in one of their doubles competitions and somehow I managed to forget to wear their club tie, which is all the more surprising given its vivid striped colours which is pretty unmissable on a tie rack! The last time I was here was for the Ladies World Championships in 2015 which, for anyone who knows this club, was slightly ironic given the length of time it took (and amount of ribbing they got from a few of us) before they admitted women as members!

Their hospitality and support was unquestioned on this occasion: a superb dinner the night before and an excellent lunch after play were both much appreciated by all. The chef did pop into the Dedans at one point presumably just to check that I really was there and not showing any negative after-effects. I probably shouldn’t have said anything, but his only revenge was to ensure that the smell of lunch cooking was evident to all on court!

The unique features of this court are the flat ceiling with integral lights; the black, shiny floor and the rather unusual bandeau which is blue and red. The walls are black and the upper surfaces white and, as there are windows down both sides, there is plenty of natural light. There is a curious viewing gallery above the Main Wall which has glass or Perspex protective windows, but which need a substantial wooden framework, so I’m not sure how good the viewing really is. It also acts a bit like a pinball machine, so the ball can ricochet back and forth between the wooden uprights and then disappear behind the window so that you’re left waiting to see where the ball might then reappear onto the court . . . but it doesn’t!

The Tambour is quite broad and obtuse so a big target; the Penthouses are steep and so produce lots of backspin; the floor, thankfully, is quite bouncy and in spite of the shine is not slippery. So definitely a court where you have to keep your wits about you. Again, we had a wide variety of players over the three sets with lots of different styles and power to contend with. My partners and I were blessed with some extraordinary luck and pulled off a number of trick shots of which any respectable snooker player would have been proud!

  • 1.Defending a low chase at the Service end, hooked it badly, ricocheted off the ledge of the Door and somehow made it over the net to win the point
  • 2.Attacking chase better than 2, lobbed the return of serve which was defended and then lobbed a second time, perhaps with a little unintended topspin, which bounced neatly into the Dedans
  • 3.Not to be outdone, my partner played a cross-court shot from in front of the Grille which hit the bandeau beyond Last Gallery and also sailed into the Dedans

Not perhaps the finest examples of Tennis, but the spectators seemed to enjoy it!

Huge thanks to the club, the players and, of course, our marker, Ben Taylor Matthews, who also ran a very well attended masterclass with students from four or five schools.

Court 48 – Oxford University

The last of my first time courts, if that makes sense? For some reason I’ve never played here before. Its reputation, of course, precedes it as the smallest court in the country. What I hadn’t realised is that it’s also the second oldest in the country, having been built in 1798, and there’s been a court in Merton Street since 1595. The distinguishing feature of all the older Tennis courts is their flat, wooden ceilings (or no roof at all!) and this one is no exception. The pitched and glazed roof is evidently a much later invention.

This court definitely has its unique quirks and size is only one of them! Yes, the court is slightly narrower, but not noticeably so as everything is in proportion. However, the walls and Penthouses are black with red lines which makes it feel more enclosed. The floor is a pale red and heavily marked from years of use and perhaps the odd ingress of water, while the ceiling is white with integral lighting and there are windows down both sides. The woodwork around the windows is also painted black and there is no out-of-court line, yet if the ball touches the wire netting on the windows that is regarded as out. The only slight problem with this arrangement is that the netting is fixed to the wall just below the windows which apparently is also out, but almost impossible to call!

The floor is reasonably lively and the walls generally good, although be careful in the forehand corner at the Service End which can be pretty dead. The Penthouses are narrow and steep making the service tricky and they also develop lots of backspin. While the lighting is generally good, I did find the lights above the end Penthouses obtrusive and its possible to lose the ball. The Tambour may not be terribly large or wide, but it does twist so that it’s quite acute at the bottom and becomes more obtuse higher up.

Quirks or not, we had a very busy afternoon playing a total of 45 games. We did a round-robin format with the juniors so that I played with each and clocked up 15 games in all, then a set with students and a set with members both of which went the full distance of 15 games each, remarkably neat really. The pace was also fast and furious, especially towards the end. There were times when I felt I was in a bull ring ducking and weaving to avoid ricochets and odd bouncers!

My thanks to all who turned out to support on a week-day, a superb lunch which was probably my undoing, and a very well-attended masterclass for three local schools run by Craig Greenhalgh. Andrew Davis did the honours of marking the three sets for which we were all most grateful. My real thanks goes to my partners who had their work cut out keeping us in the running; almost three weeks since my last outing meant my game was more than a little rough!

Court 49 – Middlesex University

Welcome to the blue court. Now, when I say ‘blue’ I really mean ‘blue’ – the floor is blue (even the area behind the service line), the walls are blue and the lines are blue. The Penthouses are the greatest contrast being natural wood. The colour scheme may sound odd, but it does work and the ball is always visible.

The colour is not the only outstanding feature of this court, its construction is novel too. It’s built into the hillside which reduces its profile on two sides and has a domed roof partially glazed on the north side. It has opaque glazing on both sides and above the Dedans all of which lets in considerable daylight. The artificial lighting is at high level and unobtrusive. There are two entrances: one from the car park which leads straight into the area behind the Dedans, the other is from the University’s campus and leads into a viewing gallery above the Main Wall. The pro’s shop is also at this level.

The court itself is a great one for beginners: the floor is very lively and bouncy, the walls are smooth, the Penthouses are relatively broad and not too steep and the Tambour is not too large and acute. In spite of the fact that there is hardly any Bandeau it was amazing how many times we managed to hit it! Having said all that, do not expect this court to be benign; the surfaces react well to spin, the ball does cut and a weighted shot stays low.

The club ran a very well attended masterclass with more than 20 young people, some of whom had come through their inaugural summer course, and watched by their admiring and rather amazed parents! This session was also filmed by the BBC with Mike Bushell who also subjected himself to a short game of doubles. It will hopefully appear on Saturday 30th November.

My first set was perhaps the most complicated yet as it involved four students. We opted for a round robin style of three games each and tried to cater for every combination of five people! Later that evening they were due to head for Cambridge for the Inter-Universities competition. I think the standard over the three sets was sufficient for the spectators to enjoy some fairly entertaining tennis. There was good support from club members and the university made us all feel most welcome. Huge thanks to all concerned, especially Chris Bray and Will Burns for running a pretty full and complicated day as well as marking.

Although I have been to the club a couple of times since I opened it in 2000 it has changed quite bit. The old clubroom has been extended and converted into a dance studio (but still makes quite a good dining room) and the campus has changed hugely since they’ve combined a number of sites into one. What was quite an obvious building is now much less so, yet the court remains a great asset, especially in a university which has ambitions for sports development. It is, after all, only one of three universities in this country which has their own Real Tennis Court.

Court 50 – Hampton Court Palace

Well this was it, the final court and to be honest I can’t quite believe it. It was a strange feeling arriving at a court I know so well under such circumstances, however the Palace and the Royal Tennis Court in particular rose superbly to the occasion and laid on a fitting finale.

There must have been sixty or so members who turned out to support the day and were hopefully treated to a day to remember. I must confess that hitting a Winning Gallery in front of such a full Dedans is quite an experience. It all kicked off with a masterclass with around forty young people, easily the biggest turnout of novices, and then a skills test with a group of juniors . . . and yours truly. Thankfully the scores were never published!

Following lunch, it was time to embark on the final leg of the challenge. The first set was with juniors who set a very high standard, the second was with club members, the third was easily the most testing set of the whole odyssey when three World Champions joined me – Rob and Claire Fahey and Penny Lumley – well it seemed like a good idea at the time! What a fantastic and amazing experience, surely there is no other sport where an amateur enthusiast could ever have such an opportunity? Quite a way to finish, you might think, only that wasn’t the final set. Oh no, I was then joined by Johanna Konta and Tim Henman with Nick Wood, head professional at RTC. Another brilliant example of the generosity of our sportsmen and women, although I’m not sure Jo necessarily thought that of me as nearly all my cross-court shots, which should have hit the Tambour and given Nick some work, ended up pinning poor Jo in the backhand corner under the Grille!

Anyone who has been to the Royal Tennis Court will know that it is the largest in Britain, so why, whenever I play there, do I always over-hit the ball? It just seems to have that effect on my game. It also claims to be the oldest as the original court was built by Cardinal Wolsey between 1526 and 1529, although the current court dates from Charles I’s time in 1625. Being pre-nineteenth century it has windows down both sides and a flat wooden ceiling. The artificial lighting is indirect, so is reflected off the ceiling, which makes for a relatively even if diffused light on the court. The colour scheme is traditional black walls, white upper surfaces, green lines and a red floor with the area behind the service line in green. The other feature is that it has high-level viewing galleries at both ends.

The surfaces all play pretty well, but this is an older floor so doesn’t have the same amount of bounce and the walls respond to all forms of spin. The Penthouses are relatively broad and not too steep so can take all sorts of serves. The Tambour is relatively large and acute which certainly means in doubles that both players have to be on their toes. At least after four hours I was beginning to both read the court and indeed play it a great deal better than when I started the afternoon which, considering the company, was perhaps just as well.

Massive thanks to RTC and especially Nick Wood (who somehow managed to escape from marking!), Chris Chapman and Josh Smith for trying to keep some semblance of order and control to proceedings, Lesley Ronaldson and Sarah Parsons for their help with the masterclass and juniors. All in all, a truly memorable day and an unforgettable way to finish the odyssey.


Ten months ago, back in January 2018, I embarked on this odyssey to play three sets of doubles on every Real Tennis court in the world. Rather amazingly, I’ve managed to complete it and within the timeframe of the year, in spite of all the possible odds including a hurricane, which might easily have derailed the plan.

There have been a few exceptions to this general aim. Either some clubs didn’t produce nine players or others produced more than three for one of the sets or another that we played four sets! On one court it was possible to hit a ball over the net, but not play a proper game, let alone a game of doubles. I also managed to visit two courts where no play was possible. There were two courts I didn’t manage to get to, one of which is derelict and no longer safe, the other is a private one which refused permission. Yes, really! Well, there has to be one, just to show how kind and generous everyone else is?!

Which is your favourite court?

This was the question I was most commonly asked throughout the tour. While an invidious question it’s also impossible to answer, at least I think so. Reflecting on the tour, there are some courts and moments which stand out:

  • Lambay Island is such a unique and romantic setting (at least on a fine day!) for possibly the most unusual court; that very eccentricity makes it memorable, it’s also crying out to be restored.
  • On the subject of restoration, two other courts come to mind: the former Guinness family court in Dublin and Suncourt in Troon.
  • The latter is a twin to Seacourt which is etched in my memory as my most wretched performance and is backed up by the statistics.
  • There were several moments where I narrowly managed to avoid concussion or other serious injury through ducking, weaving or simply good fortune. There was only one particular moment in Melbourne where I saw my tennis career flash before my eyes as I realised that my partner was about to unleash a forehand drive across court directly at me!
  • Some are memorable for their settings, so places like Hardwick House, Tuxedo Park, Falkland Palace, Fontainebleau and Hampton Court Palace to name but a few
  • Others have unique architectural features such as Hyde, Jesmond Dene, Middlesex University, Cambridge University, Lakewood and Washington
  • Others are memorable for their extreme conditions either through cold, heat or humidity such as Queens’, Fairlawne, Philadelphia and Aiken
  • Then there are the quirky ones like Romsey, Hobart, Prested Hall or Canford School
  • However, it’s almost inevitably the truly eccentric courts which stand out, the ones where you really have to adapt your game and none compares with Bayonne, La Bastide Clairence, Urrugne and to a lesser extent Pau.
  • Oh, and then the only court in the world where you might have to defend chase better than the gnome!
  • What is your handicap and has it improved?

    The second most common enquiry and equally difficult to answer simply because I really haven’t played a truly competitive game. The players have ranged from novices to juniors to mostly mid-range members, thankfully not too many very low handicappers, so we’ve always tried to play off level and adapt our games to ensure we maximise the 45 minutes on court, the ideal being to reach seven all of an eight game set. This has rarely been achieved for all sorts of reasons and not just because some people find it really hard to take the foot off the pedal, so to speak, but nerves and pressure, especially playing in front of a crowd, can really affect some people’s play. Of course, I would like to think that my own game has improved simply due to the amount of time on court, but what I have really discovered is that there is a brilliant tennis player in me . . . the trouble is that it’s trapped inside a mediocre body!

    Did you win?

    Another commonly asked question and, once again, due to the format and nature of the challenge impossible to answer. However, what I did do was to keep a tally of the number of games in each set, so I played a grand total of 1,877 games or an average of 38 games per court (the highest was 51 games at Lord’s). The split worked out as 882 Against and 995 For.

    Other facts and figures:

    • Courts visited52 courts in 47 locations and played on 50 of them (5 clubs have 2 courts).
    • Sets played151 (theoretically 3 sets on each court should have meant 150; in spite of no sets on Lambay, made up difference due to an alternative format in New York and playing an extra set at Hampton Court).
    • Guest players438 (assuming 3 different guest players for each set should have meant involving 450; difference due to just 1 guest for Lambay, 9 guests for the 2 New York courts and 2 sets which involved 4 guests).
    • Miles travelled – roughly 37,435 just on this odyssey
    • Markers 60 individuals (that’s not counting those who did more than one court!)
  • Winning openings – no idea, but lots, of course!
  • Legacy

    Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this odyssey is that it has exceeded all our expectations. Apart from giving the sport a bit of profile we’ve discovered a real partnership with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Approaching schools and youth centres through their DofE Leaders has produced a much better response and I reckon over 1,000 young people have been introduced to Real Tennis for the first time. Not all will return, but hopefully enough have discovered a new passion. The Dedanists are in the process of producing a basic guide to help clubs set some goals with DofE participants for their Bronze, Silver and Gold Awards which will hopefully be of real value to all concerned.

    Most amazingly we managed to exceed our fundraising target, largely helped by the most fantastic end-of-challenge party at Hampton Court Palace. A large and generous crowd of supporters in the Great Hall generated a staggering £500,000 to push the overall total just past the £2m target. An extraordinary way of concluding an extraordinary year. Such funds will help the charity and the sport to reach many more young people, especially those at risk and marginalised, and give them an opportunity to get involved and discover their passion, their purpose and their place in the world.

    Thank you

    Two words, seemingly inadequate to describe my heartfelt gratitude to one and all for helping me achieve this challenge. To all the Associations, the clubs, their chairs, professionals and members; to Grays, Pol Roger, RSM, Concorde, Eton Sports and countless others; to a number of key individuals who have gone above and beyond; the roll call is extensive, but you know who you are, THANK YOU SO MUCH. Finally, thank you for following the story and reading my various blogs. Hopefully, they’ve given you an idea of how different the courts are, but I also hope they’ve raised an occasional smile.

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