Around the World in 50 Courts – International Agreements and Making Matches Competitive All While Avoiding Distracting Advertisements
There is good and bad about playing a small game. By now, you have seen much of the good. Players of small games are more enthusiastic and see themselves as integral to its very existence. After years of involvement, you have met many of the players from other countries and perhaps stayed in their houses and they in yours. You might even have written about it.
But there is a downside: the fewer the players, the less likely it is that there will be enough of them who play at your level. You have to be more open minded about those with and against whom you play.
Like golf, the solution to making matches competitive is handicaps.
For a time, handicaps were determined by one’s home court professional, but this was haphazard. Not only did the different pros apply different standards, but they also felt pressure to adjust handicaps in ways that kept members happy.
Fortunately, most players have sufficient egos that they want their handicaps to be lower so they will feel better about themselves. A few, of course, want their handicaps to be higher so they will win more tournaments. These people are known as bandits, and they are looked upon with disfavor.
There were a few years when the entire United States was out of kilter with the rest of the world because one former great could not bear the idea of his handicap going up as he grew older. He was pegged at 18 and the rest of the country was adjusted around him. As his “18” became the equivalent of a 25 or a 30 in other countries, Americans became less and less competitive.
Here is how the handicap system works in court tennis. It all depends on the odds of one player – me – winning a point against another player – you. For this example, you are a little better than me, so you are likely to win four points out of seven. We solve that by letting me start each game at 15. I only need to win three points (30, 40, game) while you need to win four (15, 30, 40, game). Should a game be tied at 40 all, we play just one point to decide it because playing more points (deuce, advantage) favors the better player.
Yes, our scoring system is just like tennis or, more accurately, theirs is just like ours because we got there first. With the handicap, each of us is likely to win about the same number of games and we will end up with very close sets even though we are of different abilities.
Like so many things, the computer was the solution to the problem of the pros assigning handicaps that were either too high or too low. After adjusting for possible home court advantage, all the computer asks is did you beat me or did I beat you (and what handicap did we use).
If you won, your handicap goes down and mine goes up. Over time, we should all get to the right level and have close matches even if you have to start at minus15 and I started at plus 15. Yes, the player disparities can be sufficient for one player to begin each game below zero.
Golf is different. You play against the course. Your opponent’s skill has no bearing on how you do. Each course is professionally evaluated to determine its level of difficulty relative to all other courses. If you play well on a particular day, the course doesn’t care. All that happens is that your handicap goes down and you get fewer handicap strokes the next time out. Conversely, if you play badly, the course beats you by more than expected and your handicap goes up so you get more handicap strokes in the next round.
In court tennis, your handicap is determined by two factors: how well or badly you played; and how well or badly your opponent played.
Two players can have their best days ever on a golf course and both of their handicaps will go down. The same two players can have their best days ever in court tennis, but one will lose, and his handicap will go up. Over time that tends to even itself out.
In court tennis, everyone has a handicap, and all of the data are kept in a computer called Real Tennis Online or RTO. Today, there are just under 12,000 of us. For part of its life, the RTO computer was located in Ballarat, Australia, and it was operated on sort of a volunteer basis by Tim Graham, a player who had the requisite programming skills.
In the spring of some year, likely between 2004 and 2006, I opened a bill from our country club here in Washington and noticed a line item called handicap fee. It was $25. (Please keep that figure some place handy in your mind.) I asked the head golf professional if anyone had ever objected to the charge.
“No,” he said. “Do you think it is too high?”
I didn’t, but my mind was elsewhere. Court tennis players were paying virtually nothing for handicaps and there were at the time about 10,000 of us. What if our friend in Ballarat, who did it as a labor of love, decided to sell the program to someone who wanted to charge each of us the entirely fair price of $25 per year? The handicap system could easily be worth $2 million. (I discussed this at some length with an investment banker.)
To say nothing of the fact that we had no control whatever over the website or the software itself. “What if Tim Graham (our handicap system manager) gets hit by a bus?” became a significant part of many conversations I was having as Chairman of the United States Court Tennis Preservation Foundation.
There was also the unpleasant prospect of an owner of the handicap system selling ads on the website as is now done in golf. Given the older male court tennis demographic, you can let your mind wander as to what companies might choose to advertise their products. I doubt it will take you very long.
With no authority whatever, I contacted Graham and we talked on the phone and by email. He was tiring of the current arrangement and was open to the idea of selling the handicap system to the game. He also mentioned that the Honorary Treasurer (the title for the volunteer finance person) of the Tennis & Rackets Association (the game’s UK governing body) had been having similar conversations with him. Graham suggested that we talk.
And thus, did I first meet James Walton, a player of roughly similar ability and a really clear thinker. Walton lives in a beautiful village called Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire.
We had several conversations about the RTO handicap system and concluded more or less immediately that the game had no choice but to buy it, lest it fall into unfriendly hands.
Politics suggested that no one country could buy it without raising eyebrows in the other three, because court tennis lacks a distinguished tradition of cooperation among the four national governing bodies. The players do fine but the countries less so. National noses get out of joint faster than individual noses. Fortunately, this situation is improving as the cost of communication and travel decrease.
We began discussions with Graham and arrived at a price relatively easily. The challenge became allocating the ownership among the United Kingdom, France, Australia and the United States. We chose a worldwide percentage-of-players formula in which UK would have 60%, Australia and the United States 17 1/2% each and France 5%. This approximated the share of players in each country.
Walton was able to keep the UK “on side” because of his position on the board, and I kept the US “on side” by not telling anyone what we were doing. Thanks to its status as a tax-exempt charity, the Foundation held most of the cash available to the game in the United States.
Australia was a bit trickier because their $15,000 or $20,000 share of the purchase price was not immediately available. It would only work if spread over two years.
Though the amount in question was minuscule – maybe $3000 to $5000 — France balked. On one visit to Paris, I had one of the most vitriolic conversations ever to be had in sidewalk café. In the end, we had to find a way around their designated spokesman and reduce their share from 5% to 2%, but the deal got done and now all four countries jointly control an important component of the game.
There was one other hurdle. Though the US cash would be provided by the Foundation, it was well outside our purview to make an international decision on behalf of the United States.
The US Court Tennis Association had been formed in 1955 and was possessive of its primacy. The US Court Tennis Preservation Foundation was nearly 40 years younger, but had the ability to raise money as a charity. Since its inception, the Foundation has undertaken several significant fund-raising campaigns.
Graham and Walton flew to Washington and we set the final terms in the garden of my house then went to play tennis together. Walton and I then traveled to New York for a meeting of the US Court Tennis Association where the entire matter would finally be made public.
It did not go well.
Of course, there were accusations of “not staying in my lane.” Entirely accurate I might add.
The most adamant of the board members tried to dismiss us from the meeting after our presentation saying, “we’ll form a committee and get back to you.”
“You can’t,” said Walton (if possible a little less politic than me and definitely with far less at stake).
“Why” asked the board member.
“Because we already bought it.”
That lead to an extremely awkward silence, but sometimes it is just better to ask forgiveness than permission.
Note: Remember how I asked you to keep the $25 golf handicap fee in mind? About 15 years later, the same fee at the same country club is $45. Had we not moved expeditiously, the court tennis handicap system might have been worth $4 million rather than $2 million. The price we paid was less than $100,000. And there are no male enhancement products advertised on the website.
The definitive agreement was signed at a lovely ceremony in the spring of 2008 during the World Championship Fontainebleau. Our hosts could not have been more gracious and they provided champagne to celebrate the occasion of international cooperation for the benefit of the game.
As seems to happen in many transactions, the bargaining positions were quickly forgotten and the benefits continue to be enjoyed by all of the world’s players.
John A. Murphy, June 25, 2021 at 1:33 pm said:
Important history. Thank you for sharing, Haven.
Haven Pell, June 25, 2021 at 2:33 pm said:
Thank you John
David Sweet, June 25, 2021 at 2:36 pm said:
That is truly an entertaining article. Plenty of wry humor. Also had no idea UK players dominate the sport at that level.
Haven Pell, June 25, 2021 at 2:40 pm said:
Thank you David. Yes this is definitely a game for Anglophiliacs.
Temple Grassi, June 25, 2021 at 3:20 pm said:
The most incredible handicap match I have ever seen was ( sorry for non tennis players on this!) was Audrey Byrne vs Rich Moroscak. 40 owe 30, one serve, ban tambour, every chase that Rich laid or defended had to better than 3/4. Rich won 10-9 and still was a gentleman while doing it! Fun to watch but not fun for Rich !
Haven Pell, June 25, 2021 at 4:11 pm said:
Temple illustrates an extreme aspect of the handicap system. Rich was probably in the top 1% of all players and Audrey might have been in the bottom few percentiles. She would have needed to win one point before he won seven. He was further limited by having one serve to her two, having key targets in the court turned from winners for him into losers and having a tiny fraction of the court into which he could hit the ball. It is a story for another day but the system breaks down at the extremes. The better player has to play as hard as he can, which often means there are virtually no rallies.
Haven Pell, June 26, 2021 at 9:45 am said:
Correction: in a conversation with a professional yesterday, I learned that the most a player can receive per game is 30. The better player can begin at minus 40. Hence the less skilled player in Temple’s example would have had to win two points to win a game rather than one. The more skilled player would still have needed seven.
Chip Oat, June 25, 2021 at 4:31 pm said:
Well played – except your observations about golf only apply to medal play (aka stroke play). In match play (which is what most amateurs do), what your opponent accomplishes (or not) relative to you on each hole is everything.
Haven Pell, June 26, 2021 at 9:40 am said:
My observation did not relate to the outcome of the match, but rather to the impact on the handicaps. Our two “best day ever” opponents on the golf course could be playing either match or medal play and it would not change the impact on their handicaps.
Chip Oat, June 25, 2021 at 4:40 pm said:
At first, I wondered why you didn’t include any mention of a bisque in your description of the handicap system, but I came to see that the point of your (always-excellent) piece, was much different.
Haven Pell, June 26, 2021 at 9:38 am said:
Though traditional in court tennis, the bisque is not a part of the current system. I have long contemplated a tournament in which bisques were used as the leveler of matches. Using them wisely is a skill unto itself. Because they are so little used today, markers (score keepers) often feel compelled to remind the players to use them. I don’t favor this practice because I think remembering and thinking ahead are among the skills of the game.
Chip Oat, June 26, 2021 at 11:45 am said:
Jamie White, June 26, 2021 at 4:26 am said:
I had to play a bisque once. Evidently it is so rare, our club pro had to think it though before explaining it to us. I can’t remember what particulars in our handicaps brought it on so if anyone could refresh my memory, it would be much appreciated. Excellent article. I found the introduction of golf-like fees as a means of valuation amusing, but now fear that any one of our playing colleagues in the financial industry will come up with the tennis equivalent of the “hole in one” insurance to charge us – although I’m not sure what sort of shot would necessitate buying the club a round of drinks ? I’m sure proposals can be made.
Haven Pell, June 26, 2021 at 9:34 am said:
I don’t think bisques are actually part of the official handicap system, but they used to be used frequently. A bisque is a point that can simply be claimed at any time. It is a way to provide an advantage to the less skilled player in a match. At game point, a player uses his bisque without the need to win the point. The tactics are too complicated for a response to a comment. As to the use of fees for valuation, it is pretty common. Software programs have few expenses so the fee income mostly goes right to the bottom line. Apply a discount rate to that cash flow and you have a valuation.
Helen Stovell, June 26, 2021 at 9:18 am said:
Haven, such an amusing piece! This week, in Bermuda, I was corrected by a local when I called his golf opponent a ‘sandbagger’. I realized quickly that that expression is simply not on. ‘Bandit’ is the term used in a UK territory and so succinct! Bandit it is from now on!
Haven Pell, June 26, 2021 at 9:27 am said:
Thanks, Helen. Happy to contribute the term to another sport. Looks like there should be another story on the ins and outs of handicapping.
Chris Ronaldson, June 26, 2021 at 6:00 pm said:
Congratulations on a very good read.
I believe that the handicap system for court tennis beats that of any other sport. It is, of course, driven by data, which is why we need as much input from clubs as possible. It is wise for club administrators to allow any player to declare a game to be ‘off the record’ before it starts (to make allowance for minor injury, a broken string or a hangover etc) but this should not be the norm.
Congratulations also to Haven and James for saving the court tennis world a seven figure sum.
Haven Pell, June 27, 2021 at 7:01 am said:
Thanks Chris. It has made it possible for players from all parts of the world to gather at multi-week tournaments (Boomerang, Trois Tripots) and have competitive matches.Thank you for helping to invent it.
Haven Pell, June 28, 2021 at 9:23 am said:
Thank you, Chris. For other readers, Chris was a co-inventor of the handicap system before there were widely-used computers.
Andrew Gould, June 27, 2021 at 6:04 am said:
I remember with great fondness that afternoon in Fontainebleau. It was Guy Durand’s house, and the hospitality was generous. Despite having instructions to sign on behalf of Australia, I too wondered if history would be on our side. I need not have worried! It was great foresight on your part Haven.
Haven Pell, June 27, 2021 at 7:03 am said:
Your recollection is spot on and let’s not forget James Walton, a driving force in making it happen.
Dick Friend, June 27, 2021 at 9:54 pm said:
Look forward to the next instalment of your informative & educative pieces, hopefully on the handicaps and particularly on the BISQUE. And don’t forget the HALF-BISQUE. It is features such as these which make our game even more intriguing than a passing acquaintance can provide. They’re an eccentric feature on an eccentric court… and yet I fear that the diminishing frequency of providing bisques as a part or alternative part to a handicap my see it die out, Long live the BISQUE and HALF-BISQUE.
Temple Grassi, June 28, 2021 at 5:53 am said:
Several years ago, Jason Briggs ( backer of Gold Leaf) gave me a white baseball hat with BISQUE(in red) on it!
I’ll wear it to events starting in the fall!
Haven Pell, June 28, 2021 at 9:06 am said:
Bring Back the Bisque!
Dick Friend, June 28, 2021 at 11:37 pm said:
Oh, yes! There’s nothing like the delight (I’m tempting to say “deliciousness”) of a well-taken bisque or half-bisque!
Haven Pell, July 01, 2021 at 12:24 pm said:
A half bisque taken when your opponent had laid chase better than half and you don’t even have to give up the serve.
The target value for a bisque should be a game and keeping the serve.
Haven Pell, June 28, 2021 at 9:08 am said:
These comments suggest that a conversation about handicaps — controversial though it might be — would be interesting.
Richard Meyer, July 11, 2021 at 5:19 am said:
A number of years ago, when I was still playing regularly, the handicap system enabled me to beat the immensely superior Steve Hufford, leading to a nail biter against Temple which came down to the last point. Winstead Cup memories.
Haven Pell, July 12, 2021 at 5:16 pm said:
Just what the handicap system is supposed to make possible. Glad it worked, though presumably less well for Steve Hufford.
Robert Price, July 12, 2021 at 4:48 pm said:
Haven, did I miss your account of trying to play on the real tennis court on Lambay Island, Ireland? It was built about 1922 by a member of the Baring family who learned the game at Tuxedo Park and I think married a daughter of Pierre Lorillard. The court is fairly standard with the exception of being unroofed. The entire island is owned by the Revelstoke Trust. Queens Club is supposed to have sent a delegation to play there some years ago and may be helpful in connecting you with the Trust if indeed you haven’t already been there.
On another matter, Jimmy Dunn was a great advocate of the strategic use of the bisque. He stressed its psychological use to upset an opponent by negating a beautiful shot the opponent had just hit at a crucial point in the match. As so used, it was worth much more than the single point it seemed to be.
Haven Pell, July 12, 2021 at 5:28 pm said:
Robert, You didn’t miss a story on Lambay Island. It will be included in a chapter on “the unplayed and unplayable.” The six courts in that chapter will be Royal Melbourne Exhibition Street, Bordeaux Rue Rolland, Versailles, Dublin, Lambay Island and Sun Court Troon.
Lambay has an open roof but also has penthouses on all four sides. The discussion about Lambay will center around some lengthy discussions I had with Louis Jebb in 2003. He was keen to restore the court and told me of the Baring/Lorillard/Tuxedo connection.
The bisque will come up in the next chapter in which I will delve more deeply into the sometimes controversial topic of how the handicap system might be improved.
Many thanks for your thoughtful comment.