Something's wrong here. It's a world championship tennis match, but everything on this court is slightly warped. The rackets look as though they have melted. The balls are as hard as baseballs and only approximately round. And the court isn't a neat rectangle divided across the center by a tight net. Rather, it's a walled-in cloister broken up by little windows in one wall and strange openings along the others, a sloping roof above the windows, a big buttress jutting out from one of the walls, and a net that is sagging in the middle.
The players don't behave normally, either. At the beginning of the match, they salute each other and the spectators by placing their rackets over their faces. During the match they applaud a good shot by banging their rackets on the dark-gray cement floor. They switch sides at irregular intervals. They struggle to return balls that are absolutely dead in the corner of the court and then happily let other balls bounce right before them without lifting a finger. The marker, or scorer, calls out, "Chase!" but no one runs. And hey, what's with the scoring? The terms are familiar—love, 15, 30, 40, deuce, advantage—but you can't tell who is winning by the score. The marker, as if to punish unvigilant spectators, first gives the score not of the server but of the person who won the most recent point. If you missed seeing the last shot, the score won't help you.
Despite the apparent chaos, no one is alarmed. The players never argue the score with the marker, who stands in a doorway at one end of the net. Instead, they often thank him when he clears up a question, and he thanks them when they do the same for him. The 30 or so fans look calm, too. Although they are absorbed in the game, the loudest noise in the spectators' gallery is the clatter of teacups in their saucers.
Is this some strange initiation rite designed to confound intruders? Do these people really know what's going on, or are they just politely pretending? Welcome to tennis in a time warp.
The 1989 Ladies Court Tennis World Championships at the Racquet Club of Philadelphia is as arcane a world event as one is ever likely to see. Although it is taking place on an American court for the first time, this is a cozy British affair. Both finalists—Penny Fellows, 26, a secretary for Lloyd's Bank in London, who holds the British, French, Scottish and Australian titles, and Sally Jones, 34, an Oxford-educated anchor on the BBC's televised breakfast show, who holds the U.S. title and has played court tennis with the likes of Prince Edward, Virginia Wade and Gabriela Sabatini (whom she beat 6-0, 6-0)—come from The Queens Club, in London.
All the spectators are acting terribly civilized, as if to ward off the possibility that this sport will go the way of its ill-mannered offspring, lawn tennis (that is, regular tennis, the game -that was created by impatient court-tennis players waiting on the lawn for a court-tennis court).
But court-tennis fans needn't worry about their sport becoming common. There are only 37 court-tennis facilities in the world—19 in Britain, nine in the U.S., four in Australia, two in France and one each in Czechoslovakia, Ireland and the Soviet Union—and almost all of them are in private clubs, private schools or private estates.
It hasn't always been such a precious sport. Court tennis (which is called jeu de paume in France, real tennis in England, royal tennis in Australia and just plain tennis by the 2,000 or so people who play it) was invented sometime during the 12th century by bored French monks who started batting rag balls (made of their shredded habits) around monastery courtyards. They called it jeu de paume (palm game) because they used their palms, rather than rackets, to hit the balls. Jeu de paume quickly became a craze. In the 13th century, monks and priests spent so much time playing and betting on the game that the Church banned it. But it didn't die.
The game quickened as players began batting the balls with rackets. It spread from France to Britain and from the clergy to the crown with some fatal results. Louis X of France drank a beaker of cold water after a rugged match and soon died of a chill in 1316, and Charles VIII of France died of injuries after hitting his head on the lintel of the doorway to the court in 1498. In the 16th century the sport had its heyday, not just in France and England but also in Germany, Italy and Spain, and not only among royalty and the aristocracy but among commoners, too. By 1600 there were estimated to be more than 1,800 courts in Paris alone.
Despite its popularity, court tennis retained its royal aura and suffered wherever democracy stirred. In the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell's England frowned on the game and its attendant betting. And in France, court tennis, a bastion of the nobility and the aristocracy, was all but destroyed during the revolution. The court at Versailles came to be known not as a place for kings to play but as the site where the Third Estate met, took the "oath of the tennis court" and inadvertently launched the political designations right and left, as the conservatives at the meeting gathered on the right side of the court and the radicals on the left.