Previously male-dominated sports increasingly open to girls

Many independent schools, once proud bastions of masculine privilege, have introduced female participation in real tennis, rackets, fives, etc

By all-round athlete and former BBC sports presenter, Sally Jones

In both mixed and girls’ schools, so-called ‘boys’ games like cricket, football, rugby and even modern pentathlon are becoming popular, thanks partly to a handful of driven, gifted players and coaches who have helped make the sports ‘cool’ for girls.

Take the arcane game of rackets, the ancient forerunner of squash, which originated in the debtors’ prisons as a gambling activity for the gentlemen debtors, (including Charles Dickens’s father.) One of the world’s fastest ball-games and nicknamed ‘squash on speed’, it is now played on echoing, high-walled courts in 14 top public schools including Eton, Charterhouse Cheltenham and Wellington, the hard white ball cracking through at ferocious speeds. 

Until recently it was considered too fast and dangerous for women to play, but in 2010 Malvern College defied the doubters and staged the first British Women’s Rackets Challenge, which spurred on some of their own girls to take it up. Other co-ed schools including Clifton and Cheltenham followed and soon afterwards, the National Schools Championships introduced girls’ events, unearthing an inspirational new talent. Lea Van Der Zwalmen, 21, a former French junior squash champion first stepped onto a rackets court aged 16 as a pupil at Clifton College and was instantly hooked. Soon she was training obsessively, beating more experienced boys as well as her schoolgirl rivals, then in 2015 played the game of her life in the inaugural women’s world championship, beating the reigning women’s world real tennis champion, Claire Fahey, in an explosive thriller. Last year she and Malvern’s multi-talented Director of Sport, Chey West, an outstanding cricketer and role model to young sportswomen, won the British doubles title.

“For me rackets is totally addictive and character-building; you need bravery and quick reflexes,” said Lea. “Thank goodness it wasn’t boys-only when I arrived at Clifton, where I also played real tennis. Both games are ultra-traditional with a great atmosphere and a strategic, intellectual dimension: the angles are crucial. Juggling matches and training with my academic work was great for my time management and confidence. Now I’m aiming to win the world championships of rackets and real tennis – quite a challenge!” 

Clifton and Wellington are the only co-ed schools with both a rackets and a real tennis court, although numerous independent schools organise sessions at nearby clubs and in January [2018] Wellington will host the first-ever British Schoolgirls Real Tennis Championships. Wellington’s rackets professional Ryan Tulley recently took the first-ever mixed team on a successful tour of US real tennis and rackets courts in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago and Tuxedo Park. The side included National Under 16 Schoolgirl Rackets Champion, Lauren Gooding, a junior golf international and hockey star Issie Thorneycroft, who have honed their games playing school matches against boys from schools like Eton and Harrow.

“We loved rackets and real tennis the moment we tried them,” said Lauren. “Mr Tulley was incredibly encouraging. We kept badgering people to come and hit with us as both games are hugely challenging and the focus and footwork you need for them boost every sport you play, including golf and hockey.” 

“Some of the boys from other schools were dubious about playing girls at first,” added Issie, “But they soon learned we could hold our own – and some got a shock when we beat them!”

For BBC cricket commentator and rackets convert, Isabelle Duncan, author of a history of women’s cricket, Skirting the Boundary, moving to the sixth form at Charterhouse in 1990 was a revelation. She discovered a passion for cricket, later becoming an influential player and coach but also tried rackets at the school’s evening club then took up real tennis at Lord’s on achieving her coveted MCC membership.

“As a sporty girl, arriving at Charterhouse was like all my Christmases coming at once,” she recalled.“I loved trying every game going and, of course, I’ve ultimately made my career in cricket. Now I adore playing rackets and real tennis at Queen’s and travelling to tournaments in-between commentating duties. The schools like Clifton and Wellington plus Noel Brett at Malvern are welcoming talented sportswomen into these games, their own pupils and others via evening clubs while Mark Briers has some great teenage prospects at Cheltenham who are already threatening the old guard.”

As one of the foolhardy souls who played in that inaugural Malvern rackets challenge after decades playing real tennis and squash, I am awe-struck at the standard of the rising stars preparing to dominate the game, thanks to the independent schools. For this close-knit group, whatever our age or experience though, the fun, friendships and life lessons acquired from both these historic games are more valuable than simply learning a new skill – though nothing beats the exhilaration of middling a full-blooded backhand down the wall for a winner. 

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