Anyone for real tennis?

STEVE is telling me to keep my arm stiff and to stay side on to the ball. It’s like playing tennis, except the ball’s bouncing off a back wall behind me. “Don’t go too close! That’s it…”

Surprisingly I connect, sending the ball looping over the net to the back wall. I was aiming for a buttress, known as a tambour, in the far corner of the unusual asymmetrical indoor court that is said to be modelled on the cloister of a 12th-century monastery.

This is real tennis, an ancient pre-cursor to lawn tennis, often depicted as a game played only by Henry VIII and aristocrats. The complicated rules involve a “chase” — by which players gain or lose the “service side”.

The racket’s wooden with a unexpected bend and the ball is hard. I’m fighting the urge to flail and give it a good whack, trying to stick to the advice given by Steve Brockenshaw, the club’s head professional. “That’s it! Side on! Bend your knees! Great!”

Despite its rich heritage real tennis is largely unknown with just 9,000 players worldwide, but its appeal is growing with the construction of several new courts. And Salford is an unexpected hotbed of real tennis enthusiasm.

Tucked away in Blackfriars Road is the Manchester Tennis and Racquet Club in a Victorian building that looks like an old school. Founded in 1876, it is every bit the gentlemen’s club, with wood pannelling and mounted deer heads. It’s so well preserved the TV companies come here to film period dramas.

Beyond the lounges and the dining room lined with pictures of former members there’s the court – one of only 25 in the country – as well as a squash court and a rackets court – the forerunner to modern squash that is considered to be the fastest ball game around.

“It’s in the ascendancy as a sport,” says Jamie Bebb, a former fund manager at the Co-operative Insurance Society who’s director of rackets.

“In the past there was an element of exclusivity to it with courts, for the most part, being located in clubs. There was a sense of aristocratic, toffee-nosed elitism which we’ve been trying to get rid off – the no ladies, no welcome, no nothing attitude.

“We’ve been trying to get rid of that because it’s a fantastically good game, not least because it has a fabulous handicap system. It works in such a way that we could both have an enjoyable game and we would have an equal chance of winning. There are only three other games in the world that have an efficient handicap – golf, polo and crocquet.

The club has around 500 members, with some 100 of them playing regularly. The president Brendan Hegarty is a former senior circuit judge.

He says: “It’s quite unique not just in Manchester but in the country as a whole. There are only a handful of other clubs that offer real tennis, most of the courts don’t have club facilities. The great thing is it’s very much a social institution as well as a sporting club.”

The real tennis season has just started and the club will be hosting the International Real Tennis Professionals Association tournament next week featuring world champion Robert Fahey.