Around the World in 50 Courts — Australia
The entire plot of Around the World in 80 Days, the 1872 Jules Verne novel from which the title of this series is shamelessly pinched, is that Phileas Fogg will not make his quest and thus lose his Reform Club bet. Indeed, he very nearly doesn’t, and all appears lost until he realizes he has crossed the International Date Line and thus gained a day.
Three things can happen in a quest to play all of the court tennis courts in the world.
The first is that you make it, as I have done twice. The second time was playing at Pau after it was added to the list of eligibles (even though there is really no such list except in my head).
The second is that you might die or become unable to play anymore, with courts left un-played. Presumably, if one were about to die, one might have other things in mind and even fewer people would then care about the outcome.
The third is that an existing court might go out of business, meaning the quest could never be completed. Fifteen years ago, to the very day I began writing the story, that outcome was barely avoided, and the effort lived on.
I had learned that the court in Sydney, Australia would be converted to other purposes on December 31, 2005, and, unless I got there in time, it would never again be playable.
My wife and I had never been to Australia and, shortly after Christmas 2005, off we went. There were enough frequent flyer miles for one upgrade to Business Class so that is where she
sat in the eyebrows of the 747, though kindly allowing me to press my nose against the glass separating the plutocrats from the riffraff.
We arrived no more or less disoriented than any other travelers and, on the morning of December 29, took a long taxi ride from downtown Sydney to Macquarie University for morning games of singles and doubles.
The picture at the top of this story is exactly like tens of thousands of court tennis memory pictures and it shows Sav Cremona, Richard Cogswell, Toby Dolman and me after several vigorous sets. The results were nowhere recorded and would have made no difference whatsoever.
I was the last foreign visitor to that court, which would close on schedule two days later.
I am not just sure why it closed, but I suspect geography played a role. It was too far away from the places the logical player pool lived and worked. It is also entirely possible that the initial proponents of the project lost interest when filling the court hours proved too difficult.
Fortunately, a replacement, in a better location and with a more committed team behind it, is in the works and seems likely to be completed in the coming years.
Two memorable things happened that day. The tennis was good but not memorable, at least not memorable enough to bore people with. It was but one of thousands of friendly matches that are played throughout the world each year.
The first memorable related to the club sign.
Arriving at the Sydney Real Tennis Club was a rather sad affair. All of the furniture had been carted off to storage and all the pictures were gone. There remained a rolling office chair and a small table for the pro. It was as if all the charm had been surgically removed.
There also remained a sign stuck to the window with tape.
I asked what they plan to do with it, and someone replied, “throw it away, I guess.”
“In that case, might I have it?” I asked and it was duly given to me.
Here is what it became as it awaits its return home. Please hurry Sydney as I will soon be 75 and I would like to bring it back in person, especially as it will then constitute yet another new court to play.
The second memorable event of the day was a lovely dinner hosted by Richard and Anne Cogswell. It was a delightful group in a delightful house with a delightful view, but there was a subdued tone as they realized I would be the last non-Australian to visit and play.
It was a small consolation – and only to me — that the quest lived on by only two days in the face of the loss of a court that had given pleasure to many, but perhaps not to quite enough for viability.
If there is a ratio of the amount of effort required to build a court and that required to make it viable, I don’t know what it is. For certain, it is not like Field of Dreams “build it and they will come.” Making a court successful is a separate task unto itself. Unquestionably, the best in the world at that is Chris Ronaldson, who should be involved at least temporarily in any new court launch.
We did not stay in Sydney for the famous New Year’s Eve celebration. Instead, we flew to Melbourne, home of The Royal Melbourne Tennis Club and its two courts which would become numbers 33 and 34 on the life list.
To me, Melbourne is unique among court tennis venues not only because it has two courts and thus a larger than usual number of players, but also that it has a small swimming pool.
The pool attracts families and especially small children, which adds considerably to the ambience. People play tennis then hang around longer to see their friends.
It also has a worthy kitchen and bar that are sometimes professionally staffed and sometimes run by volunteers. There is much to encourage the visitor to stay a while after playing.
January is, of course, high summer in Australia — not the traditional court tennis season in any country. Cleverly, the RMTC hosts a major event in January each year that attracts refugees from the cold of the northern hemisphere for a few weeks in the sun.
In odd-numbered years they host the Boomerang Trophy, a very popular team event that draws hundreds of players annually and extends over several weeks.
In even numbered years (like 2006), they host the Roo Cup, a smaller handicap singles and doubles event, but this was also a year for the Bathurst cup — the Davis Cup of court tennis –pitting country against country in topflight amateur competition.
There were also international team and individual events in the over 50, 55, 60, 65 and 70 age groups. I had a terrible 60th birthday, five weeks after the cutoff date so I had to play in over 50 and 55 events. I ended up in about half a dozen tournaments over a three-week period, including the New Year’s Eve handicap doubles event that drew us away from the Sydney festivities.
One benefit of having recently helped to build a court was that you were assigned the best partners. Jonathan Hamer fit that bill and carried me on his capable shoulders. Well, as far as he could.
Hospitality is also a Melbourne watchword and Henry Turnbull, Allan Willingham and Prue McCahey carried on the tradition.
There was a gap one afternoon and we drove to Ballarat, the scene of an Australian gold strike. It is complete wild west (of the United States) in appearance and has a handsome court with hospitable players. It became number 35 on the life list.
They have a flag that hangs high up on the wall of the court depicting a kangaroo wearing boxing gloves. At Ballarat, he is called Kinky, for reasons unknown to me.Somewhere in the then recent past, the Kinky flag had become the trophy in head-to-head challenge matches between players from Ballarat and Washington. As a result of the day’s match, in due course, the flag was removed from its perch, boxed up and sent to Washington accompanied by a very sporting note. It has been back-and-forth several times since.
I also learned that the entire worldwide handicap system was run by Tim Graham from his kitchen table in Ballarat. That will be the subject of a later chapter.
In the Melbourne January tournaments, the middle weekend is always left free for travel to other Australian courts. We chose Hobart, Tasmania, a far larger island than we expected as we learned when we tried to explore it by car. We barely scratched the surface but did receive a speeding ticket that was kindly turned into a warning by an unusually friendly police officer.
There is a Hobart Real Tennis Club tradition of penthouse racing in which the competitor, generally fueled by strong drink, climbs the seven feet up to the penthouse next to the main wall at the serving end and runs along the sloping roof around three sides of the court to finish by slamming into the wall above the grille.
I suspect there are no formal records of results but there is probably a black-tie division in the club’s folklore.
There is also an event called “running the rafters” involving a climb up to the cross beams of the clubroom and running some pre-defined course.
If you have ever considered giving up drinking entirely, running the rafters and penthouse racing are two superb reasons to do so. If you aren’t drunk, you probably won’t do it and that will serve you well as there have been injuries.
Hobart is on the West Bank of the Derwent River that empties into the ocean on the south side of the island. Cas and Ros Pitt have a lovely house overlooking the mouth of the river, where they hosted us for a memorable evening, as did Gordon Henry the next night. The final night’s dinner was at the club itself, organized by Alistair Curley.
We returned to Melbourne for the “world overs” now called the world masters. Over 50 and 55 singles and doubles in which I was the worst player by a good margin.
We know these things because the results of almost every match in the world are recorded in a computer (at the time Tim Graham’s Ballarat kitchen table computer) with wins reducing your handicap and losses increasing it. There are also multiples of the reduction or increase resulting from matches in competition. The handicaps are used to change the odds of winning each game. If a player is slightly better than me, I begin the game at 15 love and thus need fewer points to win it.
Virtually every player in the four events had a handicap in the teens or 20s, while I was in the mid 30s. Handicaps run from minus 20 or so for the world champion to 90 or 100 for a first-time player. A handicap in the 30s is respectable but average players don’t fly to Australia to get hammered.
That said, lightning sometimes strikes, and results are not always what are expected on paper. “That’s why we play the games,” as a lifelong hockey coach recently reminded me.
My doubles partner was a lovely man called Graeme Holloway, who is sadly recently deceased. We won a preliminary match for the honor of playing the number two seeds, who had flown from England expecting to reach the final. Had the match been played off handicap, as in the prior week, we would have begun each game at 15 and they would have begun at minus 15. We would have needed to win three points and they five to win a game.
World championships, even at the age group level, are not played off handicap, so each game was love all play ball.
Somehow, we eked out the first set and our opponents cleverly changed the order of who served to whom. As they cruised through the second set, I whispered the preferred tactic of returning to the original order to my partner. The tactic is not unique or unknown, but that does not mean it is not occasionally forgotten. To accomplish it, you must end the set as the receiver and that can mean losing points intentionally.
If your opponents see you whispering to your partner near the end of a set, it will remind them, and they will deploy counter measures. If, however, you whisper to your partner in the middle of the set, there is a chance they won’t notice.
That was exactly what happened, and we snuck away with the third set thanks to our preferred matchups.
I have exceedingly few big wins in my tennis life, but that was one of them.
The awards dinner for the international competitions took place at Romsey, an event venue outside of Melbourne. It too has a court and that became number 37 on the list.
It appears from my file that I made a speech at the dinner.
Here it is.
Andrew Buckle and any others of you who may have attended the opening of Prince’s Court in 1997 will already know that it is a poor idea to give me an opportunity to thank people in public.
On that occasion I went on for over two hours without notes. Though there is much to be thankful for tonight, I promise to limit myself to less than 45 minutes (groans from the audience). I could spend as much time apologizing as thanking.
First, I would like to acknowledge my three long-suffering doubles partners: Joseph Brunhuber in the New Year’s Eve Doubles, initially appalled at my shifting the serving order, but later a convert; Jonathan Hamer, in the Roo Cup, initially and throughout simply appalled; and Graeme Holloway, the Tasmanian Terrier in the over 50 and over 55 doubles, appalled at excessive efforts to win even one game in the over 55 semi-finals.
Thank you each and every one for your tolerance and perseverance. We actually did pretty well, and I enjoyed playing with you.
As for the singles events, I have only myself to blame.
Next, the magnificent staff of professionals at the Royal Melbourne Tennis Club: Frank Fillipelli, Rury Gunn, Paul Tabley, Kate Leeming, Park O’Dwyer, Mark Benkeuman and Nick Howell. Thank you for your splendid marking and for your professionalism throughout.
The tournament directors: New Year’s Eve doubles, Henry Turnbull; Roo Cup, Andrew Gould; Bathurst cup, Owen Guest; and world overs, Tony Poolman. You serve as examples to us all.
Those who helped me to play on six of the five courts in Australia (by then Sydney was gone) and advance my quest to play all of the courts in the world: Richard Cogswell, Sydney; Tim Graham, Ballarat; Gordon Cope-Williams, Tim Graham and Owen Guest, Romsey; Alistair Curley, Hobart; and all of you, Melbourne.
On behalf of the USCTA, I apologize that we were under-represented in the Bathurst Cup and unrepresented in the Cockram and Bostwick Cups. My countrymen, Greg VanSchaack and Barney Tanfield particularly asked me to thank you for your hospitality to them as well.
While there are some limited excuses: proximity in time to the last one; distance; press of other things and blah blah blah, the fault was organizational, and it was ours.
But the loss was also ours as players at every age group missed a wonderful time with all of you.
Given your overall health and well-being, it seems clear that we will soon be needing comparable world masters events for 75, 80 and 85 year olds.
We have a group of Australian Jesters coming to play in the Cherry Blossom (Washington’s signature tournament) in April, and we look forward to showing them the same hospitality that we have seen here. Others of you should also plan to make the trip as we love having you in Washington.
So, in conclusion (the best words of any speech) I encourage you to please keep playing, please keep traveling and please keep supporting this wonderful game as all of you have done so well this month.
There used to be a shop near the Royal Melbourne Tennis Club where you could rent sports cars of varying levels of speed and expense. I thought some were too hot to handle to say nothing of the possibility of having my credit card rejected. We settled on an aging yellow Triumph convertible for a day’s drive on the Great Ocean Road to see the Twelve Apostles.
The jostling stirred up my wife’s back so guess who also flew home in Business Class?
Australia might well have the best sandwiches and coffee in the entire world and there are several excellent restaurants a street or two away from RMTC.
Perhaps one should not end a wonderful adventure on a disappointing note. I had expected a sea of kangaroos hopping as one across the grasslands, and I was much looking forward to seeing it.
Nonetheless, as soon as Sydney builds its new court, we’ll be back for a reprise.