Hand Tennis: Origin, Rules & How It Differs To Real Tennis

We think of tennis today as a game played outside with two or four players on either side of a net, volleying a ball back and forth to each other in an effort to score points. In today’s game, these players have rackets that they use to hit the ball, but the earliest form of this game that we all know and love was racket-less.

But now hand tennis is making a comeback—although it looks a little bit different than it did in the 11th century.

What is hand tennis? Hand tennis is a variation on real tennis where players wear a glove-racket hybrid to hit the ball instead of holding a traditional racket. Though similar in style of play to real tennis, some rules are different, including that players can return the ball with any part of their body or the glove-racket.

Origins of Hand Tennis

Jeu de Paume

This French phrase gives us some insight into the origins of the game of tennis, as this is what the game was called in its first iteration. The phrase here actually translates to “game of the palm,” and it was played by two people slapping a leather ball back and forth to each other, trying to score points.

Popular with monks, Jeu de Paume is thought to have originated and been played in the monasteries, although courts were eventually constructed simply for the purpose of the game.

This bare-knuckle brand of tennis eventually added gloves to protect the players’ precious palms, and then from there, rackets were introduced in a variety of shapes, evolving slowly into what we know today.

Both “lawn tennis” and “court tennis” are derivatives of this original sport, with lawn tennis being played outdoors on a variety of surfaces and court tennis being played on indoor courts with different, more complex rules.

Fives

Around the same time that upper-class boys’ schools in Britain were inventing a conglomerate of sports that would eventually become soccer and rugby, they were also playing a game called Fives, which was similar to Jeu de Paume.

This game was a bit more confined, usually played on three or four-sided courts that were most often courtyards of various buildings.

Both Eton and Rugby had their own version of the game, with the Eton version including hazards—essentially architectural features of the buildings used as the court that players had to contend with while playing.

The Rugby version decided against having hazards and also allowed games to be played in singles or doubles, whereas Eton only played as doubles.

MesoAmerican Games

Humans seem to have a penchant for bouncing balls against hard surfaces and attempting to score points, and there is evidence of a similar game from as far south as what is now Nicaragua to as far north as what is now the state of Arizona in the United States.

These games evolved independently from the French and British versions, and this speaks to the incredible power of play in human psychology and how much we love fairly simple games.

Hand Tennis Today

Distinguishing Feature

Since smacking a tennis ball with an open palm is not recommended, as it is quite painful and potentially damaging to the small bones in the hand, hand tennis looks a little bit different in today’s world.

Most instances of hand tennis played today involve a combination of a glove and a racket, where the players wear the device on their dominant hand. This leaves the non-dominant hand open to toss the ball up for the serve and pick up the ball when it bounces out.

This means that the players are much closer to the ball and that there is a much smaller margin for error. The average length of a tennis racket is 27 inches from the butt of the handle to the grip of the head, and the head of the racquet has between 85 and 110 square inches of surface area.

Tennis players use these dimensions as an extension of their body, which means that they have a much greater surface area with which to hit the ball. Skilled tennis players can wield the racket as if it is an extra limb, utilizing exceptional control over the tools of their trade.

But in hand tennis, players have to rely only on their own physiology in terms of reach, which is an additional challenge and part of what makes the game of hand tennis so fun.

Where Do You Play Hand Tennis?

Even though early versions of the game utilized walls, today’s hand tennis is played on a regular tennis court and can be played in either singles or doubles. The net remains the same height as a real tennis court, which makes this game accessible—just walk onto any tennis court that you already use.

Some also play on a pickleball court, which is about one-third the size of a regulation tennis court, adding more dimension and much less space to the game.

Rules of Hand Tennis

While the general rules of hand tennis are the same, the scoring of the game is a bit different than real tennis. In general, matches are made up of best three out of five or four out of seven games.

Games are played until one player or team has 11 points and is ahead by at least two points.

Similar to real tennis, points are scored when the ball is hit outside of the lines, the ball bounces twice on one side of the court, the ball is hit into the net, or if the server double faults.

Each player or team is also awarded one 90-second timeout per game. The pace of these games is fast, so players do have one opportunity to slow it down at a strategic time.

When serving, players have 24 seconds from the end of the previous rally to serve, and each server stands behind the service box baseline and hits the ball diagonally to the opposing player. If the ball doesn’t go into the correct box, it is considered a fault, and after two faults, the opponent gains the point.

Each server has two serves, one from the server’s right-hand side of the box and the second serve from the server’s left hand side of the box.

Returns and Rallies

In real tennis, only the racket is allowed to touch the ball, and with the speeds of professional tennis serves today, that’s for safety as well as gameplay.

But in hand tennis, players can return the ball with any part of their body or the glove racket, which means players can kick, hip check, chest bounce, or (if they’re daring) do a header with the tennis ball. However, players aren’t allowed to catch the ball in any way or throw it at their opponent.

One of the beautiful things about tennis and sports, in general, is that as time goes on, sports change and evolve.

Despite the strong traditions that exist within real tennis, this game of hand tennis that calls back to the roots of the sport is a fun, challenging way to get outside and get some exercise while learning a new game that will feel familiar but add a level of complexity.

Fred Simonsson

I'm Fred, the guy behind TennisPredict. Apart from writing here, I play tennis on a semi-professional level and coach upcoming talents.

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