Jeu de Paume: Holding Court in Paris- page 3 | Travel | Smithsonian
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The current game of jeu de paume evolved from a game played by southern French villagers and monks in the 11th century. (Jonathan Brand)

Jeu de Paume: Holding Court in Paris

Court tennis, the quirky game of finesse and speed that once dominated France, is now kept alive by a small group of Parisians

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The same can be said for the balls, which look like their lawn tennis counterparts but in reality have more in common with baseballs. Made with cork centers and felt covers, the balls have little bounce and wear out easily. The professionals, or paumiers, hand sew the balls each week, just like their ancestors did under Henri IV, who created the game’s first association of teaching pros.

“All the history like that which is behind us is really fabulous as well,” Kressmann says. “It’s an essential part of the game.”

In Paris especially, protecting the sport’s rich history in the city — from King Charles V’s construction of one of the first courts, at the Louvre in 1368, to the destruction of many former courts during Haussmann’s 19th-century modernization of Paris — is just as important to many players as picking up a racquet.

Yves Carlier, the chief curator at Château Fontainebleau and a member of the paume club, has written extensive histories of the game in book form and for the Comité’s Web site. And in 2008, the Société Sportive commissioned Parisian historian Hubert Demory to publish a short book on the game and the club’s origins for its centennial.

Much of what has been chronicled has helped to debunk myths about the game in Paris that others have tried to propagate; often that jeu de paume was traditionally an aristocratic game.

Some cite the Oath of the Tennis Court, or Serment de Jeu de Paume, which took place on Versailles’ jeu de paume court and launched the French Revolution, as proof of the game’s noble roots.

It is a common source of frustration for some current players like Guy Durand, the treasurer at the Fontainebleau club. “Jeu de paume has been called the game of kings, but it was not,” he says. “And the Revolution had nothing to do with the decline of the game; by that time many courts had become theaters or exhibition halls.”

Indeed, even by 1657 the number of courts in Paris had fallen to about 114, according to Demory’s book. By the time of the Revolution in 1789, he notes, there were just 12 places to play.

Durand’s curiosity extends beyond the history books. Like many fellow players, he is constantly on the lookout for former paume sites around France. Traveling through the Loire Valley recently, he came across a car garage that clearly had been a paume court. He noticed the tambour, still intact, as he drove by.

Durand, a restaurateur in Fontainebleau, made an appointment with the mayor to discuss buying and renovating the court for use, but the price was overwhelming.

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