Charlotte Cornwallis, a hugely athletic former hockey international is unbeaten in women’s championships in the royal and ancient sport of Real Tennis for the past 5 years but as she prepares for next weeks British Open and the world championship at Newport Rhode Island in May, she knows she faces a growing challenge from the youngsters who are now her nearest rivals. Karen Hird, a Cambridge undergraduate reading Economics (and one of triplets who are all outstanding games players, all junior badminton internationals and all at Oxbridge colleges), is now in the world’s top three and recently became the first woman for three years to win a set from Cornwallis at the French Open championship. She is coached by the Hampton Court head professional Nick Wood and is Charlotte’s new doubles partner.
The pair are favourites for the doubles crown. Like Karen, Claire Vigrass, 17, the second seed, has been coached by Charlotte in the past. She mainly trains at Prested Hall Club near Colchester and is combining her build-up to the championships with revision work for A levels but may turn professional afterwards.
Charlotte is among a handful of female Real Tennis professionals worldwide, and won her first world title in 2001 at the state-of-the-art club in Washington DC. Ironically, her victory was not far from the spot where one of her distinguished ancestors, General Cornwallis and his British troops, were defeated at the Battle of Yorktown which led to American independence and the loss of the Old Country’s rich if rebellious colony. Since 2001 she has gone from strength to strength and is unbeaten in women’s championships since 2003. She was the first woman to win the Browning Cup Young Professionals’ Championship and also the first to achieve a single figure handicap; the Real Tennis equivalent of a scratch golfer. Thanks to the scores of masterclasses and exhibition matches she plays, she has helped to spread the word about Real Tennis and introduced hundreds of youngsters to this intriguing tactical game.
REAL TENNIS BACKGROUND:
This is the game Henry VIII played and the ancient forerunner of modern-day tennis - very picturesque and tactical, like three dimensional chess, with quaint terms like "the dedans", the grille", "hazard half-a-yard" and "chase the door". It is played on 27 courts in Britain and also in USA, France and Australia, on high, dark-walled courts with sloping porches called penthouses and a drooping net, over which the heavy, hand-stiched balls are hit with asymmetric wooden rackets. Hampton Court, where Karen Hird plays, is still the unofficial headquarters. Women only started playing seriously in 1981 and have faced a lot of discrimination in trying to get accepted by the more traditional amateur men. Growing numbers of youngsters are learning to play , many using light cut-down rackets, which has opened up the game.
Real Tennis has become far more professional over the past decade with increasing publicity, prize money and sponsorship from blue chip firms. (Until the 1980s, women's only role in it was as spectators or endlessly cutting sandwiches in freezing court kitchens.) The last women’s World Championship in Manchester in 2007 attracted record amounts of TV coverage and sponsorship from big name companies including several merchant banks, PZ Cussons, property developers CTP and Wineflow. A dozen courts have been built or restored in the last decade, including a new court at Radley College opened in November 2008, and the game’s celebrity links have also proved a major boost. Apart from the Earl and Countess of Wessex (who met through a charity Real Tennis event), BBC presenters John Inverdale, Annabel Croft, actor Robert Powell and his wife ex-Pan’s People dancer Babs, Ingrid Tarrant and David Gower are all enthusiasts.