Court Tennis

The Club’s court tennis court recently had a facelift in 2014 and is one of only 11 courts in the country- two at the Racquet and Tennis Club in New York, one each at The Boston Tennis and Racquet Club, The Tuxedo Club, The Aiken Tennis Club, The National Club in Newport, Rhode Island,  The Racquet Club of Chicago, The International Tennis Club of Washington in McLean, Virginia, , and two privately owned courts – The Georgian Court in Lakewood, New Jersey, and Greentree, the Whitney court owned by Mrs. John Hay Whitney.

It has been said of court tennis that it is a game of moving chess, that it combines the exactitude of billiards, the hand-eye coordination of lawn tennis, and the generalship and quick judgment of polo.  Rob Whitehouse, the Club’s Head Professional, is a Court Tennis Hall of Famer and our current tennis pro, John Lumley is ranked 10th in the world.

The origin of court tennis is shrouded in antiquity. Its beginnings have been traced all the way back to the fertility rites of the Egyptians and Persians, in which the ball was the symbol of fertility. As long ago as 450 B.C. Herodotus referred to tennis. More definitely, the game of today began to take shape many centuries later as a pastime of monks and other ecclesiasts in France.

Like lawn tennis, court tennis is played by two contestants (four in doubles) with racquets and balls on a court divided by a sagging net, and the scoring is virtually the same in the two games. There the similarities end. Not only are the court, racquet, and ball all different from those used in lawn tennis, but the rules of play are so complex and different that the lawn tennis player is baffled on first sight of action in the ancient game.

In playing the game, the service must first strike on the penthouse roof, and thereafter the ball may be played off the floor, in midair, off the shed roof or the walls of the court. Points are scored in some ways similar to lawn tennis, as when the ball goes into the net or out of bounds, or hits on second bounce in certain areas of the court. But points are also scored by hitting the ball into openings in the walls.

In the formative period of the game it was played outdoors and the ball was struck with the hand. The racquet was not introduced until early in the 16th century, after the use of a glove, then thong bindings, and next a paddle, known as a battoir when a handle was added. The name of the game was jeu de paume (game of the palm).

Private courts were built as the game became secularized, the earliest on record being at Poitiers in 1230.


In time, indoor courts were known as jeu de courte paume (short tennis), while outdoors they were called jeu de longue paume (long tennis).

From being the game of bishops, priests, and monks, paume became the pastime of monarchs and the royalty surrounding them and was taken up in the towns in gambling establishments. It became so popular and public gambling was so widespread and for such enormous stakes that in 1369 Charles V restricted the playing of the game in Paris.

From France tennis was introduced into England, supposedly by French cavaliers by way of coastal towns. That the game was well established by the latter half of the 14th century is evident from the enactment in 1365 of statutes against playing it and other games in England. These restrictions affected servants and laborers, but not the upper classes.

During the reign of the Tudors – Henry VII and VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth I – tennis achieved its greatest vogue in England, with royalty and gentlemen of the court devoted to it. During the period of the Stuarts, beginning with James I in 1603, its popularity continued. In France the game flourished in the 1500s and 1600s, and it was the pastime of all classes in both countries, as well as in Germany, Spain, Italy, and other countries of Southern Europe. In 1600 the Venetian ambassador to France wrote that there were 1,800 courts in Paris alone.

In England many private courts were built in the 19th century; prior to World War I there were close to 100. Since then mounting taxes and the closing of large estates led to most of the courts being dismantled or becoming idle. But a small loyal following of enthusiasts keeps the game alive in about 25 club and private courts.

In the United States the game was thought to have first been played in 1876 when Hollis Hunnewell and Nathaniel Thayer, who had played the game in England, brought an English professional, Ted Hunt, home with them from Oxford. They built a court in Buckingham Street in the Back Bay section of Boston and put Hunt in charge of it, assisted by the 12-year-old Tom Pettitt, who came with Hunt.