Around the World in 50 Courts: Greentree
If you’d like to get an argument going, put the very few people who have tried to play every court tennis court in the world into the same room and set them to matching their achievements. We all have our own ways of counting and these are invariably the ones most favorable to ourselves.
As far as is known, not a single mind has ever been changed in such a discussion, and there isn’t even a Guinness record at stake.
The Tennis Passport, a handsome book conceived by Ed Hughes and published by Ronaldson Publications, lists 59 court tennis courts in the world, but that includes at least six that have been closed for decades and two that have yet to be built.
By my count (and it is a reliable sign of pathology to know this), I have played on 53 of them with two yet to play and two others yet to be built.
Nonetheless I have chosen 50 for the title of this series: partly, because it is a directionally accurate number of playable courts today; and, significantly, to bootstrap off of Jules Verne. After all, how many books would he have sold if he had called it Around the World in 79 days or 83? We might never have known David Niven or Cantinflas.
There are some superb court tennis books on:
- the history of the game;
- tennis in different eras;
- tennis in different countries;
- how to play;
- a couple of novels; and
- several reminiscences by those who have tried the same thing that I have.
There are 32 of them on my desk.
This series is in the reminiscence category, again for two reasons:
- I can’t compete with the writers of the other kinds (especially the instructional ones); and
- I think a beauty of the game is the experience we have when we travel to meet the others in our micro-universe, many of whom are quite colorful.
Today, we begin the world tour of the courts, in pretty much the order I played them, at Greentree in Manhasset, Long Island.
There is probably no consensus on which court is the best in the world but few people who have played at Greentree would leave it out of their top three. Sadly, those who have played there are decreasing in number as the court has been closed to general play for nearly 20 years.
Greentree was more than the court. It was 500 acres including a private golf course. This is the house, though I rarely saw it from this side. The court is on the left.
Built in 1915 by Payne Whitney, who died on court while playing with his professional, Frank Forrester, Greentree has been called “the most perfect court in the world” and “a court tennis Mecca.”
Today, that would be thought politically incorrect, but much of what happened at Greentree when I played there as a teenager was even more so. This is your trigger warning. Times were different; no need to pretend they weren’t.
The January 10, 1915 opening match pitted Olympic Champion Jay Gould against Walter Kinsella, another notable player. Those in attendance were described as “the largest aggregation of sportsmen ever assembled.”
Forrester was the resident professional from 1915 to 1927, when he took on something of a house manger role. He was succeeded by William (Blondy) Standing who stayed until 1957 and taught such luminaries as Ogden Phipps, Pete Bostwick and Jimmy Bostwick. The latter two went on to hold the World Championship.
The first professional I met was Eddie Stapleton whose tenure lasted from 1958 to1973. He was followed by Pierre Etchebaster for one season and Jack Hickey, who began in 1974 and stayed until the court was closed.
Greentree was only used on weekends between mid-October and mid-April. Following Payne Whitney’s death, it was owned by John Hay (Jock) Whitney, who also owned the New York Herald Tribune and served as the Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.
On vacations from Le Rosey, St. Paul’s and Harvard, my father took me to Greentree to teach me the game. I also played from time to time while in the Navy and at law school, so the bulk of my time there was from about 1958 (age 12) to 1974 (age 28).
This was probably my first view of Greentree as we parked the car to go and play.
In my early teens, I assumed this was all pretty normal. Somewhere around age 16 or 17, I figured out that it wasn’t. While teenagers were at little league with their dads, I was stepping into the middle ages and hitting solid felt tennis balls over a drooping net and into obscure openings in the walls with French names like “grille” and “dedans”
My “little league field” was in a very large house decorated with significant French Impressionist paintings, many of which were eventually donated to the National Gallery. This, too, turned out to differ from the experiences of others my age, but again that was news to me.
I got to do this because, during Jock Whitney’s Ambassadorship, my father organized a group of about 50 to 75 people who played there on winter weekend mornings. The $85 annual dues paid the professional and bought the balls.
At age 12, when I suspect my maiden voyage might have happened, I would not have noticed that Eddie Stapleton differed from other court tennis professionals. He was the only one I knew.
To some degree, even the evolving role of “maître paumier” that had begun in the middle ages in France, included aspects of the hospitality industry. (Maître paumier loosely means master of the palm game, because in its earliest iteration, the game was played with bare hands not racquets.)
Stapleton was ill-suited to the hospitality field, perhaps because of chronic back pain. On one occasion, probably around 1960, a player of greater enthusiasm than skill (despite being a highly regarded polo player) called Dev Milburn double faulted. For those new to court tennis, that is hard to do because getting the serve in is very easy.
As the four players changed ends, passing each other through the doorway at the left of this picture, Stapleton said to Milburn, “there are 54 serves in this game and you can’t hit any of them.”
Here we need a brief aside for non-tennis players. A set of tennis balls ranges from 72 to 108 and they belong to the court not to the players. Many of them end up near the net during play and, from time to time, they are gathered up in a basket that sits in a hole directly in front of the net post. You can see it at the left edge of the picture.
Thence would Stapleton carry the basket and balls to the serving end of the court where they were dumped into a trough to be retrieved by the server as needed. Stapleton would then return the basket to the hole in front of where he stood by the net to keep score.
On the occasion of his thoughtful interaction with Milburn, known not only for polo and lawyering skills, but also for an acerbic demeanor, Stapleton looked down into the hole about 18 inches below his feet into which he was to place the empty basket.
There he saw… a tennis ball.
Are we remembering Stapleton’s back problems? Good, then we are picturing him leaning over to pick up the ball before replacing the basket. Not a word was said, but Milburn continued the practice for the remaining dozen or so years of Stapleton’s tenure.
While on the subject of Milburn, whom I admired and liked enormously, we should touch on another moment at Greentree with him.
The dressing room (I am not sure what would have happened if anyone had called it a locker room) was palatial. It was decorated with paintings of Whitney horses, but never the riders. There were eight or so alcoves along one wall, each with a cushioned bench in the back and some hooks on either side. There were privacy curtains in front, but I don’t recall them being used. There was a fireplace in one corner and huge squooshy sofas and chairs surrounding a mahogany coffee table. Behind the sofa was one of those tables that often holds lamps, eclectic decorative items and large format books.
Post-match gatherings included bottles of dark liquid that had been brought by the players in their canvas bags. My godfather, about whom more later, was noted for the Teacher’s Highland Cream that emerged from the fluffy white cable knit sweaters in his bag.
The table behind the sofa always had a polished silver ice bucket and circle of crystal glasses around a polished silver pitcher on a vast silver tray to meet his remaining thirst needs. As you will hear later, play only took place in the morning.
The dressing room was L shaped and the foot of the L had two or three toilet stalls, a stall for a giant bathtub and two showers with heads the size of manhole covers. There were also two sinks on either side of a porcelain table that could have doubled as a mortician’s slab. On the table were combs, brushes, hand towels, mouth wash and such like.
I must have been about 15, when boys begin to be concerned about such things, and I was standing in front of the porcelain table looking at the array of products but not finding the one I sought.
“Where is the deodorant,” I asked.
“Mr. Whitney doesn’t smell,” replied Milburn.
The foot of the L shaped room opened onto an indoor swimming pool. Double opaque glass door, down two or three steps and straight off the diving board. Women would not play at Greentree for another 30 or 40 years, so bathing suits were at most optional. I don’t recall ever seeing one.
There is an apocryphal tale of the pool being closed to further use after a player darted through the double doors, down the steps and off the diving board while dressed “appropriately.” This was ill-received by Mrs. Whitney, then in her 60s or 70s, and the guests at her ladies’ lunch.
Though I have often been accused of this crime, as have my brother and Jimmy Bostwick, I can assure you that I was not the perp. The others can speak for themselves.
The area surrounding the pool had summery, upholstered, floral print, wicker furniture. It also had something called a Scotch Hose. That had two components: a tiled room with water sprays on the walls and ceiling; hot lights; and, some distance away, a nozzle that looked like it should have been on a fireboat.
Presumably someone would stand in the alcove turn on all the lights and jets then be assaulted by an attendant wielding the nozzle. I never saw this used.
In the early 30s, Jock Whitney began an annual event called the Payne Whitney Intercity Doubles that continues to this day. Teams of three doubles pairs (later five) representing Boston, Tuxedo, New York, Philadelphia and Greentree competed on a weekend in early December of each year.
It is possible, that strictly on the merits, Jock Whitney might not have made the Greentree team, but this would have been infelicitous. The solution was to pair him with a superb player and hope for the best.
One year he was paired with my godfather, whom you met earlier in connection with the Teacher’s Highland Cream and the fluffy cable knit sweaters. The match did not go well, and Whitney came down to the dressing room and slammed his racket down on the squooshy sofa.
“Damn,” he said, “I had the Sunday morning Grant on Saturday.”
Emile was a key figure at Greentree. He surely had a last name, but I am not sure I ever knew it. I certainly don’t know it now. He was the Whitney’s butler and his story would have been at least as good as Mr. Carson’s on Downton Abbey.
He saw to everything and, as far as I could tell, nothing was ever out of place. Never were his efforts more prominent than at the Sunday lunch that took place on the Whitney Cup weekend.
There was a secondary or perhaps tertiary living room adjacent to the court. It was about 40 by 60 feet, and all the furniture was replaced by tables for 100 to 150 guests. Rarely was more country tweed assembled in a single location and the invitations were much coveted.
Leaving some room for windows, doors and a huge fireplace, there was just under 200 feet of wall space that were covered with equestrian paintings, some by Alfred Munnings, and major works by French impressionists.
Just above the door leading from the court to the living room was a blue oar commemorating Jock’s time on the Yale crew.
The Whitney Cup represented the highest level of play at Greentree, but there were many lower ones.
Since the court was only open for four hours, the worst players began at 9:00 and the quality of play improved at 10:00, 11:00 and 12:00. One of the earliest versions of the handicap system was to refer to someone as a 9:00 o’clock player and to another as an 11:00 or a 12:00.
As a child, I began as a 9:00 o’clock player and progressed to about 11:00.
Henry Lewis was one of the stalwarts of the 9:00 o’clock hour. There was one great and eternal truth about Henry Lewis. He never hit a backhand. Now, some players might be unskilled or unable to hit backhands, but they flail at them, nonetheless. Lewis, as I just told you, but you probably didn’t believe me, NEVER HIT a backhand.
This was a challenge when he was at the receiving end under the grille where the choice is to hit a backhand or back yourself into the wall as the ball approaches. Henry Lewis invariably chose to back himself into the wall to play the shot.
On most occasions, when the ball was not too close to the side wall, this plan merely resulted in a grievous error and a lost point.
On some, however, he might strike himself in the shin, the knee or the thigh and shout “oh blast.” This was known as a “Henry Lewis.”
On occasion, it was still worse. Backed deep into the corner with the ball whizzing at him, he would flail at it and strike himself in the gentlemen’s personal zone. The “oh blast” would be followed by doubling over and stumbling around like a drunk. This was known as a “full Henry Lewis.”
I took a lesson with Pierre Etchebaster sometime during his year at Greentree and we focused on one of the most difficult shots in the game.
Your partner has served, and your opponent has cut the return sharply into the intersection of floor, sidewall and backwall.
Pierre asked me which surface the ball would hit first and I confessed that I had no idea.
I am not sure how to spell a Basque accent, but his reply sounded like, “I don’t know eizerrr, so I hold ze rackette like zis and zweep it like a brume.” Pro tip: give it a try. It works.
Nobody didn’t love Jack Hickey. He had been a junior assistant in New York where he was called by a different name because there was already a Jack.
One of his responsibilities in New York was to place Pierre’s horse racing bets with his bookie. It dawned on Jack that he was taking far more money from Pierre to the bookie than he was bringing back, perhaps because Pierre was not as skilled at betting as at court tennis. Jack began to simply pocket the money and never place the bets at all.
In time, Hickey left the New York job and years later reconnected with my father, while working as a bartender at the TWA VIP bar at LaGuardia airport. Recalling his hospitality skills, my father asked if he’d like the Greentree job and he stayed for a quarter of a century.
On one occasion my father was playing with Jock Whitney and had to decline a possible third set because of a Sunday lunch invitation.
Jock replied, “how unfortunate, and you might not even have roast beef.”
I had many years of “roast beef” playing at Greentree and, at the time, I never gave much thought to the idea of playing anywhere else.
That would change, but it was a great start.
Note: I have no idea what will happen to this eventual collection of stories, but they might be compiled into something less ephemeral.
If you have other notable Greentree stories, put them in a comment. They might be included in a future iteration.