Chris Ronaldson is the Head Professional of Radley Real Tennis – he celebrated 50 years as a pro in 2021 and was World Champion for six years in the 1980s, before retiring as a player 30 years ago. He arrived at Radley when the court opened in 2008, having previously worked at Oxford, Melbourne, Troon and Hampton Court. We caught up with Chris to ask him what – or who – brought him to Radley.
I attended Magdalen College School in the 1960s, so I’ve always known about Radley. In 2008, as Radley was about to open its new Real Tennis centre, Mick Dean persuaded me to move here as I specialise in starting up new clubs. Mick and I have known each other for 54 years and were doubles partners for many years; Mick was delighted to see the court being built, having taught here for 30 years at that point.
How did you go about building up the club?
Firstly, this is a great game and most people are hooked once they try it. My preferred way of obtaining new members is to find a player I like, which is most of them, and ask them to give me the names of two friends. I phone them up, invite them to come and give it a go and, on average, one out of every two become members.
How connected are you with the rest of the College?
I’m a member of Common Room and know many staff members, especially those who play Real Tennis. I’ve also been involved with a school trip. I grew up in Tanzania so I helped Mark Jewell establish the regular Tanzanian trip, which I joined myself on three occasions. We would climb Kilimanjaro, spend a couple of days on game drives and then teach for a week at the school in the village where I grew up. It was a lovely package for the boys.
How does the Real Tennis club work on a day-to-day basis?
Most of the boys’ coaching is done by the Masters in Charge; Mick Dean, although he is retired academically, still runs Real Tennis along with Andrew Wood. Mick will call me in from time to time, but my main job is to make sure the court is always full, because it’s a revenue income for the College. We start at 8am and finish at 10pm, seven days a week and we are fully booked most days. We have about 140 playing members and 60 participating boys – a good number for a single court.
For me, this is the best job in the world because it’s so varied – we have a bit of a cottage industry here making our own Real Tennis balls, so I spend some time making new balls or re-covering old ones, re-stringing racquets, organising tournaments and events scoring, giving lessons and finding opponents for the members.
What’s lovely is that the club is sometimes a bit of a safe haven for students. Over the years, we’ve had one or two who have gravitated down here, because they find it easier to talk to people who share an interest and are not quite so connected with the rest of the school.
What does Radley mean to you?
I think it’s an amazing place and I enthuse about it greatly. I’ve been on the inside for some time now and it’s quite hard to find the flaws. I think we’re excellent pastorally and that Radley does most things really well. I’ll give you an example: occasionally an email goes around the College asking for help with one thing or another. About eight years ago, just as the summer break began, someone emailed asking if anyone could take a group of boys to Heathrow leaving at 5am! Usually I can’t help, but realised that I could ferry the boys to the airport and still be back in time. My offer was gratefully accepted but I was told that five others had volunteered! For me that can-do attitude encapsulates Radley.
Is there a highlight in the year that you look forward to?
In August 50-60 Dutch Real Tennis players come to Radley for the week and stay in one of the Socials. They’re here for Real Tennis but they don’t get to play lawn tennis very much so Adam King kindly creates grass courts for them by the Old Pavilion. It’s been going since I started in 2008 – the Dutch don’t have a Real Tennis Court (only four countries in the world do) so they come to Radley to play their national championship – the third week in August is the Dutch Open. It’s the best week. They’re an amazing group of people.
What qualities do you need to be successful at Real Tennis?
The main thing is enthusiasm, because it takes a lot of learning. It does help if you’ve played other racquet sports because it’s a very difficult game. I like the court to feel accessible to anyone in the College community and Andrew Wood has recently organised some ‘come and try’ events for staff as well as junior tournaments and parent/son events for boys. It’s something distinctive we offer at Radley – there are only five schools in the world with a Real Tennis court.
Can you sum up Radley in three words?
Professional. Lively. Opportunities.