HRH Real Tennis Tour 2018

Updated: 16 May 2018 Newmarket photos
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.

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