Colin Nettelbeck reviews 'The Tennis Courts of Lyon' by Richard Travers

Practitioners of real (or royal) tennis have with their game the special relationship that comes with being a small group of initiates. There are probably fewer than ten thousand of them in the world, gathered in the four countries where the ancient sport survives on no more than fifty active courts. Individually and collectively, they appear to feel, beyond the passion with which they master the complex rules and techniques of the actual playing, a responsibility for protecting, maintaining, and extending detailed knowledge of the six centuries or so of the game’s history. It is indeed an unusual microcosm, but it is full of intriguing connections with some major historical figures and moments.

Australia (along with Britain, the United States, and France) is an important centre for real tennis, and Victoria is home to four of the nation’s five active courts. Richard Travers, long-time member and former president of the Royal Melbourne Tennis Club, has looked beyond local interests, however, in his project to expand knowledge of tennis, by applying himself to filling a gap in the history of the game in France, namely its practice in Lyon.

As we know, Lyon – the pinched self-sufficiency of some Parisians notwithstanding – has always been a hugely important French metropolis, and Travers, through his tennis story, offers many illuminating insights into the life of the city across the centuries. On its tennis courts we meet Rabelais, the literary giant of the French Renaissance; King François Premier, torn between his love of high culture and his passion for war; Louise Labé, whose exquisitely delicate poems were in such contrast to her Amazonian athleticism; the Sun King himself, Louis XIV, and the young Molière, the latter not a player of tennis, but interested in the courts as a playwright and the leader of a troupe of actors looking for spaces to perform.

The_Tennis_Courts_of_Lyon_plate_1A detail from L’art du paumier-raquetier, et de la paume (1767)

The book is beautifully produced and printed. The illustrative material includes maps, etchings, facsimiles of original documents, photographs, and a number of contemporary cartoons by Michael Lindell. Travers combines love and experience of the game with an historian’s tenacity and the deployment of an impressive linguistic talent. He shares with his readers the excitement of unearthing original archival documents, bringing to us as well many lively translations, mostly his own, including a number of felicitously turned pieces of verse. In a project that seeks to be as comprehensive as possible, he documents the history of the Lyon tennis courts in meticulous detail. But while the general reader may have little interest in some of the accounts of the buying, leasing, or transferring of land or other property, these often reveal more than one hidden drama. Moreover, there is plenty of other information and commentary to set the imagination working.

We learn what an addictive game tennis was, and that, perhaps for that very reason, it was one in which gambling was rife. Courts were expensive to build and maintain, and it was no doubt inevitable that they were rented out for other purposes: not only for theatre but for operas and other performances and meetings. One level of Travers’s narrative is chronological, taking us court-by-court from the Renaissance to the present, covering everything from the role of the tennis professionals to the place of women in the sport’s evolution. In addition, the text is enriched by numerous digressions, some of them personal stories, some of them quirky anecdotes such as that about three young gentlemen crushed to death by a collapsing ceiling, or the one about François Premier’s son and heir, who died of drinking iced water after a particularly vigorous contest. Travers seems to have an instinctive touch for placing these asides: they glance off the wall of his narrative like well-placed shots. As well as being a significant historical contribution, The Tennis Courts of Lyon is a delightfully executed labour of love.

CONTENTS: MAY 2012

Published in May 2012 no. 341

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