Josh Smith is a tennis pro with a difference — playing, coaching and even making the balls for the members at Holyport Real Tennis Club in London’s leafy commuter belt.
Smith’s domain is a cavernous and historic brick building in Berkshire, to the west of the capital, constructed in 1889 by renowned court builder Joseph Bickley.
Real tennis boasts that it is the oldest racquet sport in the world — famously played by Britain’s King Henry VIII — and it is the ancestor of the modern game of lawn tennis.
The asymmetrical court at Holyport, a jeu a dedans court, includes many quirky features such as sloping roofs, openings in the walls and a buttress sticking out from a wall — the tambour — which causes the ball to change direction.
To make the game even more of a challenge, each court is unique — features remain consistent but dimensions and conditions vary.
The balls are hand-made and solid while the racquets are wooden with an angled head and a small sweet spot — putting the emphasis on skill and precision as well as athleticism and power.
The pony-tailed Smith, 31, is ranked 13th in the world and wants to climb higher but at the same time must juggle his other roles at the club.
“I pretty much do everything here,” he told AFP. “My personal ambition is to improve as a player. That’s the reason I’m in the game — so I train hard and practice hard.”
Smith also coaches and looks after the management of the impressive court, which was built at the bottom of a garden belonging to a large house since converted into a nursing home.
“I make the balls, I string everyone’s racquets, all of that sort of stuff,” he said. “That, I would say, is the most unique element of the real tennis pro, just how varied our roles are.”
Real tennis, which boasts a list of world champions stretching back to 1740, is played in just four countries — France, Australia, the United States and Britain.
– ‘Character’ –
“This game has a depth of character that other sports I’ve played just don’t have,” said Smith. “Not that there is anything wrong with those — it’s just that it’s hard to compete with hundreds of years of history. There’s something special about that.
“There’s something amazing about hitting a real tennis ball. I like that puzzle, I like that it’s hard. The game really drives me up the wall but that’s part of the same thing that gets me back so I love that side to it.”
Smith said it is not realistic to earn a living just from playing tournaments, with limited prize money on offer.
The most lucrative positions for head professionals are in the United States, but salaries in Britain are lower.
Smith got into the sport via squash — initially working as a real tennis professional at the Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court Palace, where Henry VIII played in the 16th century.
He believes he has time on his side, with players able to play well into their 40s due to a heavy element of skill rather than pure power.
The current world champion, Australia’s Robert Fahey, is 54.
“I’m still hungry,” Smith said. “My personal goal is I want to win old trophies, these old trophies that have been played for a long time — British Opens, French Opens, significant trophies. I want to get my name on one of those.”