Courtly Love

Hitting the courts for a game of ‘real’ tennis.

Prince’s Court in McLean.

Photo by Michael Do

The labyrinth of hallway passages and staircases that lead to Prince’s Court, secluded deep within the Regency Sport and Health Club in McLean, foreshadows the curious activity one encounters there: real tennis.

Also known as court tennis, it is an inherently complex game that has survived since the 12th century when it was first played in France. (One of its early champions was Henry VIII.)

Prince’s court is one of only 11 real tennis courts in the U.S., and it is where I made my foray into the obscure world of “mobile chess” under the patient guidance of Ivan Ronaldson, the club’s head professional. The accomplished real tennis champion and experienced coach who moved from a club in Essex, England, to take the job in 2005, is dressed smartly in traditional white when I arrive. He endures the first 10 minutes of my lesson graciously as I make a spectacle of myself, trying to adjust my lawn tennis instincts to the smaller racquet and low bounce of the dense, hard balls. (Real tennis balls are handmade and cork-based.)

Wider and longer, and surfaced in tile instead of clay or grass, the court is complete with sloping roofs, galleries, and even—in a nod to its medieval roots—a buttress.

But who plays this familiar, yet foreign sport? Prince’s Court has approximately 85 members, many of whom come from the British embassy in Washington, D.C.; its various events, including the annual Cherry Blossom Tournament, attract players from all over the U.S. and Europe.

What unites them, Ronaldson tells me, is a love for the deep tradition of the game and, he emphasizes, a love for learning.

The learning part I understand. Scoring in real tennis is similar to that of lawn tennis, but the various quirks and archaic terminology can be daunting at first. There are, for instance, 55 types of serves (two of which I perform accidentally). I find it’s thrilling, though, to begin to grasp the sport’s rules and strategy while simultaneously improving my technique. Players, says Ronaldson, become addicted to the game and all its variety: “Many players are loyal to the sport, and plenty of them play well into their 80s.” Game on.

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