History of the game: “Tennis balls, my liege”

The insulting ‘treasure’ that France’s Dauphin sent to Henry V in Shakespeare’s play had long since played its part in French sport. Louis X (1314 – 16) was an enthusiastic player of jeu de paume or ‘game of the palm’ from which modern tennis is derived, and his innovation of an indoor court supplemented the game’s outdoor version.

In both cases the aim was to serve and hit the ball with gloved hands, though barehanded versions of the game were also played at an earlier stage. The server’s cry of ‘tenez‘, or ‘look out’, may be the origin of the word ‘tennis’. Its indoor form, when played with the racket (a post-medieval innovation), would later be called ‘real’ to distinguish it from the lawn-based version that became popular in the 19th century. jeu de paume, when played indoors, involved the hitting of the ball within an entirely enclosed space, while the original outdoor version involved a court consisting of just a front wall and two side walls.

le jeu de paume

The game Louis played, however, was already historic, and earlier versions of it were being played in France by at least the 12th century. The Spanish game of pelota and the Italian palla, also handball games played within a court, are of similar antiquity. The English fives, a game played without a racket, belongs to the same family of sports. Louis’s innovation was widely imitated in royal and aristocratic palaces across Western Europe, and the playing of jeu de paumeĀ in specialy built indoor courts showed the emergent influence of the French as arbiters of fashion and social style. The pneumonia, or possibly pleurisy, that killed the young king has been atributed to the large amount of chilled wine he quaffed to cool himself down after a particularly vigorous game of jeu de paume.