Forget Henry VIII, here is the king of real tennis

A world champion for 15 years, Fahey is chasing his 40th Grand Slam crown

Eat your heart out, Roger Federer. The Swiss may have passed Pete Sampras' all-time record of 14 Grand Slam titles this summer but he is little more than a beginner compared with Rob Fahey. When the 41-year-old Australian travels to Bordeaux to play in the French Open later this month he will be looking for his 40th Grand Slam trophy.

World champion since 1994, Fahey is the undisputed king of real tennis, the favoured pastime of many a royal patron, most notably Henry VIII. The forerunner to lawn tennis, real tennis is the game from which most other racket-and-ball sports are derived. Today only 6,000 people play it worldwide, two-thirds of them in Britain, where more than half the planet's 45 real tennis courts are to be found. Australia, the United States and France are the only other countries where it is played.

Fahey is based in Hendon at Middlesex University, which boasts one of the finest real tennis facilities in the world. He was holding court there on Thursday at "The Real Ten", an evening of exhibition matches at which members of the public were invited to try their hands at a sport which can be traced back to the 12th century.

The Hendon club is on a membership drive, with one of its goals to shed the impression that it is an elitist sport. Full membership costs just £300 a year, while court fees are only £12 an hour, which is considerably cheaper than at many indoor lawn tennis centres.

A real tennis court looks similar to its lawn tennis equivalent, with a net draped across the middle, but, as in squash, you can strike the ball against the side and back walls. Much of the art is in working out where the ball is going to land as it flies off the sloping roofs.

The hand-made balls are much harder than lawn tennis balls and do not bounce as high, while the rackets are considerably heavier. The top players hit with huge power and even the best can suffer painful blows when struck by the ball.

"Because it's played with walls it's a lot harder to know where the ball's going to be," Fahey said. "That's a whole new dimension for lawn tennis players. The rules also mean that you're always being put into situations where you have to decide whether to leave a ball or hit it.

"It's not as confusing as it first sounds, but you certainly need patience to start with. You can get a fair way by using your brain, but at the top level you also have to be a great athlete. There's probably more strength involved than in squash and tennis. You're constantly down low in a bent position, because the ball hardly bounces and the balls and the rackets are heavier."

Compared with lawn tennis, real tennis players have many more choices in terms of which shot to play, which is part of the reason why a 41-year-old is still world champion.

"You might have 10 options on every ball, but you're not going to be good enough to play all 10 to the same standard," Fahey said. "So intellectually, you figure out your own game and keep it as basic as possible. People talk about it as a game of chess, but in the end a lot of it is instinctive. When the ball's coming at you at 150mph you don't have the time to figure out your chess move."

Fahey won his first Grand Slam title in 1993 – the major tournaments mirror those in lawn tennis – and his first world championship the following year. The world champion defends his title every two years against a challenger in a match played over 13 sets and several days. The rules used to state that the challenger had to have won one of the Grand Slam events in the previous two years but had to be changed when Fahey won 10 in succession, meaning nobody had qualified to meet him.

The Australian, who defends his title in Melbourne next year, is one of a handful of players who make a living from the sport, most of them by working as club professionals. A winning cheque for $57,000 (about £36,000) at the 2004 US Open was his biggest pay day.

Fahey, who was a decent lawn tennis player until he discovered real tennis at 18, admits he is finding the physical challenge increasingly tough, but he is still the man to beat.

"Being a walled game is probably the thing that allows you to be a bit older," he said. "The greatest skill of all is knowing where the ball is going to be and being able to move to that point. On a lawn tennis court you just have to cover the distance and an older player like me would obviously be at a disadvantage there. In real tennis I might only have to move a step or two. It's a question of figuring it out and then getting there."

News
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?