Garland is the real (tennis) deal

Heard the one about the Jewish real tennis player? It sounds unlikely. The famous quip goes that the shortest book in the world is about Jewish athletes. But Tony Garland’s career in the sport, made famous by Henry VIII’s playing at Hampton Court, is an unlikely part of the story.


Speaking from Lord’s, where he still works part-time, the spry 76-year-old recounts: “I think I am the first Jewish real tennis professional. There was a chap called Kenny Jacobs in New York. I never met him, but I think he was also Jewish. Either he or I was the first.”

Lord’s is home to one of only 25 real tennis courts in the UK. They have a stone floor, a roof and the sport is played with hard balls (more akin to a cricket than a tennis ball). There are another 15 or so courts around the world, mainly in the USA, France and Australia.

Garland served as one of the three professionals at Lord’s during the 1980s. He thereby became one of the elite group of 120 or so professionals around the world. The duties involved coaching, as well as making the balls, stringing rackets and keeping the score, which he assures us is not simple.

He was a professional for five years, playing in a few tournaments - most of the players were much younger -  and then afterwards, becoming a locum pro. More recently, he has come across a number of outstanding players, including the current women’s world champion, who was an intern at Lord’s.

Garland stumbled into the sport later in life when at the age of 40, he ended up playing a game of real tennis at Queen’s Club in west London. He explains how he took to the sport like a natural: “The next morning I was there at 7.30am demanding a lesson.” There was a connection with the game when, as a child, his mother used to walk him in Hatfield, near the real tennis court.

Describing himself as a “Litvak”, he grew up in Highgate and was barmitzvah at Muswell Hill Synagogue. His speech is littered with Yiddish phrases and even the occasional Hebrew word. He is now a member of a United Synagogue and says that he has “loved” his visits to Israel over the years.

Whilst Jews have not been centre stage in the history of real tennis, Garland takes pleasure in revealing that there are a few Jewish players. “On occasion, when there is a doubles match, I joke that another six and we’ll have a minyan,” he remarked. “There was also a lawyer called Laurie Dofman who was passionate about the sport and has a tournament named after him.”

Above all, Garland is an enthusiast for the sport. He explains that it started in France and Italy in around 1200. It was famously adopted by King Henry VIII and also featured in Shakespeare.

Garland said: “Real tennis is becoming more popular. Matches can be very exacting. One recent contest took three-and-a-half hours and, unlike tennis, we don’t sit down at regular intervals. You have to think in this game, it’s cerebral in lots of ways. Compared to lawn tennis, I describe it as the difference between draughts and chess.”

Written by Zaki Cooper

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