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.