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

The current game of jeu de paume evolved from a game played by southern French villagers and monks in the 11th century. (Jonathan Brand)

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And though a few other remnants of the game’s glorious past still stand in Paris —including two courts built by Napoleon III in the Tuileries, now museums, a hotel on Île Saint-Louis, and the famous salle at Louis XIV’s Versailles where the French Revolution started— jeu de paume has largely faded from the city’s collective memory.

But for the approximately 170 Parisian members of Comité Français de Jeu de Paume, the sport’s national governing body, it’s still the 17th century. Driven by a passion for their unique sport, this small but dedicated group is keeping the game alive.

“What’s interesting for me about paume is that there are so many possibilities for each shot,” explains Gil Kressmann, the former president of Société Sportive. Kressmann, a well-built, graying man in his mid-60s, was introduced to the game as a youngster in Bordeaux. “Each stroke, as a function of your position and that of your opponent, there are almost an infinite amount of solutions and you have to choose the best in a matter of seconds.”

Paume, the saying goes, is to chess what lawn tennis is to checkers. At a glance, the game does resemble lawn tennis — there’s a service, a return, the same scoring terminology (love, 15, 30, 40, advantage) and a full match is the best of three six-game sets.

But with 13 walls, including a buttress called the tambour on the receiving end, over 50 different styles of serve and complex rules like the chase, in which the ball can bounce twice on your side without your losing the point, it quickly becomes clear that jeu de paume is much more nuanced; it’s a game of precision and wits.

“In lawn tennis, the guys who hit the ball the hardest have the advantage, but in paume, it’s not essential,” Kressmann says.

No two courts are alike. At Fontainebleau, the floor is a few meters longer than its counterpart in Paris, and the walls respond differently as well. This is because the game, originally played outdoors in medieval marketplaces, moved indoors in the 14th century as cities became more populated and courts had to be built wherever there was room.

Thus, home court advantage and experience triumphs over sheer athleticism. And because of the multitude of shot options each time you prepare to strike the ball, the more court time you have logged the better, regardless of fitness level.

“Up until recently, most of the world champions were over 30 years old,” notes Ivan Ronaldson, a former professional at Fontainebleau and now at Prince’s Court in Washington, D.C., one of nine courts in the United States.

The equipment is another of the game’s many idiosyncratic attractions. The heavy wooden racquets, with offset heads meant to replicate an open palm, have evolved little since their introduction in the 14th century.

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