Real Tennis was invented in around the 12th century by French monks and the rules are fiendishly complicated.
The balls are hand-made and heavy, rather like a cricket ball but covered in felt. The rackets are not entirely symmetrical and are made of wood. Graphite is banned since the game would simply be too dangerous with those heavy balls.
It’s a pretty niche sport. There are just 43 active courts worldwide; in France, the UK, Australia and the USA. Claire has wiped the board in the women’s events, winning 31 Open titles as well as being world champion since 2011.
I meet Claire at a rather fancy sports complex called Prested Hall, near Colchester, where she and her husband Rob are based. Rob Fahey is the men’s world champion. One might call them a power couple.
Prested Hall has all the facilities a sporting couple could wish for. Apart from the two Real Tennis courts there is an incredibly well-equipped gym, squash courts and two Padel courts, as well as a rather upmarket restaurant and café.
Tall, broad-shouldered and with a gleaming smile, 27-year-old Claire greets me, dressed in white sports gear. Like Wimbledon, the dress code is conventional.
As with all Real Tennis professionals, she and Rob are attached to one of the clubs, where they string rackets, constantly sew replacement covers on those heavy balls and give lessons. They need to do so because there isn’t enough prize money on the tour to make a decent living.
I ask her what she earned in prize money for winning the British Open and I’m shocked to learn that she won £800 while the men’s winner received £5,000. In the World Championships there’s about £50,000 discrepancy in the prize fund
When Claire wins the women’s tournaments, she barely loses a game in the process. I ask her if it’s a bit dull thrashing all her opponents and she replies diplomatically: “The Opens aren’t so exciting but the World Champs are different. It’s pretty special to hold that title.”
Claire clearly wasn’t being sufficiently stretched which meant that there wasn’t a great deal of incentive to improve, so she did something unheard of in the game. She asked to play in the men’s events.
Well, I say the men’s events, but the Open event in this country, for example, is simply called the British Open, so technically it’s open to all. When the tournament was first held, there were so few women players that specifying the sex was clearly deemed unnecessary, so she decided to try and exploit the loophole.
“I first approached our sponsor, Robbin Geffen at Neptune Investments, to ask if he’d support my request and he was fully in favour.
“I put my entry form in a week before the closing date so the Association wasn’t given much time to think!” she says with a broad grin. “Anyway, there was no way there were going to say no to Robin, although I do remember one of the decision-makers asking me: ‘Would you cry if were hit by a ball?’ which I found incredibly insulting, especially since I’d have thrashed him on court.
Some of the male pros weren’t and still aren’t too happy since she is seen as “double-dipping” in that she wins prize money for playing in both the women’s and the men’s events. “But then I could start arguing for equal prize money” she says.
“There’s no way I could afford to travel round the world on the women’s prize money. For winning the French Open, I was getting less that the men’s first round loser. And I do have the same outgoings and train just as hard as the men.”
I ask her what it’s like to play against the men who wallop those heavy balls at her. “I’m fine with that although I do need to feel fresh to cope. When I played in Melbourne, I was jet-lagged, exhausted from lack of sleep and the kids were ill. I got the full force of the ball on my arm simply because I was too tired to get out of the way. I won’t put myself in that situation again.”
Claire is clearly a sporting all-rounder; she was picked for the Olympic training squad in the canoeing event but chose to turn it down. “We would have been based in Nottingham and we didn’t want that.” I look incredulous. “Don’t you regret that?” “No, not really. I also realised that canoeing wasn’t a passion for me; and anyway, I don’t particularly like getting wet.” She gives me that broad grin again.
Her level has slipped a little since having the kids. “Sophie is three and Freddie eight months, and they take up a lot of time. I’d like to get back up to my previous level, but apart from the physical recovery after pregnancies, I was to enjoy my time with them. It’s made me realise that the game is not the be-all and end-all.”
Despite this, Claire is still cleaning up in the women’s game. She even won the British Open while pregnant. At this year’s event, she and the family had the norovirus and yet she still sailed through.
I suggest to her than one needs a fair amount of arrogance to be at the top of a sport. “I suppose you do, though I might call it confidence, but you do try and keep it to yourself, especially in our game as it’s so small. You do have to rein it in a bit. But the way I walk onto court now since being world champion has definitely changed. My mindset has changed too, even if you aren’t really aware of how it comes across.
“And yes, there are rivalries, but no-one’s getting into fights on court.
“We don’t get much prize money and it often cost me more than I earn with paying for flights. I only receive rackets and clothing sponsorship, but I do it more for love than money.
“But it’s a good lifestyle and a great way to make a living if you’re into sport There’s a huge friendship base.”
I’m starting to realise that turning down that place in the Olympic squad wasn’t such a bad decision after all.