Oi Polloi

Interview — Rod McNaughton and the Majestic Sport of Real Tennis

Published: Wed Jun 18 2014

What could be realer then smashing a furry green ball over a net, wearing dangerously-short white shorts and the smooth, reassuring sounds of Cliff Richard on a rainy day? Real tennis, that’s what. Real tennis is the original racquet sport — Henry VIII was a fan, it’s played on courts that are hundreds of years old and the rules are pretty much impossible to understand.

We recently headed down to the Manchester Tennis and Racquets Club (that’s actually in Salford) for a proper high-fashion photoshoot, and amidst the pouting and posing I managed to snag professional player Rod McNaughton for an interview. Here’s what he had to say…

Photos by Mike Sallabank

We may as well start at the beginning here. Where did real tennis start?

We don’t know exactly the very first place, but it was probably in the Basque country between Spain and France. We believe it started inside a monastery in France. The monks would sell their produce to the villagers, and the reason we have the roofs built into the court is because originally they would have been the awnings of shops inside the monastery.

When was this?
This would be anything up to 700 or 800 years ago. They initially played with their hands. As there were a lot of monasteries doing the same thing, word quickly got out. A dignitary then went to the king and told him what was going on — there was no such thing as a game in those days.

The king said, “What is this thing that these people are developing? I want this.” So he built a court in his palace. People then visited from different countries like Spain and England and took the game back with them.

The First World War brought the game to a standstill because so many courts around Europe were destroyed. And as there was no money because of the recession, the courts couldn’t be rebuilt. At one point there were 400 courts in Paris, but now we’ve got 32 courts in the UK, 20 in America, eight in Australia and three playable courts in France.

The real tennis court at Manchester Tennis and Racquets Club

From watching the game it seems pretty complicated. What’s going on?

The rules have progressed slightly over time. We have a very unique part of the rules which is called the chase system, and it’s very difficult to explain. There’s numbers down the court. All the numbers are yards away from the back wall. The marker’s job initially was to mark where the second bounce was on the floor with a piece of chalk, and the reason why we have the lines there now is so we don’t have to have a marker.

So if the ball bounces twice on the floor, that doesn’t win the point initially. If the ball bounces five yards away from the back wall without the other person getting it, you wait until game point, which is either 40 or advantage and then you change ends. Then the other person now has to get his second bounce closer to the back wall then five yards. If he doesn’t, then he loses the point. It goes on quality of shot, and that’s what really sets the game apart.

I think you’ve lost me there. You mentioned it’s popular on the east coast of America. Why do they like it so much over there?

You’ve got places like Boston and Philadelphia that have quite an English feel to them. You’ve got the first ever gated community, Tuxedo Park. You work in New York and you have your country house and you play racquets and real tennis. They love it. Their clubs are enormous. It’s like this, but because it’s in America it’s ten times bigger.

Is it on TV there?

No, they still prefer to keep it quite small. The club in New York on Park Avenue is one of the very few places in America where they don’t allow women. There are only five floors as they sold the airspace for crazy money to make sure they still had the view. And they have one floor which is their changing room. You can have a three course meal naked in there — it’s just ridiculous. You come from playing, you have a steam, you have a massage and then there are these big tables where you can sit and order food and drink.

A painting of a man with a moustache

At one point Real Tennis was outlawed. Why was this?

People were buying clubs as a franchise. They were buying the buildings thinking they were going to make money but they couldn’t sustain them and had to sell them on. A lot of the clubs had to be sold because they couldn’t make any money. Gambling also played a part as people were trying to make money in different ways. Gambling was invented with real tennis.

People were gambling so much money on real tennis that they would go to a debtor’s prison. So they started playing something similar to real tennis in the prison on the wall with smaller balls. Kids were taken to the prison and told, “If you don’t pay, this is where you’ll end up.” These kids saw the new game being played and were like, “What’s that game?”

So they made a court and started playing what became racquets. Back then they were the only sports: real tennis and racquets. If you look at newspapers 100 years ago the David Beckhams and the Renaldos of the day were real tennis players. They were the playboys of the generation. They were playing for the equivalent of about a million pounds a match and people were betting big, big money.

What were they using for balls if they were in prison?

A lot of the time they were packed very tightly with feathers and then they were sewn up in leather.

Hunting trophies bagged by members of the club

It seems things are kept very traditional. Is this a conscious thing?

It’s the same as cricket balls and cricket bats. The world champion plays with the same racket. Nobody has anything that’s any better. It keeps things on a very level playing field. They’ve tried making things out of different material but the feel isn’t the same as with a soft-wood racket.

Do you think the charm would be lost if you were suddenly playing with carbon fibre rackets on a million pound court complex?

The newest of all the courts was built by the Tescos family in London. It’s a totally heated court with the very best lighting and the very best everything and it does stand out. It’s trying to reach out to more people.

Looking around here, it seems there’s more to it than just a game.

In its day, real tennis was the masculine way to work out. It was the way to exercise. They say in France that generals would choose their officers in the army on the way they dealt with themselves in a match. If they are too angry, if they are too rash, if they don’t have enough self-belief — these are all things that you can see quickly in the personalities of people when you’re playing against them. You can’t quite get that at the gym. It teaches everybody to become better people in life — it’s not just about how fit you are.

How old were you when you started?

I was fifteen. I started here and as I got better I went to go and get practise in London with the world number three. He left to become the head pro in New York and I became the head pro of the club in London. I then went over to New York, from there I moved to Paris and from there I moved back here.

With something so small do you know everyone who plays?

Everyone knows each other. It’s the most unified, non-clique thing. There’s no ego in this game. We have a lot of people from this club who go and play all over the world. There are about 10,000 people that play real tennis, and you end up knowing almost every one of those. There are so many dinners and events that these people become your best friends.

The life of the actual people who play real tennis is fantastic. It’s definitely something that more people would appreciate — they just don’t know it’s on their doorstep. It’s not on T.V. and although it does get streamed on the internet, if you don’t know what real tennis is you’re not going to find it.

How would someone go about joining here then?

You get three goes as a non-member — you can come in and have a lesson and try the game and then after that you need to think if you want to be a member. This is not an expensive club, we’re not trying to make money for an organisation, so the cost is very low when you consider the facilities we have. You would then need to speak to two committee members and they would need to vouch for you. Your name then gets put forward to the committee and then you can hopefully become a member.

Do people get turned away much?

Not really, no. You either immediately like it and take it for what it is or you just think ‘this isn’t for me’. In the last four months we’ve had 15 members under the age of 30.

Where do you see it in the next 10 or 20 years?

Everybody who plays the game is trying to keep it going — their children play and so on. I can only imagine that the same places that are open now will carry on in the same vein, but their needs to be measures put in place so that the younger generation continue to play.

Do you ever play normal tennis or do you just stick to the real deal?

Yeah I play. I don’t play as seriously as I used to, but I still play. It’s a wonderful game, it’s very good for fitness and it’s good fun. You do have similarities with the net and the and balls and the racquet, but the hitting styles are very different.

Is there a certain smugness to real tennis, with it being the original?

It’s had a bad name as being elitist. It’s been portrayed in hundreds of interviews as being an elitist game and over the 800 year period there might have been a hint of elitism to it, but in this day and age there are far more expensive things that you could waste your money on.

Right, I think I’ve pretty much run out of questions now. Any last things you want to say?

This is a great place for people to finish work, play some sport, meet new people, have a beer and relax. And that’s the concept I bought in to myself. I wouldn’t do what I do now if it wasn’t for that and I think it’s the same for everyone else. They would enjoy it just as much as I do if they knew about it.

See our real tennis-themed photo-mezze here