Around the World in 50 Courts An Obstacle Emerges
By September 2003, the quest to play all the courts in the world had passed the halfway mark in only six years.
Many of the easiest ones had been checked off the list, especially those in London and the nearby Thames Valley. They are close together and sometimes it is possible to play on two in a day, which could not happen elsewhere in England or Scotland. Nor, obviously, in France or Australia. Even Aiken, South Carolina is further afield than the courts in and around London.
Temple Grassi and I set off yet again for eight days in England, during which we played on 13 courts. Those should have brought us almost to the goal had we not played eight of them for a second time and one for both a second and a third time.
Friends made on earlier visits, whom we wanted to see again, were a serious impediment to checking unplayed courts off of lists, but making friends is, after all, the point.
Our repeats were Leamington, Morton Morrell, Hyde House, Canford School, Oratory, Holyport, Hatfield House and Hardwick (the two-time repeat that I am still not telling you about as that story should await their centenary, which was still four years hence).
The friends, who often doubled as hosts, included Vaughan Williams, a leading light at Hardwick and early morning varmint hunter, Jan and Ian Fowler, who guided us through round two of church bell ringing and the courts in the south, and Catherine and Francis Hamilton, who also invited us to their eldest daughter’s wedding.
There would only be four new additions to the life list: Cambridge blue and green; Burroughs; and, as it turned out quite fortuitously, the now-extinct Harbour Club.
Before getting to those, I should probably not leave you in the suspense I intentionally created with the words “early morning varmint hunter” to say nothing of the unusual title image.
Vaughan Williams describes himself as a farmer and indeed he is, though perhaps not quite the sort one might find in Iowa or Nebraska. His is a lovely place located on hillside between London and Oxford. It seems to have been in his family for some decades, if not centuries, and Vaughan no longer lives in the main house. Rather, he lives in a more modest one on the property, one that showed many signs of his having been single for some years. The state of the dwelling took a dramatic turn for the better thanks to a delightfully well-chosen marriage a few years later.
Some elements of the picture should be clear: single; perhaps a bit set in his ways; male; mid 50s. But don’t forget the farmer part. Farmers do not like varmints.
I am not sure just what sort of varmint chose to make a pre-breakfast appearance while we were staying there, but I would like to think it was a stoat or perhaps a weasel as those seem uniquely English. Truth be told it could have been a hedgehog or even a skunk, if they have skunks in England. It matters not because I didn’t know then and I don’t know now.
My sole exposure to the varmint was the streak of Vaughan Williams in pajamas running out the front door with a loaded weapon. It might have been a rifle or a shotgun, but it was assuredly not a pistol.
It made it sound like a cannon as the gentleman farmer leveled it on the varmint.
The esteemed hunter returned across the crunchy gravel driveway to the house following the kill and poured himself a bowl of cereal.
“Got the fucker,” was pretty much all that was said. As far as I know, there were neither a funeral nor disposal arrangements, so it could well be that the corpse remains in situ, though that is just the sort of thing a later arriving wife might place priority on attending to.
Author’s Note: in recent months I have been provided with a photograph of our hunter with firearm leveled but clad only in a shirt and white briefs. Now, I know for a fact that he was not wearing white briefs during the slaughter I just described so I can only conclude he has done the same thing more than once.
But on to the tennis.
This month we have but four courts to cover and two of them are in one place. Surely that should be easy and might well shorten the read.
We took the train to Cambridge where the two courts are known as blue and green. There are only five places in the world that have a pair of courts rather than a single one. The others are Queen’s Club in London; the Royal Melbourne Tennis Club; New York’s Racquet and Tennis Club; and Prested Hall in Essex. In general, the adjacent courts are built at the same time and the average player can barely tell the difference.
This is not the case in Cambridge where the two existing courts were built 24 years apart (1866 and 1890). Logically, they should be side-by-side, as they are at every other multi court venue, but the two Cambridge courts are perpendicular to one another. They are located at Clare and Trinity Colleges on Burrell’s Walk.
For some reason, the courts are referred to as blue and green, but neither in 2003 nor on a subsequent visit for the World Masters in 2015 was I especially aware of those as prevailing colors.
A few years after our first visit, a touring side (Anglo-speak for a team) from the Cambridge University Real Tennis Club came to Washington. As is customary, they gave us a present. It was a nicely bound white paper back about the size of a magazine. It was called “Real Tennis in Cambridge: The First Six Hundred Years.”
The title made me jealous as our court in Washington was a month short of its eighth birthday.
The most notable aspect of our day in Cambridge was a visit to the nearby Gray’s factory. At the time, it was (and still is) the dominant maker of court tennis rackets (always called bats) in the world.
The “factory” is a freestanding building 30- or 40-feet square located near a field. A handful of men work there amid byzantine devices hanging on the walls, each used for a stage of the complicated process of making bats by hand. These devices bore an uncanny resemblance to what I imagine torture devices might look like.
The staff of the factory was rigidly hierarchical, and each man seemed a decade younger than the one on the rung above him.
Only the oldest spoke in response to our questions. The second oldest spoke when invited to do so by his senior and thereafter the conversation dwindled until it ended entirely at a twenty-something who seemed to cower behind a workbench, saying not a word.
If Charles Dickens missed the chance to describe a bat making factory in one of his novels, we should bring him back for an encore.
Making a modern tennis bat is quite a process and a visit to the factory is well worth the short detour.
There was much navigation in the ensuing days, but we did not have the reliable “tart in the sky” as our guide so we were dependent on a notebook divided day-by-day into our itinerary. It included turn-by-turn MapQuest directions from each place to the next.
MapQuest is quite detailed with each roundabout – there were hundreds – consisting of two turns: one in and one out.
The organization of the notebook was a triumph even though it removed any possibility of flexibility or adventure lest we disappear off the flat side of the earth never to be seen again.
Though a triumph of organization, the notebook failed significantly because we did not take into account the car sickness that resulted from reading the small type. After each turning, the navigator would slam the book shut and look out the window to avoid calamity.
This was infelicitous as there are, for example, 24 separate directions on the way from Salisbury to Reading, a distance of only 72 miles. Each required a re-opening of the book and a relocation of the proper page.
At one point, my companion and I were standing by the side of a road in Reading with the directions and maps spread out on the hood of the car. (I suppose I should say “bonnet.”)
We were so lost that I believe we are actually still in Reading and that the last 17 years of what I think has been my life was actually a complete fiction.
The third new court of this trip was actually newer than our own Prince’s Court. It was the brainchild of Peter Luck-Hille and funded largely through the Luck-Hille Foundation.
More importantly, Luck-Hille devoted vast amounts of personal time and attention to making it the best court in the world or at least very close.
It has had three names: the Millennium Court because it officially opened in January 2000; Burroughs, for I am not sure what reason; and Middlesex because it is located at Middlesex University.
Every detail in the court has a reason that was carefully selected over other choices, always thanks to a superb thought process.
It might well have a proper claim to be the best court in the world though each subsequent court learns something from those that went before.
Luck-Hille has continued helping other projects and providing his expertise to assist in every way.
Indeed, he is helping to replace the court in Washington that was built in 1997.
And this leads us to a Pundificator first.
At no time in its nine-year history, has this website (or any of its predecessors) ever run an advertisement. That was not necessarily intentional, but it is emphatically the case.
So, here is our first ad.
Prince’s Court has lost its lease after 23 years and, if we are successful in making a final push to raise $250,000 (out of $3.4 million), we will move to Westwood Country Club a few miles from our present location, with a grand opening planned for year-end 2021.
Thanks to the kindness of the Tennis & Rackets Association, British readers can donate to our project by following this link.
If LibertyPell.com, WellPlayed.us or Pundificator.com have added a few moments of pleasure to your life, please consider a modest donation to our project. It would mean a lot.
Playing the final court of this trip was an accident; but, had the accident not happened, the entire effort to play them all would have been scuttled.
Temple Grassi and I spent the night at a hotel at Heathrow because of an early morning return to Washington.
When we got to the gate, we learned that the flight has been canceled because of hurricane on the East Coast.
What to do?
We hopped in a taxi, went back to London and fetched up at Harbour Club, a court opened in 1993 on the site of the North Fulham Power Station.
The court was underground and had an extremely low roof that made for an entirely different game.
When we arrived, we found a bewildered man sitting at a desk and we asked if we might play.
“I have no idea,” he said.
It turned out that the professional had gone back to Australia on vacation and had chosen not to return, all without bothering to tell anyone.
After some days of increasing chaos, a few members divided up the court monitoring responsibilities, without the smallest idea of what those might entail.
The bewildered man at the desk was one of those members.
Since he could think of no reason not to let us play and even though he had no idea what to charge us for doing so, he let us onto the court, and we played singles for an hour or two.
Three years later, in 2006 – before the continuation of the next stage of the world tour – the court was closed.
Had it not been for the hurricane, we would have missed this court and the quest to play them all would have been thwarted.
Sometimes you just get lucky.