REAL TENNIS

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

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abstract: I flew to Scotland the day after Andy Murray won the 2013 Wimbledon Championships singles tennis title. This report includes some of my observations about the impact of that momentous event on Murray’s home country. Aside from Dunblane where Murray learned to play tennis, in search of its  national provenance, I visited the Royal Tennis Court in the Falkland Palace where even a more historic figure played tennis some 480 years ago: Mary, Queen of Scots. Her home court now claims to be the oldest in the world. The tennis that is still played there, however, has relinquished the simple appellation in favor of real or royal tennis.

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 The day after Andy Murray won the 2013 Wimbledon Championships singles title I flew to Edinburgh. The two events were not coordinated but, once in Scotland, I was curious to learn about the impact of Murray’s feat on his homeland. On July 7, Murray became the first British man in 77 years to win the Wimbledon. This was on top of two other recent major accomplishments:  Murray’s 2012 US Open victory which had made him the only British male to become a Grand Slam singles tennis champion during the Open Era, and his winning the gold medal in the 2012 Olympic men’s singles made him the first such British tennis champion in over 100 years.

All the British, of course, were ecstatic. The Scotts, however, were equally eager to claim Murray as their own and not England’s, their historic adversary. When the celebration of Murray’s victory began, Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, unfurled the blue-and-white Scottish Saltire flag in Wimbledon’s royal box. This was taken by some to be an attempt to claim Murray as a contemporary Braveheart.  Braveheart, the 1995 Academy Awards winning film which generated world-wide attention about Scotland and its history, glorifies William Wallace, a 13th-century Scottish warrior who led his countrymen in the War of Independence against England’s King Edward I. Saltire, or Saint Andrew’s Cross, is the national flag of Scotland.

First Minister Salmond was breaking Wimbledon rules, it was said. Some went even further and accused him of politicizing Andy Murray’s victory a year before Scotland’s scheduled referendum on independence. His spokesman denied any such motive, but British Prime Minister David Cameron lost no time in responding that the victory should be marked in truly British style: with a knighthood. The 26 year old champion is now Sir Andy Murray.

Back home the Scotts were not deterred. In numerous gathering they celebrated the victory by signing choruses of Flower of Scotland, a song that has become an unofficial national anthem of Scotland and pointedly refers to the victory of the Scots, led by Robert the Bruce, over England’s Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The London newspaper The Guardian suggested that the animosity should be tamed centuries after those first skirmishes along the Scottish border. “Andy Murray: Scottish, British. Who cares? Today he belongs to us all,” was the pleading headline in the paper.

Murray has identified himself as Scottish and British. In his post-match interview, Murray called himself a “British Winner.” His position regarding the 2014 Scottish independence referendum has been less committal: “I will think about it, speak to some people and try to see what is best for the country.” After the US Open last year, Murray returned to his hometown of Dunblane for a victory parade. He has not yet arranged such a trip after Wimbledon since he presumably is busy preparing for this year’s American hard court season as the defending champion. Just a few days ago, however, Murray managed to spend some of his increasingly large tennis earnings to buy Cromlix House in the town of Dunblane, Scotland. This huge mansion, acquired at £1.8 million, will be refurbished as a five-star luxury hotel. By this, Murray has said “we will be able to attract new visitors to the area, create a number of new jobs and focus on supporting other local businesses….I’m pleased to be able to give something back to the community I grew up in.”

When I visited Dunblane I found it to be a pleasant, prosperous community. It is a small town of some 8,000 people. The major cities of Scotland are not far away. Within 30 miles is the biggest, Glasgow, with a population of 1.3 million, where Murray was born before moving to Dunblane. Edinburgh is 10 miles further away to the west. It has half a million residents but it is the political heart of Scotland. Newspapers have recorded the reaction of the “overjoyed” fans on the streets of Edinburgh the day Murray won the Wimbledon. In bars “Saltires were proudly waved as the crowd burst into impromptu choruses of Flower of Scotland. When I arrived a day later, however, there was no sign of celebration in Edinburgh except for a lone chalk-drawing on the sidewalk in WaterlooPlaza. The Plaza was perhaps as close to London’s Hyde Park Corner as one finds in Edinburgh for public expressions. It is located in front of The General Register House which is “the home of the National Records of Scotland and the Scotland People Family History Centre.”  Even birds were free to make their statements on the head of the statue of Wellington for whose famous victory the Plaza is named. The chalk-drawing showed Andy Murray in his tennis pose, racket in hand and emoting after a triumphant shot. Under the drawing was the artist’s simple comment: “Many Thanks.”  A couple of days later, even that drawing was gone, replaced by another about the poor, showing destitute people sitting on the sidewalk with this message: “If 1% of the rich gave 1% of the wealth to the poor, poverty will cease to exist.”

Surely there must be more lingering demonstrations of celebrations for Murray, I thought. The concierge at my hotel responded: “Not here in Edinburgh, maybe in Dunblane.”  Indeed, in Glasgow and St. Andrews, as well, which I toured in the next days, I found no traces of remembering Murray’s feat. Dunblane was a different story.  The newspaper The Scotsman reported “The town of Dunblane erupted with joy.”  As the broadcaster BBC commented:  “each and every one” of the people who “call Dunblane home…seemed to revel in the astonishing achievement of one of their own.” The Scotsman added: “They wore Andy Murray face masks, draped good luck banners from the rooftops and cheered themselves hoarse.” An impromptu parade was staged through the town with signs reading “The Boy Done Good” and “He Did It for Dunblane.” Murray acknowledged the mutual feeling: “It is just nice being able to do something the town is proud of,” he told the BBC. Because of the special recent history of Dunblane, Murray’s words reflected the almost cathartic nature of his victory.

In Britain Dunblane was known as “the little town where one of the darkest chapters in recent British history was played out.” On March 13, 1996, a middle-aged man opened fire in the DunblanePrimary School’s gymnasium, killing 16 students aged 5 or 6 and a teacher, before killing himself. That episode is remembered as “the deadliest massacre of children ever in the United Kingdom.” As a local artist put it “After the shootings, for years if I was in England, I never said I came from Dunblane, I said I came from ‘north of Stirling’” – a town which is a few miles away and has a famous castle used as the venue for an annual Braveheart Conference held in the shadow of a bigger than life statue of him.

Andy Murray has also carried the scar of that episode, to which he was a personal witness, in several ways. As his mother has related, “Andy’s class were on their way to the gym, his class were the next ones in.” Andy also knew the shooter. As he wrote in his autobiography Hitting Back, Murray had attended a youth group run by the shooter, a one-time Scout leader called Thomas Hamilton. A month before the 2013 Wimbledon, Murray spoke about the massacre publicly for the first time when he told a BBC interviewer: “You have no idea how tough something like that is.” He also said that he hoped his success in tennis had helped heal the hurt of the shooting in 13 March, 1996. Indeed, it has. That local artist has testified to this: “Last year [in England], a taxi driver asked me where I came from and I said ‘Dunblane’ and he said, ‘Oh Andy Murray’ and I just thought, ‘Yes’.”  As The Scotsman  put it  the day after Murray’s  victory at the Wimbledon, “Dunblane has been so long wreathed in shadows, but yesterday it basked in the sun and the historic achievement of the man who first picked up a racquet as a boy at the local courts.”

Thanks to Andy Murray’s example, the number of youngsters coached in the Dunblane Tennis Club has increased seven-fold in the last four years. The walls of the small clubhouse are adorned not just by Andy’s picture but also by those of his brother Jamie and his mother. Jamie is a also a professional tennis player who won the Wimbledon mixed doubles title in 2007 with Jelena Jankovic. Andy’s mother, Judith “Judy” Murray is a tennis coach and current captain of the British Fed Cup team. Murray’s tennis dynasty goes even further back: Fiona Bennie, the officer in charge of coaching tennis at the Dunblane Club recalled that she had been taught the game by Andy’s grandmother.

Long before the Andy Murray tennis dynasty and still more famous was another Scottish tennis player: Mary, Queen of Scots. She played “real tennis” on a court that was now 483 years old. I went to see this oldest tennis court “in the world” in Falkland, Scotland, just 30 miles north of Dunblane.

Eventful as Andy Murray’s young life might have been, there is no more colorful character than Mary in the history of Scotland [8]. Born in 1542, she became the queen of Scotland six days later when her father, King James V, died. King Henry VIII of England soon proposed a marriage between his son Edward and the infant Mary in order to create an alliance with Scotland. Thwarted, Henry launched a war with Scotland (1541-1551), which was continued after his death in several English invasions of Scotland. When the Scots suffered a serious defeat in this phase of hostility, Mary’s French mother sent her for security to a castle most accessible to France. In fact, Mary spent most of her childhood in France and in 1558 married the French Dauphin (Crown Prince) Francis, the son of Henry II, king of France and his wife, Catherine de Medici.  He became king as Francis II almost immediately, thus making Mary the Queen Consort of France while she was also Queen Regent of Scotland. Francis died in 1560.  Five years later Mary wedded her cousin, the English nobleman Henry Stuart who was now proclaimed Henry, King of Scots. Their child later became King James I of England. Mary soon became disenchanted with her husband who also made enemies of some powerful nobles. When King Henry was found strangled to death in 1567, it was said that Mary knew of the nobles’ plot to kill him.  A few months later, Mary married the Earl of Bothwell, a Scottish nobleman to whom she had turned for support against Henry. Mary’s subjects who suspected Bothwell’s involvement in the murder of their King were outraged and turned against Mary. She was forced to abdicate and fled to England for help. Her cousin Elizabeth was the Queen of England. She imprisoned Mary, perceiving her as a threat since Mary had previously claimed Elizabeth’s throne as her own based on the support of many English Catholics. After 18 years of trying to gain her freedom Mary was charged and found guilty of participating in a plot to kill Elizabeth. She was executed in 1587, at age 44.

Mary played tennis on the court I was looking at now, at least in the years 1561 to 1567, after returning from France and before seeking refuge in England. Marked on a wooden sign as Royal Tennis Court this was in the gardens of Falkland Palace. A sign gave the date of the establishment of the court: “This tennis court dates from 1530. It was a was a part of James V’s transformation of the Falkland Palace into the finest Renaissance building in Britain.” James V was Mary’s father and “Since then generations of Scottish kings and queens have enjoyed playing tennis here.”  James V, whose wife, Mary’s mother, was from the noble Guise family of France borrowed the ideas of Italian renaissance from his contemporary Francois I, the French King (1515-1547) who was the first to bring the fruit of renaissance  (including Leonardo da Vinci and his Mona Lisa) from Italy. (The guide from the National Trust for Scotland that takes care of the Castle showed me in a book the designs from the Chateaus around Beloise, France, which were used to build the Falkland.) James V was probably equally influenced by the long-standing love of the French kings for tennis. Francois I, in fact, lived in the same Château d’Amboise where King Charles VIII died as a result of a fall on his way to the tennis game in 1498 when Francois was 4. Before that, yet another French king, Louis X had died in 1316 of a severe chill after playing tennis. Francois I who later became Mary, Queen of Scots’ father-in-law was himself an enthusiastic player and promoter of tennis, building courts and encouraging play among the courtiers and commoners.”

Mary returned from France quite a sportswoman. She would come to the Falkland Palace to play tennis, but also to hunt and ride horses. Indeed, she is said to have shocked the Scots with all these sports activity.  She would ride the horse the French way, not sideways as the English did, so as to be able to hunt. In St. Andrews just a few years after the famous St Andrews Links was chartered in 1553, Mary was playing golf in 1567.

Tennis was also a favorite game of the kings in England in this period, beginning with Henry V (1413–1422) . It made the biggest impact on Henry VIII (1509– 1547) who was of a similar age and dashing reputation as his contemporary Francois I of France. Henry VIII played the game with gusto at the at the tennis court in HamptonCourtPalace in London. The Royal Tennis Court of the HamptonCourtPalace was built between 1526 and 1529 and was last extensively refurbished in 1628. It makes the more modest claim that it is the oldest surviving real tennis court in England (not the world as the Falkland court claims), and that it has been in more or less continuous use since it was built. The Hampton court is now home to an active “real tennis” club, one of the fewer than fifty real tennis courts in the world, including several in the United States and the court in FalklandPalace. It is one of the few such courts in the world where the public can watch real tennis.

I was now standing in the gallery of the Falkland Palace tennis court. On this day there was no game being played. A sign at the court pointed out:

“As you can see this court is not like the law tennis courts of Wimbledon. All four courts and even the gallery where you are standing are an integral part of the court. For centuries royal tennis was known simply as tennis. After lawn tennis was introduced in the 1870s it became necessary to distinguish this original game from the new game of lawn tennis.”

The new name given for the original tennis is real tennis or royal tennis. As it is played today, it is a “mixture of tennis and squash,” with techniques, strategies and rules which are “more difficult and more complex.”  The rules were described in another sign at the Falkland court. Among them were these: “the ball can bounce off the walls and roof;” and points “can be won outright … if the ball enters the winning gallery.”  However, the real tennis shares the same basic scoring methods and terms, the signs said.  They gave the origin of the game:

“Tennis was probably introduced into Scotland in the 13th century. Tennis comes from the French word tenez, the warning that was shouted before each serve. … An early form of the game known as … game of the palm of the hand was played in the town squares and religious cloisters of medieval Europe. Royal tennis rackets are still shaped like the palm of the hand.”

That might explain the origin of the word racket: it is from the French raquette which could be, in turn, from the Arabic rahat al-yad (the palm of the hand) -although some argue that it is from the Flemish raketsen, derived from the French rachasser (to strike back).  Most of the other common tennis terms are from French: deuce from à deux le jeu (to both is the game or the two players have equal scores), love (zero) from l’oeaf (egg which is shaped like zero), and tennis which is the imperative form of the verb tenir (to hold).

“By 1599,” another sign at the Falkland Royal Tennis Court, reminded us “tennis had become part of everyday language.  In Shakespeare’s Henry V the Dauphin sends Henry ‘a ton of tennis balls.’ Shakespeare knows his audience will understand the insult –playing tennis was regarded as unmanly and effeminate.” This left me wondering what Mary, Queen of Scots would have thought had she survived to read this barb by the Bard.

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    • John(Jack) Murray Dusay
    • August 12th, 2013

    Thanks Keyvan —-so if we hit a ball up to the ceiling or the wall and it bounces into the court we win the point —I like that royal rule—if an argument ensues they well be referred to you(notice full name below).

    • Kita Shahab
    • September 23rd, 2013

    I really enjoyed reading this. Through your words, I felt the pride and joy that the people had. Thanks .

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