Despite an elitist image and, to the uninitiated, hopelessly complex rules, real tennis has maintained a healthy presence on the courts of England since Henry VIII first eyed his opponent at Hampton Court in 1528.
But the imminent sale by the Lawn Tennis Association of the prestigious Queen's Club, home to the sport's UK headquarters, is causing panic among devotees, who fear that new owners may have little time for their relatively arcane pursuit, which differs markedly from the modern version of the game played by the likes of Tim Henman.
Many members of Queen's are incensed by the LTA's decision to sell. And many believe the future of the club's two real tennis courts and two rackets courts, which take up a considerable portion of the west London site, are threatened as a result.
A members' consortium has already been formed to protect the real tennis heritage - the Queen's Club Members Project Group - to attempt a buy-out of the £40m, 120-year lease from within. But the group will be up against bids from Next Generation, owned by the former Davis Cup tennis player David Lloyd, and rumoured interest from the Russian billionaire and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.
A spokeswoman for the consortium said real tennis, and the history of the club as a whole, was best preserved if kept in the members' hands. "The members' position is that if ownership is going to go to a commercial company, you cannot guarantee the current ethos of the club will not change," she said.
John Ward, a member of the Tennis and Rackets Association, the governing body of real tennis and rackets, said there was a huge following for the two games, which have seen a resurgence since the 1990s after losing popularity throughout much of the past century.
Despite 4,000 players and 26 courts for the game around the country, Mr Ward said the beauty of the game was still not fully appreciated. "It is the most fascinating of all the tennis games. It has a complexity comparable to chess, with so many subtle tactics and technique," he said. "If you are 65 you can beat a 20- year-old just because it's a question of experience and tactics as much as brute force and athleticism. There will be terrible upset if Queen's is sold to one of the commercial companies, and if it happens there is likely to be huge amounts of antagonism from its members."
He added: "The sale matters a lot to the game because its offices are housed there. To lose those would be a big loss." With the fate of the club expected to be announced in early February, the LTA is refusing to comment about the exact terms of sale.
But a spokesman insisted that a covenant had been included ensuring that any future owner guaranteedthe survival of real tennis and rackets.Reuse content