In late April, small trucks filled with orange-red clay lined up near Roland Garros, a large tennis complex in the western outskirts of Paris. Throughout the grounds, workers were moving from court to court, meticulously laying down the clay, a mixture of crushed tile and brick, and chalking lines.
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They were preparing the signature look for this month’s French Open. At nearly 120 years old, the Open is a venerable institution with rich history, but its longevity pales in comparison with the game of tennis that’s being played in the city’s 16th arrondissement, about three miles northeast.
At 74 rue Lauriston, a staid Haussmannian building like others in the quarter, a sign made of two metal racquets hangs inconspicuously over the sidewalk. A bronze plaque on the massive wooden front doors reads: Société du Jeu de Paume et Racquets. Inside the club, up two flights of stairs, is what the un-indoctrinated would call a tennis court, but the rubber floor’s reddish hue is really the only similarity to those famed courts at Roland Garros.
Four two-story-high black slate walls, three of which have a sloped roof running along them, surround the rectangular court. There’s a net, but it sags heavily in the middle.
Two white-clad men are on opposite sides of the net, hitting a green felt-covered ball back and forth with wooden racquets. The racquet heads are the size of a small skillet, slightly teardrop-shaped and strung tightly. The ball sounds heavy coming off the racquet and skids constantly. Often the men play shots off one of the lengthwise walls and occasionally aim for large openings in the walls, under which a series of evenly spaced white lines, resembling football yardage markers, extend out across the floor.
They’re playing jeu de paume, a relic of a bygone era in Paris.
Known in English as real tennis or court tennis, jeu de paume, meaning “game of the palm,” is the ancestor of modern lawn tennis, which wasn’t developed until the late 1800s.
Popularized by monks and villagers in southern France during the 11th and 12th centuries (who played with their bare hands, hence the name), paume was one of the country’s favorite pastimes from the 14th to the 17th centuries. At the dawn of the 17th century, there were over 500 courts, from Pau to Chinon.
The sport’s mecca was Paris, where over 7000 citizens — kings, aristocrats and commoners alike — played at nearly 250 courts throughout the city and suburbs.
Today, it’s quite a different story. The bulk of the world’s 8,000 or so players live in England, Australia and the United States. Here in France, there are just three playable courts in the entire country, two of which are in the Paris metro area: Société Sportive, the only one within city limits, and Fontainebleau, the former château of King Henri IV and later Napoleon, situated in a leafy suburb 40 miles to the southeast.