Oxford and Cambridge recently battled it out in the 155th Real Tennis Varsity Match.

Real Tennis

By Maggie Henderson-Tew

The game we now generally call Tennis is in fact a late-Victorian simplification of the more complex and much older game that is now known as Real Tennis — and it may surprise you to hear that Oxford and Cambridge continue to battle it out every year.

The Real game probably started in the twelfth century in Tuscany, and was played with the hand, glove or a bat before the racquet was invented in the mid-sixteenth century. This is the game of tennis that Shakespeare wrote about; that King Henry V and King Henry VIII played and that Queen Elizabeth I watched enthusiastically. Hugely popular in England and all over Europe, it was played throughout society, first as an outdoor game, using streets and courtyards. Later it was played in enclosed courts, first built in the 13th century, which incorporated architectural features of medieval streets into their design.

Of the remaining 45 real tennis courts still in use in the world, over half are in the UK and almost all of those are in the South East of England. Oxford had courts from as early as 1450 and fifteen colleges had their own courts at various times. Merton retains the sole Oxford survivor, built in 1789 on the site of the 1595 court and is the second-oldest court in England. 

The 2014 Varsity Match took place over Friday 28 February and Saturday 1 March on the neutral MCC court at Lord’s in London, an impressive venue for a match now in its 155th year. With over fifty people watching the first day’s play on Friday and about eighty on Saturday, support — while vocal and partisan — was sporting throughout the match.  

 The Oxford Ladies won their Blues’ match by a margin of 5-1, their Varsity trophy making a (happily) pointless round trip to Lord’s. Oxford was the strong pre-match favourite, and had the confidence of three successive years of victory by a 5-1 margin behind them. But the match did not proceed exactly as they had expected.

 The surprise came in the shape of the number three player for Cambridge. It had been a surprise to see her name on the Order of Play. She had no results on the global online results website and it transpired that this was only her second–ever match; her first being the play-off for the Blues team. She improved about 15 points — a huge amount — during the course of her win in two sets straight and showed admirable court craft for one so new to the game. Her backhand cross-court shots and volleying were of a very high standard and she is a fine prospect for the future. Good news for Cambridge, but less so for Oxford, to have the prospect of a much-strengthened Cambridge team in the future. 

The Cambridge men, however, played just as well as Oxford had feared they might.  Despite heroic efforts from all the Oxford players, the significantly superior handicaps of each of the Cambridge Blues told in the end.  They swept through the match with surgical efficiency, winning 6-0 and not even allowing Oxford a set in the process.  

The Cambridge teams this year impressed, surprised and challenged Oxford, in equal measure, and the match was played in an appropriate spirit of rivalry and respect.  We are looking forward to seeing what next year holds.

Image by grrrr.org under Creative Commons license