Although most people are familiar with the game of lawn tennis, few realise that its roots go back a long way. In 1874 the newly-created game of lawn tennis adopted the scoring of the much older game, now known as real tennis. Real tennis itself is one of a number of games which share the same system of scoring and have similar rules. Scoring in fifteens and playing chases are such unusual and singular methods of scoring that it seems reasonable to assume that all games sharing these features have a common origin.
The simplest of these games are still played in the open air in many locations in Western Europe, from Kaatsen in Friesland to the games of Palla and Llargues played in the streets of Tuscany and Valencia. These games are all survivors of the medieval game of tennis and their rules differ from those of lawn tennis, one difference being that points are scored by sending the ball beyond the opposing base-line. In order that this should not be too easy to achieve nor too difficult, the base-lines are generally about seventy-five yards apart. This length of pitch is reason why the games of Longue Paume in France, Lachoa in the Basque Country and Llargnes in Catalonia bear names which indicate length in their various languages.
Although the scoring has, in some cases, varied a little from the original scoring in fifteens, all the varieties of medieval tennis play chases. This is a complicated and unusual system of scoring in which, if the ball is not returned on the volley or after the first bounce, a chase is marked on the ground, either at the point of the second bounce or the point at which the ball stops rolling. The chase itself is not a point and the score does not alter until the players change ends and the chase is played off. If the player succeeds in making his own ball bounce or stop nearer the base-line or the back of the court than the chase laid by his opponent, then he wins the point and the score is altered accordingly. This method of playing chases is common to all forms of medieval tennis, the chase itself being mentioned as early as 1316. The scoring in fifteens, the modern call of forty being an abbreviation for forty-five, is also old and is mentioned in a poem about the Battle of Agincourt written in 1415. However, there is little doubt that the game itself is much older than this.
In many of these games, the hand is replaced by an implement to throw the ball a greater distance and to protect the hands of the players from the damage inflicted by striking the ball. Hence the use of wooden battoirs in Longue Paume, a timbrel similar to a tambourine in Tamburello, the wooden cylinder around the forearm in Pallone, the basket work chistera in pelota and the racket for tennis. These implements make the games appear very different, but this is superficial – the rules and the scoring remain the same.
The greatest changes that has influenced tennis was the move from an open area to an enclosed court, a move probably induced by the filthy state of the streets in the Middle Ages and the desire of the nobility for some privacy. This was put into a nutshell by John Stow, the Tudor historian, who wrote that: “The ball is much used by the nobility and gentry in their tennis courts and by the people of meaner sort in the fields and streets.”
Tennis in Scotland was originally called ‘caich’, ‘caitch’, or even ‘cache’, all of which were derived indirectly from the French word ‘cachier’ used in the medieval dialect in Picardy meaning to play tennis. (Indeed tennis courts in Scotland were known as ‘caichpules’). References to the game can be found as early as the reign of King Alexander III (1249-86) whose mother Marie of Couci may well have introduced the game to Scotland from France. Today, the (open air) Falkland Palace Royal Tennis Court is the oldest court still in use.