Getting real in tennis?
From the Sydney Morning Herald
From Henry VIII to Punt Road MARTIN FLANAGAN
May 8, 2010
IF PROFESSIONAL tennis strikes you as a bit tedious with too many people doing much the same thing, then I have found the game for you. Real (or royal) tennis.
Henry VIII is said to have been playing when he got the news that his wife, Anne Boleyn, had been beheaded. On the internet, I found a 17th-century French woodcut of a real tennis court more or less identical to the court off Punt Road in Richmond where I saw Rob Fahey defend his world title this week. Or, rather, I saw the first day. The final, decided over the best of 13 sets, can take three days.
Fahey is from Tasmania. That made me barrack for him from the start. His second favourite game to play is golf. His second favourite sport to watch, notwithstanding the fact he now lives in England, is footy. I asked him his favourite Carlton player. He has a slight smile which accompanies a quietly thoughtful way of speaking. ''Chris Judd,'' he replied. ''He's a beautiful machine.''
Fahey does something no world champion has ever done before with me. He takes me out on to his chosen sporting arena and lets me have a go. I'm lucky to get the ball across the net. The racquet is the size of a squash racquet but of uneven shape. The interior of the balls are made of cork - like cricket balls - but covered with felt. They are hand-sewn and, according to Fahey, travel ''between 120 and 150 miles per hour''. That's a hard ball moving at around 170km/h. One way people get injured in royal tennis is by balls flying up off racquets.
Fahey shows me but two skills of the game. One is a backhand with back spin aimed low and fast at where the end wall meets the floor - it therefore doesn't bounce. He then points out that on one side of the court the main wall bends out at 45 degrees for about 30 centimetres before continuing straight. This is the tambour. If you can hit the tambour, the ball flies sideways. Fahey shows me an even finer art - missing the tambour by such a fine margin that your opponent doesn't know whether to run to the wall or wait in the middle of the court for the ricochet.
I can't explain the scoring system. That's like trying to understand a card game like bridge. But what I respond to is its variety. Remember backyard cricket? Remember how you were out if you hit mum's pot plant and knocked it to the ground? How it was four if you were good enough to play a cut shot that went behind you, through a certain doorway. That's like real tennis. You get a point if you hit a window up the back with a monk on it. On the first night of the final, I asked a spectator when the picture of the monk as an object to be hit entered the game. He thought around the time of Henry VIII, which made good sense to me but I also met an Englishman who exclaimed, somewhat impatiently, that too much is made of the influence of Henry VIII on the English game. But was he a good player? I persisted. ''He wasn't that good,'' the man replied. ''But he gambled a lot on the results.''
Basically, a real tennis court is like a mediaeval alleyway. Down one side, according to Fahey, are what once would have been a row of merchants' stalls. The server, I kid you not, is required to run the ball along the rooves of the stalls (called the gallery) and drop it into the court. In one of the stalls is a bell. If you hit that, you also get a point. The tambour is like the back wall of a cathedral or large building.
Real tennis was like backyard cricket for people with very large backyards. Henry's court, at Hampton, was built by Cardinal Wolsey. Fahey has played at Hampton Court. He's played at Fontainebleau Palace where Marie Antoinette and Napoleon lived. The title which he defended this week can be traced back to 1743. Fahey has won it nine times. No one in the game's long history has won it more.
Fahey was a university student when he applied for a job as an assistant professional at the Hobart Royal Tennis Club for ''beer money''. A promising lawn tennis player, he knew nothing about real tennis. Fahey is solidly but not heavily built, particularly from the waist down. He is credited with having introduced power to the game although he says power alone is not enough and talks about the need for ''compact technique''.
I understand what he means during the first day of the final when a shot from his opponent comes swerving towards his head like a Brett Lee bouncer. You need a compact technique to deal with that. Frank Filippelli, the Melbourne club's head professional, describes real tennis at this level as ''brutal, awesome, savage and intellectually demanding.''
Fahey's opponent in the final was 29-year-old Steve Virgona, from Ballarat. Fahey is 42 with a recent back injury. He commanded the court early, taking the first two sets. Virgona, now based in the US, fought back to take the third. At four-all in the fourth, Fahey somehow powered through. That, say followers of the sport, is what he does.
It was only the end of day one but the champion came off the court and gave vent to his fierce delight. At that moment, I sensed the sort of feeling that might have accompanied Henry VIII when he left the court after a loss. The final ends this afternoon with Fahey leading six sets to two