The Real Tennis British Open made its triumphant return to the sporting calendar this month, culminating in Singles and Doubles finals which took place on 22 – 23 November at Queen’s Club.
The sport’s most prestigious competition was last played in 2019, after a year-long hiatus during the COVID19 pandemic.
Real Tennis, so-called in the UK to differentiate the sport from its overwhelmingly popular derivative, Lawn Tennis, is a historic sport, with roots predating even the sport’s first formal rulebook, published in France in the late 16th century.
The game is often referred to as the ‘sport of kings’: Cardinal Wolsey built a court for Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace which is still in use today, and it was considered part of a noble education, particularly by the French aristocracy.
In Paris alone there were no fewer than 250 tennis courts, between 1500 and 1700, and the game was played under its French name, jeu de paume, at the 1908 Olympics.
Today the game, scarcely modified, has a lower profile but is enthusiastically played predominantly in the UK, North America, France and Australia.
Players competing in the Open, which invited top players with both professional and amateur status, and both men and women, were pleased to travel for the opportunity to restart elite competition.
Nick Howell, winner of the Doubles, said: “I’ve had 18 or 19 months without competitive tennis.
“The British Open is normally the biggest major for us, and it’s amazing to be back.
“It’s almost like normal but you start to realise, when you get on court, it’s trying to remember old feelings of what it’s like to be match sharp, which can be a challenge.”
The Doubles final set up on Tuesday evening saw Howell, and his partner Rob Fahey, beat Bryn Sayers and Ben Taylor-Matthews, 6/5, 6/4, 6/4.
Fahey and Howell are both professionals, with Fahey the head professional at Oratory School and Howell the first professional at the new court in Bordeaux, Jeu de Paume de Bordeaux, which opened in 2020.
Although the pair give contrasting answers on the length of time they have been playing together, they are a successful and established doubles partnership who won the British Open Doubles in 2018 and contested the World Doubles Championship in 2019.
“In Doubles, I get to play with the sport’s greatest of all time, and it’s a heck of an experience to get to play with someone as incredible as Rob.
“I sometimes feel that pressure if I’m not playing well with him, but he’s so supportive.”
Howell’s praise of his partner is warranted, with Fahey holding the title of World Champion title in the sport undefeated between 1994 and 2014.
Fahey lost the World Championship in 2016 to Camden Riviere, but in an unparalleled resurgence, won it back at the next challenge in 2018, two days before his 50th birthday.
He holds the title to this day.
“Opens have always been quite special for the mix of the best amateurs and the best professionals” said Fahey, as he prepared for the Doubles final.
“These are the competitions that everybody wants to win.”
In the Singles, John Lumley, a semi-finalist in the doubles with his amateur partner Conor Medlow, beat Taylor-Matthews 4/6, 6/4, 6/2, 6/0 in a tight, well-balanced match that deservedly spilled into four sets.
Lumley, professional at The Racquet Club of Philadelphia, is part of a Real Tennis dynasty led most notably by his mother, Penny Lumley.
Penny is the six-time Singles World Champion and seven-times Doubles champion, and the second ever woman to be inducted into the International Court Tennis Hall of Fame.
Like many sports of its size, Real Tennis has many talented players but certain stars tend to dominant across competitions.
Refreshingly, as if signalling a new start as the sport returns to competition, neither Lumley, nor Taylor-Matthews, the head professional at Leamington Tennis Court Club, had won the British Open Singles before.
Real Tennis will wait excitedly to see the impact Lumley’s name on the winners’ board will have on inspiring new British Open challengers in this long-renowned sport.