Kaatsbaan (Belgium & The Netherlands)

The Burgundian Duke Philip the Good may well challenge Italy's claim as to the construction of the first walled-in tennis court (kaatsbaan). The city accounts for the years 1453-1455 inform us of the masonry costs for the ducal Jeu de Paume (an open court) erected at Bruges' Prinsenhof Palace, the Duke's favourite residence. Besides Philip, and his son Charles the Bold, possessed tennis courts at virtually all other ducal palaces: the Temple in Paris being the best-known. It is not likely that these early jeu de paume courts featured a net to separate the two teams. Just as was the case in Italy the tennis net (or cord) was introduced in the Low Countries by the year 1490, so the poem Le Jeu de Palme by Jean Molinet suggests.

Huis ter Kleef
Huis ter Kleef
The Kaatsbaan at Huis ter Kleef (Building with Tower on the right, 1610)

In this allegory Molinet, Duke Philip the Fair's official chronicler, describes through a playful metaphor how in July 1492 the City of Ghent had to sustain an attack by Archduke Maximilian and his army of tennis players. At the time the players did not use a racket yet, but were wearing gloves (mind Molinet's pun: glove=gant, Ghent=Gand) to hit the ball across the net (Molinet: "dessus la corde"). Molinet must have used the metaphor of a game of tennis as this happened to be his patron's favourite pastime. Philip the Fair may well have been the first tennis player to use a racket. In 1506 he played a historic match at the royal tennis court of Windsor Castle. His opponent, Lord Marquess as well as King Henry VII, who was watching, must have been amazed to see the Duke projecting the ball across the net by means of such an impressive instrument.

According to the inventory drawn up after his death (as a result of a game of tennis during which he had drunk too much cold water) in 1506 Philip owned "3 raquettes et 4 gants pour jouer a la palme". There are clear indications that the racket was invented in the Low Countries and that the word "racquet" is derived from the Dutch verb "raecke" (= hit, strike). Several of the tennis matches Philip the Fair's son, emperor Charles V, played against other Renaissance rulers were witnessed by contemporary writers: in 1522 the emperor and King Henry VIII played tennis with Philibert, Prince of Orange and the Marquis of Brandenburg at Bridewell Palace. The pallacorda (designed by Giulio Romano) of the Palazzo Te in Mantua was the venue of another of the emperor's famous tennis matches. Here he played for over 3 hours with Duke Federigo Gonzaga. Charles V's major residence in Brussels, the Coudenberg Palace, had two tennis courts.

Frederick Henry
Frederick Henry
Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, playing tennis. The first "lawn tennis" match ever? (Adriaan van de Venne, 1626)

The members of the League of Nobility, the leaders of the Protestant rebellion against the Spanish Inquisition in 1566, were also avid tennis players. For them as well as for William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, it was certainly not just a matter of prestige to have a tennis court they indulged in the sport for its sheer intensity and excitement. For them it was the perfect antidote after their exploits on the battlefields. One of two tennis buildings that still exist in Holland is Hendrik van Brederode's Kaetsbaen at House Ter Kleef in Haarlem. Ter Kleef was largely destroyed by the Spaniards under Don Federico in 1573 during the siege of Haarlem. The tennis court was spared, not for Federico's love of the game but because the building was used as a prison. Many of the prisoners died on the tennis court because,as an eye-witness quoted, Federico had promised them their lives but not their food!Ironically the building now houses the canteen for a municipal office of the city.

The Princes of Orange had tennis courts at virtually all their palaces, the most famous being the Binnenhof, Breda, Dieren and the Nassau Palace in Brussels. Tennis in the Low Countries, however, was not the exclusive reserve of royalty. Between 1550-1700 hundreds of tennis courts were built, especially in Antwerp (30 courts) and Amsterdam (20), which were perfectly catered to the needs of the elite classes. The effects which tennis courts and their concomitants gambling and alcohol had on the younger generation, however, was a source of contention among contemporary Dutch writers. By 1730 most tennis courts in the towns had been demolished. Outside the urban centres tennis continued to be played until about 1770 on courts which were attached to country inns.

Nederlandse Real Tennis Bond