Tennis

HRH Real Tennis Tour 2018 France

04 Oct 2018


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

Court 18 – St André in Bayonne

Bayonne is next to Biarritz in the South West corner of France in the Pays Basque. Historically Gascony was a part of Aquitaine which, for those of you who know your history, was part of what became the Anjevin Empire created by the marriage of Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy to Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine in May 1152. Henry’s mother was the Empress Matilda who had vainly struggled with her first cousin Stephen for the English throne. When Henry succeeded Stephen in 1154 the couple effectively ruled a chunk of Europe that stretched from the border with Scotland to the Pyrenees and the border with Spain.

Thus started a relationship between this part of France and Britain which has pretty well lasted since then. Strangely enough, in the early days English wool was traded for French wine; don’t know what happened to the wool, but the wine trade is still going strong! The sporting ties are strong too, from fox hunting to horse racing to golf; Pau having the first golf course outside of Britain. In return, Jeu de Paume or tennis surely found its way to Britain. The courts in this area of France have a long history, even if they have been adapted over the years to play a variety of games.

The court of St André is in the oldest part of Bayonne in the shadow of the towering walls of its fortress. The entrance is very modest at the end of tiny lane, the only clue being its name “Rue de Jeu de Paume”. It leads into a small courtyard, one side is the court, the other is a bar and restaurant, in the middle a few tables. It has to be one of the most memorable “club” rooms you could possibly imagine!

The court itself is tiny; well relative to a traditional Real Tennis court. Even more bizarrely the door into the court is on the Galleries side, but next to the Dedans. The walls are grey and the floor is of rough concrete. The roof is wooden as are the viewing galleries along the main wall and above the Dedans. The Penthouse only runs along two sides, is lower and much narrower than a traditional Tennis court, the openings being equally small. The back wall at the Hazard end has no Penthouse and instead of a Grille has a recess in the wall of about a foot square, a bit lower than a typical Grille. The main wall is straight with the Tambour being an angled section which fills where the main wall meets the back wall from floor to out of court line.

The resulting effects are dramatic. Service requires considerable accuracy to connect with the narrow Penthouse and great control as the court is much shorter. A good length serve is deadly! The short court means the ball comes at you quickly, the rough floor slows it down dramatically and leaving it to bounce off the end walls is not always a good idea. My partner’s advice of attacking the ball was most sound and almost always produced better results than trying to leave it, this in spite of the fact that the court is both shorter and narrower than a traditional Tennis court.

Given the peculiar characteristics of each court the format of play was changed so that while we still played three sets per court, I played with the same partner on each court. Frederika (or Freddie) Adams had the dubious honour of being my partner and guide on St André, but was an excellent tutor and definitely helped my game. Freddie is from the USA and while our opponents were all French, they weren’t all locals. My host, the Marquis d’Iranda, was definitely local, but we had one pair who had come from Fontainebleu (had one or two problems with the considerably lower roof!) and another from Paris. Those in the viewing galleries would often find themselves in the danger zone as we struggled with the different dimensions.

After our efforts on court, four locals then gave us a demonstration of one of the local Basque games of Pasaka which is a bit like Pelote, but played with a larger, slower ball. One of the most memorable moments of this little odyssey so far has to be sitting around in the courtyard afterwards on a balmy evening before dinner in the little restaurant.

Court 19 – La Bastide Clairence

The next morning we drove to the oldest of these trinquet or tripot courts. The first recorded mention of the court at La Bastide Clairence is in 1512. It was built by a former member of the King of Spain’s household at the end of the garden of his house. The entrance to the court today is off the high street and, once again, through a small hostelry. No time for a quick stiffener before onto the court itself, this time through a door between the Dedans and the Main Wall.

This is the smallest court, even after it has been extended which makes the galleries even more peculiar. Rather surprisingly for its age, this has a viewing windows above the Dedans. Again the open viewing gallery above the Main Wall, only this time the sun is pouring in making it quite a challenge to be at the Service end on the forehand. This distraction seemed to override all the others, especially the door being in that corner making any ball coming off it behave very differently. Only once did it produce a deflection which went parallel to the Dedans wall, although quite why remains a complete mystery as the hinges are flush so can’t even blame them!

My partner for this court was Patricia Mongauzi a junior national lawn tennis player turned sports teacher who has become fascinated by the history of Tennis and all its different forms which she hopes to encourage her students to try at least once. I wasn’t able to maintain the form and beginner’s luck I had had on the first day, and as I struggled I forgot Freddie’s advice of attacking the ball. The bounce off these walls was most peculiar, especially at the Hazard end where I would find that when moving up the court to take a high ball off the back wall I’d look back to find the ball coming straight at me or behind me when I would be expecting it to be coming down on my forehand. This was no unlucky chance as it happened more than once!

When some clouds came over and the sun went in there was some relief from the deep contrast. However the grey walls and floor have an ability to absorb light and in spite of the fact that we were playing with very smart orange balls, there were times, particularly under the Main Wall, when it wasn’t easy to see the ball and in such a small court there was no room for such error.

Simon Berry (the master-planner of this part of my Tennis Odyssey and expert on these courts) and his daughter Theodora decided to give us a masterful lesson in how to tame such a court. We managed to put up a reasonable resistance, at least Simon never succeeded in achieving his favourite shot of boasting off the main wall into the winning gallery. Julian Butcher, another expert on these courts showed us how it is possible to play a remarkably controlled game in such a small space. Much more frustratingly he never even took off his sleeveless sweater, which just made us feel even hotter! Suitably humbled, it was into the car and off to the next court. 

Court 20 – Trinquet Dongaitz, Urrugne

This court has a rather larger, family owned hostelry, with a lovely pavement restaurant and right next to the church. Here you have the choice of a quick stiffener before the game or a quick prayer; we opted for lunch. Again, there is little inkling of a court from the front, this one is considerably larger than the first two and dates from the mid-fifteenth century. It has much the same layout: so Penthouse on two sides, blank back wall with the peculiar Tambour in the corner, but this one had no Grille. The other peculiarity is the lower foot and a half of the end wall has a metal plate, presumably for Pelote, only this one had been removed which left a strip of foam padding running the full width of the wall which certainly added a new hazard to the Hazard end.

The door on to this court is from the Dedans end, but not in the corner so there is quite a wide space in the backhand corner between the Dedans opening and the side wall. This is a much lighter court with windows along the main wall as well as sky lights in the roof. A good tip is to wear a hat to keep the sun out of one’s eyes. The viewing galleries are above the Main Wall, as usual, above the Dedans and above the Penthouses, the latter being like an internal walkway leading from the Dedans gallery and runs just below the roof. Definitely need a good head for heights to watch a game from there.

My partner on this court was Isabelle Duncan from Britain. Our opponents were a mixture of locals and out-of-towners, both French and British, one of whom was definitely a Pelote player as he would climb the wall to return a high ball. It was quite fun to hit an occasional high ball to see if he would do it again, which he duly did! This is another grey court although the floor was stone rather than concrete which meant that on the whole the ball tended to behave a little more normally. I say ‘on the whole’ because I was subjected to one ball straight down the middle of the court which, on bouncing on the floor, changed direction by at least 450 – an impressive off-break if it had been intended. 

Court 21 – Parc Beaumont, Pau 

The final court on this little French tour was built as a traditional Jeu de Paume in 1887 although has been adapted since for Pelote. So the dimensions are right, but in this instance it has lost the Penthouses at both ends, the remaining galleries have been reduced in height and the Main Wall filled in to remove the traditional Tambour and accommodate the angled corner and grille set in the Back Wall. The Dedans has been replaced by three windows with plastic shields flush with the end wall which makes judging exactly where they are quite tricky, although not as disconcerting as expecting a higher ball to hit a penthouse – which isn’t there!

The Back Wall had two new hazards: first the metal plate along the bottom of the wall was still in place and, as described in Urrugne court, is not set against the wall so while it looks as if the ball should bounce off it normally, it doesn’t. This softening effect is amplified by the second hazard; with the Penthouse being removed it has left a row of unpainted flagstones which slow the ball down even further. Any ball, especially the right length serve, which hits the metal plate on the way down and then the flagstones is unplayable.

The overriding impressions of this court are the colour and the light. It is painted in a turquoise which is quite a contrast to the grey of the previous courts and makes it much easier to see the ball, but it’s a bit like playing in an empty swimming pool. There are large, grand windows on both sides as well sky lights in the roof, but as this has a suspended ceiling they are boxed in thus limiting any direct sunlight. With no Dedans, the entry door is from the gallery side, similar to the first court in Bayonne, while above the Dedans is a spacious, multi-tiered, open viewing gallery.

Rose Blanden from Australia was my partner for this court with another wide range of opponents. Our playing time was cruelly curtailed by the actions of French Air Traffic Controllers. This has nothing to do with the height of the court not does it reflect the quality of our play, rather the fact that behind the scenes there were complicated negotiations to try to secure our return to Britain by air that evening. At various points during the games I would receive updates on when I was supposed to finish to give me time to get to the airport. As a result, the sets weren’t always quite as relaxed as they should have been, the scores less even and the farewells at the end a bit rushed for which I must apologise both to the players as well as the spectators and supporters.

Playing Tennis on these multi-use courts is more complicated than first appears and over the three days I began to appreciate the extraordinary amount of planning and effort Simon and his team had committed to make it work. The most obvious being the set of orange balls sewn and brought out specially partly because there are none at any of the courts and also because you need a bright colour to work in those grey-walled courts. They also suffer on those concrete floors. The chase and gallery markings are also quite bewildering in part because the intervals are smaller, so chase 5 is really only 2½, and the Pelote gallery lines are different, particularly so at the Hazard end. More than once we had “Hazard chase the dot”! Many of the Tennis lines don’t exist so have to be marked out using masking tape and chalk stencils on the walls. With enough volunteers and experience it’s possible to mark out the necessary Tennis lines and numbers in about an hour. It then takes another 20-30 minutes to remove all the lines and numbers after you’ve finished!

So a massive thank you to Howard Angus and Freddie Adams for marking as well as trying to make sense of our rather confused efforts at trying to identify what the chases were! To the ‘home team’ who were there throughout the tour and taking it in turn to mark-up the courts, play, support and clear up the courts in our wake. It was quite a circus touring the courts, but it all worked brilliantly and I look forward to the second leg when I go to Paris and Fontainebleau.

Court 43 – Fontainebleau

Built in 1601, this is the largest Tennis court, a full yard longer at both ends. It is a truly magnificent space with large windows down both sides a high, flat wooden ceiling with a very large coat of arms painted in the middle. It has viewing galleries both sides as well as at the ends so can accommodate a large crowd, although thankfully not on this day. The last time I was here was 28 years ago about the time the court was re-opened. Since then it has undergone a fairly major refurbishment, so it looks and plays much better.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this court is how lively it is, both off the floor and the walls; I mean the ball literally flies off the back wall in an almost alarming way. The Penthouses are narrow and steep which can also kick the ball off, however they can also create quite a lot of backspin and serving is a bit nerve-wracking to begin with as the target appears to be awfully small. The Tambour is relatively narrow and obtuse. However, that is not to say that the court doesn’t take spin, it does, but it requires a lot to have any effect.

Eric Delloye did the honours, not just a masterclass with some novices, but also marking all three sets. The club has a very active junior section and is doing well at attracting young players as I experienced in my first set. We got the pairing slightly wrong in the second set and changed it for the last fifteen minutes and had a more even final three games. They then brought out some of their ‘big guns’ (the local description, not mine!) and the pace heated up considerably, which I think the large and very supportive crowd enjoyed.

We then all retired to the Gallerie des Cerfs in the Chateau for lunch. Being a royal chateau it is quite grand, but in a more romantic way and has echoes of its former life as a hunting lodge, an escape from the formality of the royal court, a place to relax. For the really observant, the wall outside the Tennis court has a Tambour and is the only clue to the former, open air court which stood there. It was a pleasure to be able to play this court again and I am very grateful to everyone who came and supported the day, especially for making me feel so very welcome.

Court 44 – Paris

From the outside this court is invisible. The street entrance is just another door, the only indication that there is anything unusual behind it being a fairly non-descript brass plaque. However what awaits you when you get to the top floor is really quite amazing. The dimensions of this 1908 court maybe more traditional, but the height is truly impressive with a fantastic domed ceiling culminating in an extensive glazed roof of a conservatory design. As if this didn’t let in enough light there are grand windows down each side with artificial lighting between each so largely unobtrusive.

The colour scheme is a pretty traditional black with white lines, red out of court line and white upper surfaces. The floor is quite a bright red, painted and sticky; even and true although it does react to spin, especially any sidespin, as I discovered to my cost. The Tambour is relatively obtuse, although frankly it seemed to come off at all angles and it was pure luck if you were standing in the right place! The Penthouses are relatively narrow and steep and the walls also react to spin so service is a big advantage on this court. I found it difficult to get the ball to cut, but that’s a perennial problem with my game, however a low forced ball does tend to stay low off the end walls.

Rod McNaughton did the honours marking all three sets and running the masterclass for some of the juniors and some novices who just happened to be doing their DofE at two local international schools – one French and one British. There are just 5 venues running the DofE across the whole of France which has more to do with the French education system that doesn’t really embrace the notion of non-formal education. I can’t claim that this Odyssey will change very much, but we may have started a conversation with a couple more schools.

I am most grateful to the club for hosting the morning and the Comité Français for all their help with the organisation. While the first pairing wasn’t all that equal the next two sets were closely fought and there was definitely some very hard hitting at times which, according to some of the spectators (who were mostly new to the game), they found quite entertaining! And with that the international element of my Odyssey came to an end, Paris being the last overseas court.

Postscript: it would be remiss of me not to mention that I went and had a look at the Versailles court. If I understood it correctly this is not the royal court that was used by the assembly, but a private court that was subsequently acquired by the Emperor Louis Philippe primarily as an art studio for some monumental works he commissioned for the Palace when he converted parts of it into a public gallery. The court is now a museum and as such they have widened the Galleries and Dedans as well as adding a gallery in the Back Wall to allow more people to view the court and exhibits. Like Fontainebleau, it has a flat wooden ceiling and large windows running down both sides. It has one unique touch, there is a wooden trough running down the back of the Galleries which is sloping so that any ball that enters a Gallery runs down to the Marker’s box. This doesn’t really count as one of my courts because there are too many obstacles (in other words statues!), the floor is covered in coconut matting and it’s not really possible to string up a net, but I couldn’t resist the temptation of serving just one ball . . . perhaps the first one in 150 years!


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