Les Maître-Paumiers

The First Tennis Professionals

Between 1550 and 1700, there were no fewer than 250 courts of various shapes and sizes in Paris alone – and many of France’s provincial towns could boast half a dozen or more.

Louis XIII (‘Louis the Just’) succeeded to the French throne in 1610, aged only 9 years-old. His mother, Marie de Medici assumed the rôle of Regent. To instruct him in the art of the ‘Royal game’; Pierre Gentil was appointed, and received a regular salary of 500fr. per annum. He is the first Maître-Paumier (professional) whose name is known to us.

Fashions change, though: the court of Louis XIV preferred extravagant wagers to personal participation. This did at least encourage exhibition matches between the Maître-Paumiers, the leading professionals.

The considerable status of the Maître-Paumiers reflected the standing of their employers. In France, they even had their own guild, protected by Royal patent from unauthorised vendors of tennis balls and racquets. Statutes set out in great detail the duties and obligations of the Maître-Paumier.

Men’s World Singles titles were first contested in 1740 (winner: Clerge the Elder, France) and continue to the present day, making this the longest-running continuous championship event in sport.

Tennis favours guile and precision over strength and pace: an agile strategist can dominate the game for years. Thus, the useful playing careers of tennis champions tend to be much older than those in lawn tennis.


Raymond Masson

…was the most famous Maître-Paumier at the Court of Louis XV. In 1765, aged just 25, he became World Champion – a position in which he remained unassailable for the next 20 years. His wife played, but was inclined to embarrass her husband with petulant outbursts.

Masson himself evidently had a good sense of humour: for challenge matches, he devised the novel handicap of jumping in-and-out of a barrel between strokes.


Barre

One of the game’s most celebrated players was Frenchman J. Edmond Barre (1822 1873). The son of a Maître-Paumier, Barre came to prominence when Jeu de Paume enjoyed a revival in parallel with the restored French Royal Court. In 1855, he became Royal paumier to Emperor Napoleon III.

Barre wagered that he’d beat the Count de Reignac despite playing with a “touch no walls” handicap. After walking 43 miles in ten hours from Paris to Fontainebleau, he enjoyed an hour’s rest before going out on court and winning with ease. After dining, he spent an hour looking around the town and walked back to Paris the next day. Formidable!

When invited to play in England, his terms were “Fees and expenses – plus two wenches a day” (!) Legend has it that on finding himself underwhelmed by the abilities of an opponent, Barre chose to handicap himself by carrying the marker on his shoulders. When playing fair amateurs, he would strike every ball under his leg, or play left-handed, or use the handle of his racket instead of the head.

Barre retained the World title for 33 years, finally conceding – aged 60 – to England’s Edmund Tompkins (36) after five consecutive day’s hard play. Out of respect for his spirit and mettle, the organisers declared a draw – although from this point Tompkins was regarded as World Champion.

In retirement, Barre – one of the best-loved of men – fell upon hard times: his life savings loaned and lost to a grandson and his 1200 franc pension defunct after the fall of the Empire. In 1871, on learning of his circumstances, old friends and admirers in Britain created a hardship fund for a man who had devoted his life to the game.


‘Biboche’ (Charles Delahaye: 1825-1906)

– a nickname which, to French ears, describes his short stature, energy, and mercurial vivacity,

His father, Henri had been Maître Paumier at courts in Amiens, Compiègne, Paris and Geneva. By the age of 15, Charles was attached to the Passage Sandrié court and, ere long, ranked second only to Barre. In 1848 and 1851, he traveled to London and defeated Britain’s leading players.

Biboche took over the newly-built Tuilerie Gardens court in 1861, retiring thirty-four years later, aged 70. Like other great professionals, Biboche was fond of bizarre handicaps: he once played a match in full dress uniform of the National Guard: suited and booted with belts, webbing, knapsack and carrying in his left hand a musket with fixed bayonet!


Tom Pettitt (1859-1946)

Born in Beckenham, Pettitt emigrated alone to the USA, aged only 16. He was trawling the streets, penniless and malnourished when he had the great fortune to meet fellow Briton, Teddy Hunt. Professional at the newly-opened Boston court and one of the World’s top 10 players, Hunt took the six-and-a-half stone youngster under his wing; within six months, Pettitt was beating him off level.

“When I get a fair sight of the ball, I hit it – and I hit it damned hard!”


Where others played the classic floor game of cut-and-pace, Pettitt would force mercilessly for the openings at every opportunity – and chase down every ball.

Pettitt is credited with popularising the ‘railroad’ – the serve which changed the pace of the game. Also, he is possibly the first tennis champion to endorse sporting goods (see the ‘Pettitt’ Match Shoe below)

Like others before him, Pettitt would add spice to challenge matches by devising eccentric handicaps: playing matches left-handed, with a chair leg, with a champagne bottle – even whilst wearing roller skates!

In 1885, Pettitt took the World Championship title at Hampton Court Palace – successfully defending it at Dublin’s Iveagh court in 1890. he then resigned his title. Thereafter, he dedicated himself to inspiring and nurturing a new generation of players. He retired from the Tennis and Racquet Club in 1927.

Considered one of the most able players and coaches of all time, Pettitt encouraged players to demonstrate and express their individual skills – however unorthodox. One of his protégés, Harry Cowles, went on to become Harvard Squash Rackets coach. In 1931, Cowles dedicated his first book to his former boss:

“I attribute any success I might have enjoyed to having been taught by one of the ablest instructors…I believe Mr. Pettitt the greatest man that ever handled a racquet”

Tom Pettitt was inducted to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1982.


Pierre Etchebaster (1893-1980)

Returning home from active service after WWI, Etchebaster became the French champion in main nués, pala and chistera – variations of Basque pelota. In 1922, Pierre was encouraged by the then President of the Paris court, Jacques Worth, to try Jeu de paume. Within a few minutes of stepping onto the court, Etchebaster had been offered the rôle of Head Professional – somewhat akin to picking up a cricket bat for the first time one morning, then being selected for England in the afternoon.

An exemplary athlete, he would practice daily, for hours. In particular, he made a study the effect different court surfaces would have on the ball’s spin and trajectory.

Before long, Etchebaster was competing at the highest level. Having lost to Fred Covey in 1927, he returned, sporting his signature blue beret, to win the 1928 World Championship – a title he would hold for 26 years. He retired – unbeaten – aged 60.

In 1955, France awarded Pierre Etchebaster the Légion d’honneur.


Rob Fahey (1968- )


Rob has held the World title since 1994. With the greatest respect to his predecessors, Fahey is undoubtedly the finest player to have graced a court. He’s never played wearing roller skates – or with the marker on his shoulders – but then, his opponents are arguably more dedicated and formidable than those faced by Pettitt or Barre.

• World Champion*: 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014
• Australian Open: 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2014
• British Open: 1995, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011
• French Open: 1993, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011
• U.S. Open: 1993, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008
IRTPA Championships (formerly UK Professional C’ships): 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2009
• U.S. Professional/Schochet Cup: 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009
• European Open: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2011

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