Around the World in 50 Courts – A Brief Detour

Followers of this series should properly expect that this chapter will take them to Australia as the 6 courts (at the time) are the next in chronological order. They will have to wait a month, but that story will better coincide with the 15thanniversary of the 2005-2006 year-end journey.

This month’s detour will bring us to today and to a story that is consuming just over 100% of my waking attention to say nothing of a fair bit of my sleeping attention.

I am in the process of helping to build a court tennis court in Washington, DC, which will replace one conceived a third of a century ago and built a quarter of a century ago. Two roles have been assigned to me: help with the fundraising; and lead the design team.

This month, we will learn about the second of the two roles, but I won’t object if you think about the first one too.

As always, the audience for these stories includes the most passionate of players who are intimately familiar with every detail as well as people who might never even have seen a court. Writing for both groups is a challenge, but a challenge no greater than trying to design a court for every level of play.

Court tennis is played inside a box, the proportions of which might not be far off from a shoebox; but, inside that box are obstacles and targets that govern the strategy and tactics of the game. Here is a drawing of what we intend. It includes a mistake that we assuredly will not make.

When building a court and waking up in the night worrying about the dreaded “do-over,” there is considerable pressure to get everything right, but what does getting things right mean?

There are some famous dimensions in sports and they generally become famous because they encourage something we would like to do or see, and they discourage something else that is either boring or not skillful.

Abner Doubleday set the distance between the bases at 90 feet and made them into a diamond (actually a square, but nobody calls at that). Had the distance been 80 feet or 100 feet, there would have been far less excitement on infield hits, because there would have been too much advantage to either the hitter/runner or to the fielders.

Similarly, the distance – 60’6” – from the pitcher’s mound to home plate has a substantial impact on balancing the skills of batter and pitcher.

A miscue on those dimensions could have changed the face of American sports by marginalizing the game.

The 100-yard length of a football field was actually a 1912 deviation from Walter Camp’s original 110 yards (100 meters). It was changed when they added 10-yard end zones but still had to fit the newly expanded dimensions into Harvard’s Soldiers Field stadium.

James Naismith did not specify the height of the basket when he spelled out the 13 rules of basketball. In his time, you just hung the peach basket under the running track that encircled most gyms. It was more or less 10 feet off the ground. Would basketball differ if the basket was 20 feet off the floor or five? (For sure, I’d be less hopeless at it if it were five.)

Ten feet seems to balance offense and defense and provide players with something they want to do and spectators with something they want to see.

Actually, basketball might have it easy because it would not be that difficult to change the height of the basket if players began getting too tall (as some think they already are). It might keep the game interesting or make it more so, but there would surely be howls of complaint.

William Fairbrother is said to have invented hockey so he should be credited with the four-foot by six-foot goals. I prefer the image of Fairbrother on a frozen Canadian pond saying, “if the puck goes between the two snow boots (that became available when a kid put his skates on), it is a goal.” Whatever distance apart they were was just fine for the kids out playing that day.

If you look closely at a tennis net – alas, the kind of tennis invented by Colonel Walter Clopton Wingfield in 1873 – you will see that the net is three and one-half feet high at each end but only three feet high in the middle. The difference rewards cross court shots, which thanks to geometry, also can travel a greater distance before flying out.

That tiny six-inch difference rewards skills we would like to have and would like to watch. Tennis is a better game for getting that right.

Court tennis is more complicated because there are more dimensions and more angles – 36 of them to be exact. Each one rewards something and discourages something else.

For about three centuries there were no rules of court tennis at all. Players throughout Europe essentially reinvented a ball game and played it on whatever surroundings were at hand. Some suggested these were court yards and others favored streetscapes put the more likely answer is both.

Only when purpose-built courts began did dimensions become important. Even those changed as equipment evolved. It is not much fun hitting a ball 80 to 100 feet over a net with the palm of your hand as was the case before the first rackets. In France, the game is still called “jeu de paume” game of the palm, centuries after rackets became universal.

Much later in this series, we’ll get to a story about playing bare handed on a plywood court built as a stage set in northeastern Connecticut. It was modeled on plans the film maker found in a book and was about 10% the size of a proper court today. Still, it was all you could do to hit a flying ball over the net with your hand. Candidly, I was a little surprised the game survived that era.

There are actually very few specific rules relating to dimensions of a court tennis court. That is a good plan if your worldwide inventory of courts is less than 50. Set precise dimensions and almost every one of those courts becomes illegal.

There aren’t even parameters, except in the minds of the designers. Theoretically, you could build a court smaller than Oxford (the smallest) or larger than Fontainebleau (the largest), but you would end up with something different.

How do you think about all of this if you are an aging athlete of at best moderate skill?

Easy. You get people smarter than you to help.

This is just what we have done.

In addition to being enthusiastic players, they bring us expertise in lighting, construction, materials science and coatings. Our floor wizard learned his craft building potato chip factories all over the world.

There was a flurry of court building in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Joseph Bickley was the builder of choice and his courts remain the benchmark of quality. Our potato chip factory guy calls the floor he just restored at Moreton Morrell “Bickley 2.0.” There are tee shirts celebrating the achievement.

Sadly, the quality of Bickley’s courts was dependent on armies of workers massaging the walls that were intentionally kept damp for weeks on end. That was a choice when labor costs were pennies per hour rather than $40 or $50 as is the case today.

You’ll have noticed that there are very few pyramids being built these days and labor costs just might be a reason.

Important as all of those are, the topic today is dimensions and getting those right. We have turned to Chris Ronaldson, a former world champion, current head professional, publisher and overall student of the subtleties of the game.

He is joined by Colin Lumley, who turned professional just before his 17th birthday in 1974, and, on the date this was written, celebrated his 63rd birthday. His 46 years in the game have included professional stints at Melbourne and Holyport and marriage to frequent World Champion, Penny Lumley, a son, John, who is a professional in Philadelphia and a daughter, Tara, who is also a highly ranked player. Rather high-end family doubles!

Lights, walls and floors have cost consequences, while dimensions and angles do not. The former might be determined by budgetary constraints, but the latter are essentially controlled solely by the skills you would like to encourage or discourage. And your judgment in discerning which are which.

It has been said for centuries that the length of the court is determined by the speed of the ball, while the width of the court is determined by the speed of the player. Fortunately, for those of us well past our prime, there is doubles.

What are we trying to encourage?

If there were time machines and players could return from each of the seven to ten centuries in which the game has been played, we’d like them to see the new court and say, “I know that game, I used to play it in 1450 or 1750.”

Rallies are good, but it is possible to over emphasize fitness and agility. If the points last forever because it is impossible to hit a winner, the game becomes tedious.

There should be a mix of shots hit on the floor and shots hit into the various openings that rewards both shot-making skills and decision-making tactics.

There should be a mix of delicacy and force. Good players should have both skills and choose the one to use based on the specific situation.

Serving should remain an advantage as has been true for centuries and in most every court in the world. The complicated rules of the game relate mostly to earning the right to serve (we don’t take turns as in tennis or baseball). With players of equal ability, the server should win about 11 points out of 20.

We have to think 50, 75 or 100 years ahead. How will players evolve? How will their equipment evolve? If the last 50, 75 or 100 years are any guide, both will change considerably, and we are guessing the players will become stronger and faster resulting in the ability to hit even harder shots than today.

We have to think about players at every skill level, but skills follow a so-called “normal distribution” that forms a bell curve. A few are extraordinary, the vast majority are better than average, average or a little below average. And, well, there are some others too.

Though not dimensions-related, there is a calculus that suggests how much money one might wish to spend on a court feature if only the best 10 players in the world – one in 1000 – could tell the difference.

What are we trying to discourage?

Well, clearly the opposite of what I just described, but we are also trying to avoid rewarding strategy and tactics that would not be rewarded elsewhere. The worst thing we could do would be to make it more advantageous (11 or more points out of 20) to be the receiver rather than the server.

If a visitor shows up from Hobart, Tasmania or from Jesmond Dene near the Scottish border we’d prefer to hear him say “this shot works at my court too,” rather than “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

How are we doing it?

We have chosen some of the classic world championship courts like Melbourne, Queen’s, Hampton Court and New York as models. We have also chosen three recently built courts Middlesex, Wellington and Bristol & Bath on the theory that they exemplify the best recent thinking. Lord’s, Tuxedo and Newport were at the latter stage of the court building spree in the late 19th and early 20th centuries so they should reflect the experience of that era. We also have the existing Prince’s Court for ready comparison.

These courts are the columns on a spreadsheet and the rows are the 36 dimensions of each. We go through each dimension and discuss the pros and cons of the various models. Here is an earlier effort at learning how they compared. Much earlier.

Some are easy. The height of the side walls is 18 feet, and the end walls are 24 feet. Those decisions took seconds to make.

The seven-foot penthouse height is about average for the model courts and the 27-degree angle should keep the advantage at the serving end.

Length will be as long as possible depending on the configuration of the building, likely 110 feet. Width will be 39 feet, at the wider end of the models but not the 40 feet of Hampton Court.

What is the goal?

It is certainly not to please everyone. The world’s 10,000 players are an opinionated and fractious lot, for whom the strength of opinion is not always highly correlated with fact. More often it seems to relate to where a person has played well or badly, and that is far beyond our control.

With luck some will think it the best in the world. We hope most will think it in the top few. Nonetheless, there are sure to be howls of complaint as well.

There will be sleepless nights worrying about the equivalent of 80-foot base paths or 15-foot basketball nets, but dimensions are not likely to be the problem. The vast majority won’t notice but that won’t stop the few from having an opinion.

We are looking for nods of approval from world caliber players, 1750 time travelers, the great mass of average players and the beginners just starting their journeys in this remarkable and unusual game.


32 Responses to “Around the World in 50 Courts – A Brief Detour”

Richard Meyer, November 29, 2020 at 4:47 pm said:

Superb column, excellent research


John Austin Murphy, November 29, 2020 at 5:11 pm said:

Happy to read that the Bickley court in Newport is one of the base models.


Haven Pell, November 29, 2020 at 5:56 pm said:

Interestingly, the dimensions of Newport and the existing Prince’s Court are the same so it gets in there twice.


John Austin Murphy, November 29, 2020 at 6:49 pm said:

Twice tagged is always good. Another point: some of the trim materials may not date back to Bickley, but rather to the 1980 restoration. In any event, those materials have performed very very well. For example, the wood used for the bandeau is extremely durable. In the forty years since the restoration, the Newport bandeau appears so pristine that it could have been installed in 2019. I suggest that such details be closely followed in the specifications of the Washington court.


Haven Pell, November 29, 2020 at 11:32 pm said:

materials are another issue on the radar screen.


Temple Grassi, November 29, 2020 at 8:02 pm said:

Playing on courts around the world, one does experience differences. Some are big, some are little,some are bright, some are dim, some tambours are sharp, some are not, some floors are fast, some are slow, some penthouse angles vary, the list goes on…..what we come up with will be interesting to say the least. I remember when we opened Prince’s Court back in ‘97., we compared the opening to the launching of a ship- will it float, will it tip over,etc! One thing we do know, we’ll give it our best effort!! Stay tuned everybody!! It’s going to be a ‘great ride’!
The Ambassador


Haven Pell, November 29, 2020 at 11:34 pm said:

Form now until we open in about a year, that will always be on my mind


Richard Seymour Mead, November 30, 2020 at 8:33 am said:

Hoping the project goes well. The new surface Bickley 2 at Moreton Morrell seems a success to follow. I’m pleased to see no mention of a roofless Falkland Palace!


Haven Pell, November 30, 2020 at 8:52 am said:

I have often wondered about the feasibility of an outdoor court as many would prefer being in the sun. The idea assumes the proper dimensions and court features rather than those of Falkland Palace. I always imagine it as a second court where there is also an indoor one.


Marc, January 29, 2021 at 6:19 am said:

I’d hoped that the hoped-for Florida Court would have been open-sided above the playing surface and covered with an A-frame superstructure, sort of like the platform areas at many European train stations.

Haven Pell, January 29, 2021 at 8:43 am said:

It would have made sense there. The court that was proposed for Barbuda had features like that

Julian Snow, November 30, 2020 at 8:19 am said:

I think perhaps that Colin Lumley, the most professional of professionals, might be surprised to be re-cast as an amateur.


Haven Pell, November 30, 2020 at 2:46 pm said:

This comment might appear out of place, but it is not not. Julian is quite correct. One of the beauties of a blog is that you can fix what you got wrong and I have. The original sentence read, “He is joined by Colin Lumley, whose skills as an amateur made him the original “handicap zero” against whom all others were measured when our worldwide handicap system was first developed.” That sentence was riddled with errors in that Colin has been a professional for nearly three-quarters of his life and the original handicap zero was Alan Lovell in 1983. Thank you Julian and apologies to Colin and Alan.


Bob Bailey, November 30, 2020 at 8:04 pm said:

Wonderful read! Having played on only five courts and all of them nearly half a century ago, I haven’t done much thinking about court dimensions, nor did I think that, among my small sample, dimensions were so variable as to change the game significantly. But it strikes me that the materials the court was made of was much more significant. Is the surface fast or slow, does the ball skid or bounce, how fast and far does the ball come off a wall? Also, as Temple mentions, lighting was highly variable and a definite factor as was, come to think of it, the brightness of the lines. Having played mostly in Tuxedo where the lines were not so much poorly maintained but let’s say subtle, I found the lines in some of the other courts let’s not say garish, but distracting.


Haven Pell, December 01, 2020 at 10:48 am said:

Only the most discerning reader will recognize Bob Bailey as the “Epidemiologist from Eberlin’s” (, but he is. Few should be surprised that a mind trained for insightful questioning would make these observations. The factors he mentions are likely to be far more significant than small differences in dimension. They are also the things that keep us up at night worrying about the dreaded do-over of something or other. Interestingly, all of them can be measured and specified for the contractors and that might well be a separate story.


Dick Friend, November 30, 2020 at 11:38 pm said:

I hope your elegant exposition of design philosophy will be matched by the tennis commentariat after their first games. You won’t get adverse comments from those, such as me, who are content to enjoy the game with all its quirks and foibles – after all, we’re not playing ping pong! But then, i was initiated on a court which, according to that 1/1,000 coterie of the very best, has a tambour which twists at rises from the Hobart floor! Can’t wait to experience the fruit of your well-considered labours…


Haven Pell, December 01, 2020 at 10:50 am said:

Thank you Dick. The point you make is likely to prevail for the vast majority of the world’s players, but it does not stop us from worrying about “getting it right,” whatever “it” is. We look forward to welcoming you to the new court.


Tyler Hathaway, December 01, 2020 at 8:56 pm said:

Re dimensions: In the drawing looking toward the dedans, it appears that the dedans opening is centered between the main wall and the wall under the side penthouse. I have won more than a few bets with folks who think that is actually the case, on courts we have just played! The opening is usually (if not always) a bit closer to the side penthouse than to the main wall.


Haven Pell, December 02, 2020 at 8:07 am said:

Our research into the benchmark courts we have studied indicates that the dedans is rarely at the center of the wall between the main wall and penthouse. However, we have found that it is usually a foot or so closer to the main wall than to the penthouse wall. Our proposed measurements have a one foot difference, but they were prepared after that picture was drawn.


Tyler Hathaway, December 02, 2020 at 9:58 am said:

Come to think of it, I think you are right, and that I stated it backward! It’s actually pretty obvious when one is standing on court, but the human mind likes symmetry, and memory can certainly deceive.


Haven Pell, December 02, 2020 at 6:50 pm said:

You scared me for a moment and went me back to the spreadsheet. Our will be a foot closer to the main wall


Tyler Hathaway, December 02, 2020 at 10:31 pm said:

Sorry about that! It would be interesting to see that spreadsheet at some point.

Haven Pell, December 03, 2020 at 7:59 am said:

we’ll get it finalized and share it.

Sav Cremona, December 02, 2020 at 2:29 pm said:

In my research on courts and the opinions of those writing about them, the angle of penthouses isn’t necessarily to “keep the advantage at the serving end” (that is almost a given through a number of combined court characteristics, if exploited efficiently by the server ), but to afford equal opportunity to the use of different types of serve. That is – a flatter angled penthouse would favour good railroaders; whereas a steeper angle would favour those who hone a skill for high sidewall serves.
For mine, finding a balance will be the key.
There will be many world experts who will agree or disagree, but is this a logical reasoning?
Thanks for another great article Haven!


Haven Pell, December 03, 2020 at 8:00 am said:

I’d have to defer to Chris and Colin on those questions. Thanks for the comment.


Mick Domagala, December 04, 2020 at 10:07 am said:

“…an opinionated and fractious lot, for whom the strength of opinion is not always highly correlated with fact.”

That’s my favorite part. (Out of many candidates) Reminds me of my class with Ed Lazear where he commented, about a particular corporate function; “this is not the role where people of great synaptic aptitude gravitate.” We were rolling in the aisles. Well, all except the folks in HR.

I hope you don’t have any sleepless nights. You’ve got a great team with strong opinions and I’m sure a tsunami of advice. All that, in addition to your experience doing this the first time will result in an amazing facility. It’s really impressive to see what you all have done, the presentations are just great. (Wait, are you are the only person in history to participate in two court builds??)

Looking forward to the next!

Best, Mick


Haven Pell, December 04, 2020 at 3:42 pm said:

Thank you Mick.

The words “synaptic aptitude” have now entered my consciousness. As my father often said, “in one ear and out my mouth.”


Tim Harrison, December 31, 2020 at 12:55 pm said:

I hope that I will get to Washington II when it is built – and that the roof is a little higher than the old Harbour Club !
One other factor is the balls, which can vary quite a bit, we know the old worn ones are not as lively as a fresh set. When we were at Wellington we were surprised at their large fluffy balls.


Haven Pell, December 31, 2020 at 4:04 pm said:


Happily the roof will be a great deal higher. The balls are up to the professional and, as I understand it, he will adjust them as he learns how the court plays.


Haven Pell, December 31, 2020 at 5:03 pm said:

Thank you Tyler, this is generally a family website.


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