28 May 2017

On the eve of the Liebherr 2017 World Table Tennis Championships to look back at the grandmother of all racket sports and its demise and extinction.

by Wade Townsend

There is a Darwinistic element to sports. Trace their history far enough back and you will find that most share a common ancestor. Follow table tennis’ origins down the family tree of racket sports and you will get to Real Tennis.

A sport that is best described as a combination of tennis and squash, it is probably easiest to go checkout some Real Tennis on YouTube. I’ll wait while you go watch.

Strange yes? While the scoring system mostly resembles tennis, the court is a complicated arrangement of segments marked out by lines that are incomprehensible to the uneducated onlooker. The walls come in to play and the ridge on one side, known as the penthouse, is an entirely unique element. The styles are serve are equally odd, from the ‘bobble’ and ‘poop’ to ‘giraffe’.

The origins of Real Tennis go back to 12th century handball sports, which over time acquired the use of a glove. By the 16th century the glove had become a racket. Four hundred years for such a small change, but it had a major impact.

Heavily associated with royalty, Real Tennis is often referred to as ‘the sport of kings’ or even just simply ‘royal tennis’. European nobility could’t get enough of the game and it reached phenomenal heights by the 17th century. More than 250 courts were to be found in Paris alone.

But then Napoleon came around and suddenly the kingdoms and the royal courts of Europe found themselves with less leisure time on their hands. After the French Revolution and the kick in the behind that the aristocracy received, Real Tennis became an anachronism. The few matches that are still played today draw a crowd that wouldn’t look out of place at a polo match; still receiving the adoration of the upper echelons of society.

There are now only 43 courts left in the world. Compared to the many children it spawned, Real Tennis is for all intents and purposes extinct. Survival of the fittest has left the overly complicated game gasping for air.

Meanwhile, table tennis continues to reach new heights. It is now found in every corner of the globe, and that can now be said without any hyperbole.

In Düsseldorf, table tennis will continue its ascension as the dominant species.

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