THE KING OR GAMES, POLO OR REAL TENNIS? 

   "Let other people play other things, the king of game is still the   
  game of Kings"  

Many polo players think that this quotation, inscribed on a stone tablet next to the polo ground in Gilgit in northern Kashmir, is about polo. However the couplet is taken from the poem Parker's Piece written in 1891 by James Stephen about real tennis. Whilst there are not many immediate similarities between the two sports there is a surprising overlap between the players and many of the tennis courts built in Britain and America at the end of the 19th and early 20th century were built by polo playing families.

 

Both games have a handicap system which allows players of different abilities to play competitively together. Polo and tennis have enjoyed considerable royal patronage and both can be rightfully described as Royal games. Writing about real tennis Allison Danzig repeats the quotation that "it has been said of court [real] tennis that it is a game of moving chess, that it combines the exactitude of billiards, the hand-eye co-ordination of lawn tennis and the general-ship and quick judgement of polo." Both sports enjoy the participation of dedicated men and women, but both are very much minority sports with polo having purportedly around 25,000 players worldwide and tennis about 10,000 and the latter being played only in Britain (real tennis), America (court tennis), France (jeu de paume) and Australia (Royal tennis).

The origins of both polo and real tennis are shrouded in the mists of history. There are many  countries that claim to be the birthplace of polo. The earliest written mention of the game is in a 7th century work and this notes that the first patrons of polo were the rulers of the Parthian dynasty. Tennis appears to have evolved from a ball game played with the hand (hence jeu de paume) and by the 16th century was played with a rudimentary form of racket. The shape and dimensions of the court had evolved to what we know today and in 1599 the first rules were codified. By the beginning of the 17th century there were courts throughout France - 250 courts in Paris alone - in Vienna, Prague, Rome, Milan, Amsterdam and Madrid. The first court in Britain is thought to have been built in the 15th century in Perth, Scotland with the oldest extant courts being at Hampton Court and Falkland Palace both originally built in the 16th century. Tennis has always enjoyed Royal patronage most famously with Henry VIII and many of the French Kings - including Louis X and Charles VIII - who both died in tennis related accidents.

In Shakespeare's Henry V, the English King is presented with a box of tennis balls as a gift from the French Dauphin. The inference being that Henry should abandon his ideas of invading France and instead occupy himself by playing tennis. Henry's response was: When we have match'd our rackets to these balls, We will, in France, by God's grace, play a set Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard. Tell him that he hath made a match with such a wrangler, That all the courts of France will be disturb'd with chases ... Shakespeare based this scene on an episode from the life of Alexander the Great. There is an account that King Darius sent Alexander a gift of a ball and stick (the sort used in chowgan, the Persian version of polo) to imply that he should not contemplate invading the Persian Empire. The modern versions of polo and real tennis can both be traced to the 19th century. In the case of polo when the game was first played in Britain in 1869 and then taken across the British Empire to Australia (1874), South Africa (1875) and New Zealand (1885) and introduced into Argentina (1872), America (1876) and Canada (1878). 

Real tennis had declined in Britain during the 17th and 18th century not least because the Puritans associated it with gambling and by the 19th century only a handful of courts remained. The Royal and noble connotations of the game contributed to its decline in post-revolution France and it is ironic that the Tennis Club Oath which swore to abolish the monarchy and goes down as one of the major events marking the beginning of the French Revolution was sworn on a real tennis court. In the mid 19th century there was a revival of interest in the sport with old courts restored and new courts built, many by the London based builder Joseph Bickley - who is to real tennis courts what Stradivarius is to violins. In 1838 a court was built at Lord's Cricket Ground and over the next seventy years courts were built across Britain of which more than a dozen have survived and are still in use. At this time there were also the first tennis courts built at Ballarat Australia) in 1866 and in Boston (America) in 1876.

 

The Victorian period was one in which many sports were invented or firmalised with the introduction of laws or rules. The Football Association was formed in 1863, the Rugby Football Union in 1871, lawn tennis was invented in the 1870s and the first Wimbledon Championship was held in 1877, an English cricket team toured Australia in 1876-77 and played the first test match between the two countries (there had been an earlier match between Canada and the US played in New York in 1844 - which could be described as the first ever international test match). Of particular note is the Anglo-American sporting rivalry that began around this time. In 1851 the first yachting race between America and Britain - to become known as the America's Cup, in 1886 the f irst America versus Britain polo match -the Westchester Cup - and in 1900 the Davis Cup began life as an Anglo-American lawn tennis contest.

There are references to real tennis being played in America in the 17th century but the modern game began with the Boston court. The game received an impetus when a series of International and Exhibition matches were played by visiting teams of top British players. In the Book of Sport published in 1901, Eustace Miles describes the attractions of real tennis to Americans being that it provides relaxation of an energetic kind, a healthy exercise for the mind and body and gives scope for originality and the introduction of new ideas. Additionally, it provides a setting for friends to meet in a pleasant way and, as an indoor game, can be played all year round in all weathers. In 1896 the Chicago Athletics Association newsletter reported that "some of our fat men are in training for coming sports in the fall and they all agree that it [tennis and rackets] is the only way to reduce their avoirdupois."

The men's singles in real tennis is the oldest world championship in sport and its first winner was Clerge in 1740. In the 20th century there were three Americans who became world champions in real tennis who were also leading polo players. Jay Gould II was the real tennis world champion in 1914-16 and gold medal winner in the 1908 Olympic Games. Northrup "Norty" Knox was one of the few amateurs in the post-war era to reach an eight-goal polo handicap and he captained the US polo team. Knox was real tennis world champion in 1959 and held the title until 1969, when he retired. George Herbert "Pete" Bostwick was an eight-goal polo player who had two sons "Pete" Jr and Jimmy who were real tennis world champions from 1969 to 1976. Apart from polo, the brothers were all-round gifted sportsmen and were accomplished players of golf, lawn tennis, squash, racquets and ice hockey. Robert Gerry was twice a member of the winning team in the US Open for polo and also a very good real tennis player who won the Tuxedo Gold Racquet Championship in 1946. 

The tennis court in Boston was followed by courts in Newport (1880) - built by Gordon Bennett who also introduced polo to the US - New York (1891) and Chicago (1893). These courts in many instances received support from famous American polo families such as Harriman, Hitchcock, La Montagne, Whitney, Lorillard and Phipps. In 1900 a court was built at the Tuxedo Club, at the instigation of Suffern Tailer and the Hon. Cecil Baring. Soon after the court had opened, Baring eloped with Mrs Tailer to Lambay Island, Ireland where Baring built another tennis court. George Gould, the patron of the Lakewood polo team, had built his magnificent mansion Georgian Court in 1900 which had a range of sporting facilities including polo fields and a real tennis court. His son Jay became world champion at real tennis. In 1902 a real tennis court was built at the Myopia Club where polo is played . The same year the Whitney family sponsored a semi-private court for their "winter colony friends" at Aiken in South Carolina, the Whitney polo field at Aiken is the oldest still in use in America, having first been played on in 1882. In 1915 the Whitneys built a real tennis court at Greentree on Long Island. The Greentree polo team won the Monty Waterbury Cup in 1935 and in 1936 the US Open Championships and then went on to compete as the US team in the Cup of the Americas against Argentina. 

Many of Britian's real tennis courts have been built alongside private polo grounds or by polo players. Lord Wimborne built a court at his home at Canford in 1879. His son Ivor Churchill Guest was a 6 goal polo player who sponsored the victorious British team in the 1914 Westchester Cup.

 

Charles Garland was an American who had moved to Britain and immersed himself in the social life of upper-class county society. He hunted with the Warwickshire and played tennis at Leamington. In 1903 he started work on building Moreton Hall, which included polo, cricket and football grounds and a real tennis court (which is still in use). More recently the court at Holyport (origina lly built in 1889) was owned by a number of tennis enthusiasts including Bryan Morrison - the founder of the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club. The Bathurst Cup, which is for international amateur real tennis and is the sport's equivalent of the Davis Cup, was presented by Lil ias, Countess Bathurst in 1922 . Cirencester Park, the Bathurst fami ly estate is home to the oldest extant polo club in Britain. One of the attractions of polo and real tennis is that through the handicap system it is possible for players to play together however different their standard. Writing in 1901 about tennis, Eustace Miles wrote "the social and 'democratic' influence of this [handicap) system is considerable." 

Walter Buckmaster - Britain's first ten goal handicap polo player was also a tennis player. The Polo Monthly in November 1919 recorded that the forty-seven year old "Buck has always kept himself very fit, in spite of the fact that he is head of a most successful business in the City ... by playing polo and shooting in the summer, and hunting in the winter, and playing real tennis all the year round." Let's leave the last words to Norty Knox who said about real tenni s and polo "I get a lot of pleasure out of playing the two oldest stick and ball games. They are rea lly skill games and mostly they are ones where a man is not penalised if he is small. "

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