Jurassic Tennis

Before tennis came along, Jeu de Paume was all the rage in Renaissance Europe.


in Archive


When I first visited Paris many years ago, I’d assumed the old racquet sport of Jeu de Paume was a mere historical footnote, as extinct from the city as the monarchical elite who once played it. Like most tourists in Paris, I’d come to associate “Jeu de Paume” with contemporary art (from the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, near the Louvre) or the French Revolution (which was stoked by the 1789 Serment du Jeu de Paume at Versailles), but it never occurred to me that actual Frenchmen might still be playing the Ur-tennis game that peaked in popularity 400 years ago.

Hence my fascination when, on a warm day in Paris earlier this year, I discovered a thriving Jeu de Paume club along a quiet street in the 16th arrondissement. Watching French businessmen bashing the felt-and-cork ball across the elegantly sagged net with asymmetrical wooden racquets, I felt as if I’d stumbled into a historical anomaly — the sporting equivalent of wandering into a tidy suburban neighborhood where everyone speaks Middle French.

Inspired by the spectacle, I returned the following week, rented a racquet, and set out to learn the game myself.

Though similar in many ways to modern tennis, Jeu de Paume is a far more complex and technical sport. Played on an indoor court featuring angled walls and netted windows, the game favors precision ball-placement and mental strategies akin to a fast-paced game of chess. When modern tennis (officially known as “lawn tennis”) was simplified into its popular form in 1874, it appropriated the scoring system of the ancient French game, as well as some terminology. The word “tennis,” for example, derives from the old word tenez (meaning “take it!” or “play!”), which Jeu de Paume players shouted before each serve; “love” is thought to come from l’oeuf — “egg” — representing zero.

Directly translated as “game of palm,” Jeu de Paume traces its history back to the 11th century, when French monks competed an early form of the sport, using their bare hands to volley cloth bags of hair or cork. Up until that time, commoners had played various handball games in the countryside, but the physical enclosure of the monastic cloisters gave the game a more standardized setting. The upper classes initially regarded Jeu de Paume as a provincial pastime, but in time young nobles who’d been educated in monasteries began bringing the game home to palaces and urban areas.

The sport caught on in cities: Universities and private entrepreneurs built courts, and by 1292 at least 13 tennis ball manufacturers had set up shop in Paris. Commoners typically played in the streets, while royalty built exclusive indoor courts, further standardizing the game. As the Jeu de Paume craze grew, attempts at restriction were common. In 1397, for example, the chief magistrate of Paris forbade playing on any day but Sunday because “tradesmen and common folk are quitting their tasks and their families during working hours, a state of affairs highly injurious to the good order of the public.”

Though men dominated the sport, the most storied player of the 15th century was Margot of Hainault, who created a stir when she arrived in Paris in 1427 and proceeded to defeat some of the best men in the game. In the Journal d’Un Bourgeois de Paris, which documents city life under the English occupation, the anonymous French chronicler is ambivalent about Joan of Arc (who he considers a nuisance), but he lavishes praise on Margot. “She played forehand and backhand very powerfully,” he reports, “and very skillfully, as a man would play.”

By the early 1500s, the game had been enhanced by the use of battoir (racquets), which gave the sport more power and accuracy, and the implementation of a cord (later a net) to separate players into two halves of the court. These developments propelled the sport into its heyday, which lasted for most of the 16th and 17th centuries.

When I happened upon the Jeu de Paume de Paris club this summer, I found the courts to be nearly identical to the facilities I’d seen depicted in Renaissance-era engravings: Sloped penthouses lined three sides of the court; the net was intentionally sagged in the middle; spectators watched from behind the netted openings of the rear dedans and side galleries. The formal rules of the game still derive from the 1592 “Ordonnance du Royal et Honorable Jeu de la Paume.”

As I awaited my lesson, I made the acquaintance of Gil Kressmann, a fit, bespectacled 62-year-old who serves as the club’s president. Dressed in a blue polo shirt and a tan jacket, he gave me a tour of the sports facility, which (with its polished wood and green leather couches) exuded a subdued, clubby vibe. The Paume court’s black walls were chipped with white from constant use, and the lighting on the court subtly waxed and waned as clouds passed over the sky-window.

“No two Jeu de Paume courts are exactly the same in their size and their angles,” Kressmann told me. “It’s like your baseball parks in America: There are some standard elements, but the distances vary. This court is the newest in Paris: It was opened in 1908, after the courts near the Tuileries were turned into an art gallery. There used to be two Paume courts here, but one was converted for squash in 1926. A number of university students practice squash here, and we recruit them to play Jeu de Paume as well.”

Kressmann told me that this club is the only working facility in Paris, and that France has only two others — in Bordeaux and Fontainbleu. I asked him if he had trouble finding people to play the game.

“We’re definitely trying to train new players and increase our numbers, and we’ve been somewhat successful at this: Two years ago we had 50 players, and now we have over 80,” Kressmann said. “Only four women play in Paris, so we’re trying to attract more females, as well as more young people.”

Kressmann told me that about 200 people play regularly in France, and about 5,000 play worldwide. I asked where else it’s played.

“England, Australia and the United States — though it’s not known as Jeu de Paume outside of France. Brits call it ‘real tennis,’ and there are more than 20 courts in the U.K. The game originated in France, but these days it’s a largely English sport.”

How Jeu de Paume initially migrated across the English Channel is somewhat shrouded in myth. Legend has it that courtly poet Charles d’Orleans introduced it to the English court after his capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 — but references to the sport appear in English documents at least as early as 1365.

However it arrived, few English tennis players were as notorious as King Henry VIII, who some historians have described as a “world-class player.” He was also a world-class gambler: In October of 1532, his tennis wagers were reported to have lost him 50 pounds — about a thousand times the sum most Englishmen earned in a week. His second wife Anne Boleyn was also a gambler, and some accounts say she was betting on a tennis game when Henry’s men arrested her in May of 1536; other accounts assert that Henry VIII received news of Boleyn’s execution while he was himself playing a tennis match.

Gambling had been intrinsic to Jeu de Paume matches since the early days of its French incarnation — and some have speculated that tennis scoring was based on the gros denier coin, which was said to be worth 15 deniers. Jeu de Paume’s intricate handicapping system (which was not implemented in lawn tennis) is also thought to be the result of gambling, since it made wagers riskier and more exciting. One of the earliest recorded references to Jeu de Paume gambling came in 1355, when French king John II requisitioned two lengths of Belgian cloth to pay off a lost wager.

John II was not the only French king with a Jeu de Paume addiction. Nearly all French royalty were familiar with the sport from the 13th century on, though no regent matched the enthusiasm of Henry II, who played daily at his palace court during his mid-16th century reign. According to imperial ambassador Saint-Mauris, Henry refused to allow deference for his royal status on the Paume court, playing his games “in white, with white shoes also, and with a fine straw hat upon his head, and when one sees him thus at his game one would scarcely realize the king who is playing, for even his errors are openly discussed, and more than once I have heard him taken to task.”

During this era, the French populace matched the royal obsession for Jeu de Paume: In 1600, a Venetian ambassador to Paris wrote that the city was home to 1800 Jeu de Paume courts. This number is probably an exaggeration, but there’s no doubt that the game was wildly popular. On a visit from England in 1604, Sir Robert Dallington noted that “I know not how many hundred [Jeu de Paume courts] there be in Paris; but of this I am sure, that if there were in other places the like proportion, there must be two tennis courts for every one church throughout France.”

As with baseball in mid-20th century America, Jeu de Paume provided the metaphorical vernacular of this era: Mathematicians illustrated theorems with Jeu de Paume gambling probabilities; devout poets used the game to dramatize God and Satan volleying for souls. In Francis Quarles’ 1632 book Divine Fancies, one poem begins with this analogy:

Man is a tennis court: his flesh, the wall;
The gamester’s God, and Satan: The heart’s the ball.

Those less inclined to metaphysics used the four-point Jeu de Paume scoring system as a euphemism for sexual accomplishment (much like the four bases of baseball are used today). In the 1620s, Theophile de Viau gained notoriety in Paris for circulating a certain ribald verse:

If you kiss her, count fifteen
If you touch her buds, thirty
If you capture the hill,
Forty-five comes up.
But if you enter the breach
With what the lady needs
Remember well what I sing to you:
You will win the game outright.

Jeu de Paume also figures in Shakespeare’s Henry V, first performed in 1599. Early in the play, the French Dauphin mockingly responds to Henry’s claim on France by sending him a basket of tennis balls. Enraged, Henry responds thus:

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 he hath made a match with such a wrangler

That all the courts of France will be disturb’d

With chases.

The “chases” to which Shakespeare refers is a distinctive feature of the game that never made the transition into lawn tennis. Unlike in the modern game, a second ball-bounce on the court does not count as an automatic point, but is instead noted and measured by the lines that run along the floor. The point is then deferred until game point, when competitors switch ends, and the player who gave up the double-bounce has to play each stroke so that the ball hits between the back wall and the point of the initial second bounce.

I learned intricacies of the chase rule from Ross Brown, a stocky, bearded, 23-year-old Scotsman who was serving a summer stint as the club pro at Jeu de Paume de Paris. Originally from a small village near the Isle of Skye, Ross turned pro within six months of discovering the game in London. “It’s just one of those sports where you get hooked really fast,” he told me. “At one point I was spending all my money on the game, playing six times a week. Turning pro won’t exactly set you up for life — there isn’t much prize money, even at the top levels — but it gives you great access to the game.”

One of only two Jeu de Paume pros working in France, Ross is the modern day equivalent of the maitres-paumiers who facilitated games in the renaissance era. Incorporated by royal charter in 1610, a given maitres-paumier might be expected to play the role of coach, ball boy, practice partner, janitor, umpire, bouncer, and bookie in a single day at the Jeu de Paume court.

As with the old maitres-paumiers Ross devotes one day a week to hand-sewing game balls out of cork, string, and yellow felt. Smaller, heavier and less bouncy than the balls used in lawn tennis, these balls require a tightly strung wooden racquet, which is bent at the head for playing floor and corner shots. “Graphite and large-headed racquets are not permitted,” Ross told me. “This is a finesse game, not a power game.”

This became evident from my first few practice volleys: Accustomed to the power strokes of lawn tennis, my shots bounced off the back wall and Ross returned them with ease. “Placement is more important than velocity,” he said. “The best shots are aimed to your opponent’s backhand, or cut low so the ball dies in the corner.”

Players can serve the ball from most any position on the service end of the court, though aces are rare since each serve must touch the penthouse before coming into play on the hazard (non-service) end. Experienced players use more than 40 different styles of serve, with names like “giraffe,” “bobble,” “boomerang,” “caterpillar,” and “railroad,” many of which utilize ball-spin to increase effectiveness.

Utilizing a neophyte variation of the “bobble” serve — which sends the ball dribbling across the penthouse into the hazard end of the court — I started into my inaugural match of a sport that hit its popular zenith before the United States ever existed.

Jeu de Paume’s gradual slide into obscurity began when fixed games and gambling scandals sullied its reputation in the late 17th century. Changing social and political attitudes on the continent further marginalized the game into a purely aristocratic hobby, and disused Paume courts around Paris were converted into synagogues, storerooms, gymnasiums, garages, and sheep pens.

Old playing courts were particularly popular with performance troupes, and according to the Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre, “the origins of French public theater in the Jeu de Paume were to determine the elongated rectangular shape of theater designs until well into the 18th century.” Molière’s first plays were performed in Jeu de Paume facilities, causing Voltaire to shudder a century later at the notion “that for the first performances of Mithridate and Tartuffe there was no worthier accommodation than a tennis court, with the audience standing in the pit, and with the dandies sitting amongst the actors onstage.”

By the time French constitutionalists used the Jeu de Paume court at Versailles to gather and foreswear their unity in 1789, the sport was popularly regarded as a relic of another era. Still, the game managed to retain a small number of ardent followers. World titles in the sport were first competed in 1740 and have continued to the present day, making Jeu de Paume men’s singles the oldest continuous championship event in sports.

Since the game favors strategy over brawn, a particularly agile and cunning player can dominate the game for years. Thus, champions tend to be much older than those in lawn tennis: Rob Fahey, a 39-year-old Australian, has held the world Jeu de Paume title since 1994; from 1928 to 1954 the game was dominated by Pierre Etchebaster, an eccentric French Basque who retired, still the champion, at age 60.

Perhaps the most storied player of the title era was Frenchman Edmond Barre, who retained the world championship a record 33 years, from 1829 to 1862. A flamboyant character, Barre would walk as many as 20 miles to win an exhibition match, then walk the same distance home that same day. When invited to play in England, his terms were his fees and expenses, plus “two wenches a day.” Sometimes, when bored with the abilities of his opponent, Barre would handicap himself by playing an entire match with the umpire perched atop his shoulders.

Though piggybacking the umpire never became a standard practice, non-title games are still regulated by a complicated handicapping system — now calculated online — so that each player begins the game with an equal expectation of winning. Better players start the game with negative points, get fewer serves, and aren’t allowed to play the ball off certain parts of the court. Hence, I was able to play a close game against Ross — even though it was my first.

Since a double-bounce leads to a chase, I had to score my points by hitting the ball into the various netted windows at either end of the court (the “dedans” on the service end, and the “winning galleries” and “grille” on the hazard end). In addition to the sloped penthouses on three sides of the court, the hazard end features an angled wall called the “tambour.” Thus, while the game is often described as a combination of tennis, squash and chess, my inaugural game felt a bit like pinball, with the ball bouncing off into crazy directions in the midst of a rally.

Thanks to the handicap system — and the pedagogic patience of my instructor — I was able to win my first game off Ross, though I had difficulty adjusting to the small-headed racquet, particularly on backhand strokes. “Backhand is difficult, and the court doesn’t favor left-handed players,” he told me “Still, you did a nice job returning shots and placing the ball. You definitely have potential as a player, if you’re willing to work at it.”

Given the difficulty of finding a game in the United States (no clubs exist outside of a few facilities in East Coast cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and Newport), it’s not likely I will take up the sport on any kind of regular basis. Still, it was nice to think that — in simply playing a game of Jeu de Paume — I had become one of the top 5000 players in world competition.

Wishing Ross luck in his game, I packed away my sweaty clothes and returned to 21st-century Paris. • 30 November 2007


Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel (Random House, 2003).  His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, WorldHum, Conde Nast Traveler, Outside, Islands, Salon, and Slate. Each summer he can be found in France, where he is the summer writer-in-residence at the Paris American Academy. He can be reached at rolf@rolfpotts.com.