The centuries-old sport of real tennis is still compelling for 27-year-old Jo See Tan, with its demands of speed, strength and chess-like strategy. By Vivienne Pearson.

Lawn tennis’s real forerunner

Real tennis player Jo See Tan, the 2017 Australian ladies amateur singles champion.
Real tennis player Jo See Tan, the 2017 Australian ladies amateur singles champion.
Credit: Graeme Blundstone

Real tennis is the original racquet sport. It’s been played the same way for hundreds of years – a combination of squash, tennis and chess. You’ve got four walls like squash, you’ve got a net like tennis. You don’t learn about the chess element – the myriad of super-complicated rules – until you get on court.

I was introduced to real tennis in 2015. I was looking for a new sport at the time as I had ruptured my Achilles playing squash. In [real] tennis, you don’t necessarily need pace to play well, so it allowed me to build up strength and courage.

We just call it tennis. We refer to the more popular tennis as lawn tennis. In America it’s called court tennis and in France it’s jeu de paume. Because we have a royal decree, we’re the Royal Melbourne Tennis Club.

I love that we’re keeping part of history alive. Don’t quote me on the history, but there are all these crazy stories about Henry VIII and the French Revolution. The court resembles the internal courtyard of a monastery; the game takes its roots from French monasteries.

The first thing you notice about the racquet is that it’s not straight but it’s honestly the way it’s supposed to be. It mimics the natural shape of your palm and forearm – that is because the game was originally played with the palm of your hand.

Every single ball is handmade. They are covered with a green fluffy cloth that makes it look like a lawn tennis ball but it isn’t. They change the balls over every 12 days so each pro tries to bind and stitch five balls a day.

There are only four countries in the world that currently have courts; Australia, the UK, USA and France. In Australia there is Melbourne, Ballarat and Hobart. The Sydney club has planning approval to build a court. [A court at Macquarie University in Sydney closed in 2005.]

A lot of the top 10 professionals in the world are Aussies based in overseas clubs. The current world champion is Robert Fahey. We had seven out of the top 10 players in town in January for the Australian Open.

There are just over 11,000 players in the handicap system around the world and just over 1000 in Australia. The online handicap system says I’m ranked in the top 50 females in the world and in the top 10 in Australia. I’m hoping to get my handicap lower so I can feel more competitive when I play overseas.

The real tennis Australian Open happens every year. I guess there is an irony [of it being played around the same time as the “lawn tennis” Australian Open] because I can’t imagine that many current lawn tennis players would know the origins of the game.

I feel like I tick a lot of minority boxes: I’m Asian, female and young. I don’t feel in any way that I’ve been left out of anything or felt alienated.

I am the youngest committee member [of the Royal Melbourne Tennis Club]. I want to see more female representation and I want to see more junior players. We consider under 35 a young player. It’s crazy but it’s very rare for someone to come in as their first sport.

We’re trying to make the game more accessible. We hold introductory nights and we’re bringing in trial memberships. There’s no waiting list; if you want to join tomorrow you can. You have to be introduced by another member but we don’t turn away people; we try to be as accommodating as possible.

I was a terrible squash player because I had a temper on court. In this game, emotions don’t really take over like they do in other sports. Mentally I feel like I’m growing a lot as a sportsperson through this game because you get distilled this sense of respect and sportsmanship.

I work as a digital media analyst at Deakin University. It’s a challenge trying to balance establishing a career and then also making sure that I have enough energy for tennis. This game is not cheap; it’s just the way it is. I do love it, but you can feel like it takes over your life.

My dad passed away in 2010 so the one big regret about playing this game is that he’s not here to see it. He played squash in the ’70s and ’80s when it was quite popular. It would be really interesting to find out if he ever heard about the game, I think he would have loved it.

I see real tennis as a fight between two different things. You need to be fast and strong, but you also need to be patient. You need to be quick to get there, but then you need to allow yourself the time and space to hit the ball. You don’t have to be the fittest person in the room to be able to outsmart someone. That’s why we’ve got people in their 80s still playing.

Real tennis is so wacky, it’s almost unbelievable. It’s incredibly difficult to master. I love this game.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 2, 2019 as "Keeping it real".

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Vivienne Pearson is a freelance writer and photographer.

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