Around the World in 50 Courts — Les Bouffants and the Undress Room
The mortgage meltdown that would tank world financial markets for the second time in less than a decade was still a year away in the fall of 2007. If you are in the investment management business, as I was during those years, you know these things, as they determine when must be at your desk to hold client hands (or be screamed at) and when you can safely do other things like travel to play new courts. By then, I had also paid the last college tuition, and our three children appeared to be well on their way to self-sufficiency.
Hence, there was a second trip to Europe in 2007. It was the year of Centenaries with the opening of Hardwick in the spring and the founding of the Tennis & Rackets Association in both the fall and the following spring.
I got invited to play for the British Jesters against Bordeaux thanks to the late Richard Williams, a man of boundless enthusiasm for all aspects of the game. We were a team of five: Geoffrey Shields; Richard Williams; his son Angus; Hugo Pinsent; and me. There was assuredly a result of the match against the French side, but – equally assuredly – it was not recorded. The trophy had something to do with a pair of Jester socks that might or might not have been washed in the prior decade.
Our team name was translated to “Les Bouffons” which captures the fool aspect of the Jester concept but leaves out the humorous entertainer.
Since this is the first reference to the Jesters, some background might be in order.
The Jesters is an honorary organization that was created in England and spread to Australia, Canada, South Africa and the United States. It relates to six games: squash; court tennis; rackets; Rugby fives; Eton fives; and padel. Apart from squash, which nearly made it into the Olympics and padel, which has recently begun to make a move in terms of popularity, the games are little known and not widely publicized. They are generally “governed” by volunteers, many of whom tend to become Jesters.
There are two ways to become a Jester. You can be good at one of the games, or preferably more than one. Should skills elude you, the other avenue is to be good for one of the games. Building a court tennis court is pretty much a free pass to the second.
The Jesters are into promoting the games, being good sports and having a good time. They excel at all three.
Like so many of the best organizations, admission is by invitation only. Indeed, nominees are not even told of their candidacy until they are in. I have promoted a few candidates and made it a practice to send the new Jester a tie in an unmarked envelope that contains no note. They always figure out what happened, but sometimes they are in the dark as to how.
It is hard to think of a sport that would not be improved by having a supporting organization like the Jesters.
The more memorable aspects of the match between Les Bouffons and Bordeaux included a festive dinner with our hosts and the beyond-all-measure hideousness of the building that housed the court. It is okay to say that now because that court has been torn down and replaced by one of the few courts in the world that remain on my “to play” list.
Three years later, in June 2010, there was another event in Bordeaux called Le Grand Amitié – the great friendship. It involved much younger people who were as drawn to the wineries as to the tennis and it was put together by Charles de Castéja, whose personal “histoire” is in both the United States and France. He assembled quite a group of 30– and 40– somethings for several days of play, fancy dinners, winery tours and laughs. Though I was well outside of the target demographic, I was glad to be included.
After our match in Bordeaux, Les Bouffons drove about four hours south to Pau, the site of a former court tennis court that was created during the town’s prime as an English vacation destination. In the late 1800s, there was much fox hunting, golf and court tennis, which are not activities generally associated with French sporting life, or at least not then.
The court in Pau is no longer technically a court tennis court. Some of the features that would make it so have been removed for the purpose of playing a similar game called trinquet, which is widely popular in the Basque country. There has been a valiant but endless project to re-convert the court to its original purpose and much good work has been done to restore the exterior.
The reconversion is spearheaded by Paul Mirat who lives in Pau, Simon Berry, who lives in U.K, but has a house nearby and Alexandre Boy, a seriously good player of many Basque games who has been attracted to court tennis or Jeu de Paume (game of the palm) as it is called in France. They have been at the project for years and have used the court as a venue for a tournament that is held from time to time called “Les Trois Tripots.” The word “tripot” translates as gambling den, which captures an activity frequently associated with court tennis courts. The three venues for the tournament were Pau, Bayonne and La Bastide Clairence, but a fourth trinquet court known as Urrugne, located on the Atlantic coast near the Spanish border, has recently been added.
If these four courts are reconverted and become successful, southwestern France could become a court tennis hotbed.
Unfortunately, the interior of the Pau court itself is a political problem for the mayor of the city because the trinquet players like their game too. Reconverting it would involve saying no to one group and yes to another, and that activity is not a known strength for politicians.
After hearing a few too many stories about the political pitfalls in this endless approval process, I suggested that a modest amount of money would be well spent on some well-placed political contributions.
The vigorous eye rolling and choruses of “Oh you Americans” indicated that my idea was the functional equivalent of suggesting that someone take indecent liberties with Joan of Arc.
We had a day of playing at Pau. Though the court is not exactly the same as a court tennis court, it is close enough for most everyone to think of it as one.
Alexandre Boy, who played with us all day, took us for dinner at a unique sports facility in which courts for several different Basque games are gathered under one roof with ample spectator seating. It appeared that he played them all and he explained each of them to us.
Both France and the European Union are very good at supporting sports that are viewed to be part of a regional or national patrimony, but seemingly only when the political stars align, which, as yet, they have not for Jeu de Paume.
We retraced our steps from Pau to Bordeaux and then to Luton Airport, located conveniently to absolutely nowhere and largely accessed by a crime against nature known as EasyJet. The round-trip from Luton to Bordeaux was my first and absolutely last experience with one of life’s most miserable false economies. They pioneered the bait and switch online temptation fare. EasyJet is a thumping reminder that you get what you pay for and money just might not be everything.
The ensuing few days in England had more to do with traditions than the playing of games.
General Charles Vyvyan and his wife, Liz, who had been at the British Embassy some years before, took us to lunch at the Green Jackets Club. That was his regiment when the British Army was organized more traditionally than it is today. The first Rifle Regiment was formed in 1755 at Fort Ligonier, PA when it was called the 60th Royal Americans. They realized that the red coats, white pipe-clay, and brass buttons made the line infantry very conspicuous – so adopted the green jackets and black trousers for better camouflage. They carried the more modern rifle, rather than the musket which was in more general use. The Rifle Regiment did not participate in the Revolutionary War, but they did take part in the burning of the White House.
That evening was the Centenary dinner recognizing the 1907 founding of the Tennis & Rackets Association. The event took place at the Marylebone Cricket Club (a.k.a. Lord’s), which includes a massive stadium in which the most important cricket matches are played.
There was an exhibition court tennis match featuring two of the world’s best players — Robert Fahey, world champion, and Steve Virgona, Australian champion — followed by cocktails in the Long Room. We then walked across the cricket pitch to a massive marquee for a dinner of about 700 people.
The organizer was James Walton who had stepped into the executive role at the T&RA from a seat on the board when an unexpected vacancy occurred. James has hosted us in Sutton Courtney, a village in Oxfordshire, on many occasions and will make a future appearance on these pages.
The final memorable event of the trip was a lunch at Boodle’s, again under the auspices of General Vyvyan. Boodle’s, White’s and a few others are the models for pretty much every city club in America and likely gave birth to the very concept of clubs.
There were several of us in a private room called the “Undress Room.” This meant simply that neither black-tie nor white was required. A business suit would suffice.
The Undress Room has a round table that is well-suited to the traditions of port that you learned about in the description of Manchester.
The table can either be described or shown, but this picture will save you the 1000 words.