Real Tennis: Fahey seeks pre-eminence among the penthouse players: Australian newcomer with a liking for power goes for Grand Slam on Queen's contrary court. Louis Jebb reports

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TWO outstanding Australians, Wayne Davies and Lachlan Deuchar, have held sway over the game of real tennis since the mid-eighties, and Davies is the reigning world champion. But they have begun to lose their dominance and another, younger, Australian, Robert Fahey, holder of the United States, Australian and French Open championships, plays in the semi-finals of the British Open championship, at Queen's Club, London, today, on course for the Grand Slam of all four Open titles, a feat achieved only once before.

Davies is not competing at Queen's, and Deuchar went out in the quarter-finals on Wednesday. Fahey and the defending Open champion, the British amateur Julian Snow, are the most likely pretenders to the game's throne.

Snow, 29, who plays another British amateur, James Male, in today's other semi-final, won three Open titles himself last year and went to the French Open in Bordeaux last month as the man to beat. But in a contest which Fahey describes as the match of the year, Snow was beaten in a five-set quarter-final by another Australian, Frank Filippelli, who went on to lose to Fahey in the final. After Bordeaux, Fahey supplanted Snow at the head of the world rankings and the two men will play a two-leg eliminator in December and January for the right to challenge Davies for his world title. But in the coming years they know they will face stiff competition from Filippelli and Chris Bray, runner- up at Queen's last year, who plays Fahey today after beating Filippelli on Wednesday.

Fahey for one would like real tennis to be a sport open to all who actually wish to play it rather than an agreeable club pastime. This is becoming the case in Australia, but the stumbling block is always cost: the game is played on a court surrounded by four walls, with sloping rooves (or penthouses) and netted openings on three sides: all expensive to install and maintain.

This lack of facilities is the sport's undoing, because few who have the chance to sample it fail to be hooked immediately. The ball comes sweetly off the centre of the racket and creates a variety of angles in play which combines the best of squash and lawn tennis. The basic game ploy - getting to the advantageous service end by playing the ball into one of the openings, or making the ball bounce twice on the floor in a deep position - makes it tactically absorbing.

For Fahey, 25, part of the solution would to attract more good players from other sports. He first tried real tennis in 1987, taking a job as an assistant pro at the club in Hobart, when already ranked as the leading lawn tennis player in Tasmania. He is now head pro at Hobart, and the future of the game in Australia, he says, is in the hands of his assistant there, Bradley Dale, 19, a top badminton player, who has roared up the real tennis handicap after just three months in the game.

Fahey has progressed smoothly enough through to the semi-final. But it preys on his mind that he has never won a big match at Queen's. 'If you could build a court that was contrary to my game, this would be it,' he says. It cancels out the strengths of his attacking play, developed on the fast court in Hobart. To come from Hobart to Queen's, he says, is like, in lawn tennis, going from Wimbledon grass to the slow clay at Roland Garros.

Ironically enough, it was while working as an assistant pro at Queen's in 1991, that Fahey first took the game seriously and emerged as a world-class competitor after acting as practice partner to Snow, a member of the club. 'I should thank him,' Fahey says, 'and he paid for it.'

The seedings ordain that Fahey will face Snow in Sunday's final ( pounds 3,000 to the winner), but both players have their eyes on the world-title eliminator. It will be played over two legs, each the best of 13 sets, with the first leg in Hobart at the end of December. 'It's at the back of your mind the whole time,' Fahey says. 'By the time it starts I will have known about it for 10 to 12 weeks. When that day arrives I'll have played every point about 15 times.'

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