Around the World in 50 Courts – Nearing The Finish Line
The finish line is in sight. This episode will cover the last three courts that I have played: Bayonne, La Bastide Clairance and Radley.
I will then throw myself to the mercy of French and English public health bureaucrats for the last three that I haven’t: Urrugne, Bordeaux and Wellington. Covid restrictions will have to be lifted because quarantines are not in the game plan.
Then there are the endless development snags that plague every new court tennis court. With a bit of good fortune, Prince’s Court at Westwood, Charleston, Sydney Cheltenham and even Chinon in France could follow.
Enough speculation and back to reality.
La Bastide Clairance
Sometimes the names are reversed – Clairance La Bastide – I can’t figure it out. Either way, Google maps will get you there. It is a small village in the Pyrenees just east of St. Jean de Luz.
My wife and I drove there from Les Cercueux-sous-Passavent, another even smaller village near the Loire where she was studying painting with Ted Seth Jacobs, an American representational artist. We had to hurry because the court is shared with trinquet and is only available a few hours per week. I would have to hop out of the car, change and start playing or come back another time. A Friday night at 8:00PM or bust.
The court itself is tiny and it is in fact a jeu carré, a game that preceded (by several centuries) trinquet, the traditional Basque game that faithful readers have come to know. It is one of the oldest courts in the world and was originally built in someone’s back yard. Given its size, Simon Berry describes it as, “very good for singles.” La Bastide Clairance is one of many of various shapes and sizes that are moving toward being considered as court tennis courts thanks to the efforts of Berry, Paul Mirat and several others who promote a quasi-annual tournament called “Les Trois Tripots.”
“Tripot” means gambling den (more on this later) and they are now using more than “trois” of them for the multi-court tennis fest.
Should the adapted trinquet trend continue, the floodgates will open and there will be dozens of new courts in Southwestern France. It will take over from the Thames Valley as the center of world court tennis.
But not without a fight. The trinquet players, at least at La Bastide Clairance, don’t like court tennis players one single bit. There must have been vigorous negotiation to determine when the court would be used for “their” game and when for “ours.” This is apparent when you walk through the bar to get to the court. I felt like the new Marshall coming into a saloon full of outlaws and saying, “this town ain’t big enough for both of us.” Fortunately, I did not say that because there were more of them than us and they looked a lot meaner.
I am not sure with whom we played, but one of them might have been Johnny Borrell, a guitarist and singer with a British group called Razorlight. When I was told he lived in La Bastide Clairance and was hooked on court tennis, I had to feign recognition as his music era is several archaeological strata away from the most recent, I had even heard of.
Another might have been Ghislaine Potentier, the owner of a restaurant who has created a junior court tennis program in her community and has herself become a court tennis fanatic who travels all over the world.
A third was probably another newly minted enthusiast, Michel d’Arcangues who was our host for the weekend at Château d’Arcangues.
The court itself is white, which means the balls have to be some other color. It is one of the few that you don’t access from the doorway by the net. Instead, the entrance is in the back corner of the serving end, and it leads directly into the bar that was packed with angry trinquet players while we interloped.
The penthouses are narrow, which makes serving more difficult as, as you can see from the picture, the court is essentially unlit in the evening. I have developed a real fondness for the timber roofs and rustic gallery posts that prevail in older French courts.
Hitting the grille requires near surgical precision as it is about half the size we are used to but that is offset by a tambour that is simply a 45-degree angle at the back wall. If you can hit it – again, it is much narrower than ours – the ball scoots out parallel to the back wall and is more or less unplayable. In some trinquet courts the last few feet of floor at the receiving end are cobblestone, resulting in some most unusual bounces.
The first two pictures showed the court with no net as fitted out for trinquet, but a net is added when we play our game. Remember that court tennis is the predecessor of tennis as played at Wimbledon. The latter was adapted directly from the former. Unsurprisingly, both versions of tennis are played across a net. This is referred to as a “jeu direct,” because the players hit the ball at each other. In trinquet, the players stand side by side (as in squash) and hit the ball at the far end wall as seen in these pictures, whence it rebounds to the adjacent opponent who must do the same.
There was not a lot of lingering after we played. Not only were the bar patrons unwilling to have a beer with us, they did not seem to be particularly interested in us having a beer by ourselves.
Borrell had a concert or a taping to get ready for so we could not go there either. We returned to Chateau d’Arcangues, which is charming, especially with Michel as our guide.
The Chateau is often used as an event space for weddings and parties, but the traditional salon evokes a late 19thcentury feel.
Of course, there was a lunch at restaurant Ghislaine Potentier and another day spent with Jean-Paul and Jasmyn Inchauspé touring St. Jean de Luz. Some years later he came to New York on business, and I was able to return the hospitality with a game and lunch at the Racquet and Tennis Club.
Sunday came and it was time to get Simmy back to school. There was no more tennis and the trinquet players were not lining the streets to wave us off and wish us safe travels.
The court in Bayonne is also used for trinquet, but this was not always so. Like Pau, it had a moment as a court tennis court before being converted.
It is “sans doute” the only court in the world that requires a stop at a garden supply store before you play. Courts that have been converted to trinquet no longer have nets and the stop at the store was to purchase a heavy bag of fertilizer to be used to weight down the jury-rigged system that supports the net next to the main wall. Presumably it is then used by Simon Berry, my guide for the day, at the house he is building nearby.
You can see the bag of fertilizer supporting the net over my left shoulder in this picture. If nothing else, the outer reaches of the game require a bit of ingenuity.
Simon is a better player than I am. He eased up on several occasions to let me back in a game that looked much more like what I was used to then some of the other adaptive venues that he is nurturing.
Again, the door to the court is unusually placed, but they have lovely provincial woodwork supporting the roof and excellent viewing for any spectators who might happen by.
We had lunch in the bar adjacent to the court and this is probably as good a time as any to describe the relationship between bars and court tennis courts.
Many believe that court tennis existed only for the aristocracy and the ecclesiastical elite. That is not entirely true.
There were many courts that existed in the “demi-monde” or what the Japanese call the “mizu shobei” (water trade) of nightlife that included drinking, gambling and ladies of easy virtue. It is possible to gamble on virtually every point in a court tennis match and this would keep the patrons interested as they drank. Gambling explains the name “Tripot” in Simon’s increasingly popular tournament.
Of course, the nobility tried to snuff out such behavior especially when engaged in by people other than themselves. Revolutions have been notoriously unkind to court tennis, but so has bluestocking morality. The game has been legally banned, at one time or another, in virtually every country where it has existed including Niew Amsterdam, now New York.
In the afternoon, we went sightseeing in St. Jean de Luz, where we found two notable court tennis attractions.
The first was the cathedral. It is hard to think of an institution in France that is in greater decline than religion. There would be countless churches available for repurposing if the government didn’t support them.
As you can see from this picture, the interior of the cathedral is fabulous, but it would be even more fabulous if it enclosed a glass walled court tennis court to be used, even on a temporary basis, for the best of the best matches. The balconies would provide opera seating for the spectators. Black tie mandatory.
For court building zealots, it works. I paced it off.
The other attraction was the Patisserie Etchebaster, owned by the family of Pierre Etchebaster, world champion for nearly three decades.
I visited the shop and explained that I had known Pierre as a child and had taken lessons from him. I asked if there was any family member to whom I could pay my respects.
The answer came back, “no, nobody was interested in hearing about his time in the United States.”
This gave credence to the idea that Pierre was not well loved by his family, whom he had left behind through at least one world war and perhaps two while he was in America.
The court at Radley College was completed in July 2008. The school also has a racquets court and fives courts and is one of a small number of remaining all-boys schools in England. It is located in Oxfordshire, an area with the world’s greatest density of court tennis courts.
I am always a sucker for a snake in a crest. As, apparently, were those who decorated the court.
In comparison to some of the pictures you have seen in the series, the court at Radley is utilitarian rather than palatial. It is a functional metal building housing a functional court that does not aspire to the same luxurious amenities as others of recent vintage. That said, it is one of the most played-upon courts in the world often surpassing venues that have 2 courts (Queens, New York, Cambridge, Melbourne and Prested Hall) in the number of monthly hours of play.
The secret is Chris Ronaldson (depicted at the top of the story), patriarch of a court tennis family dynasty that includes a brother and sons who are head professionals. To this, the family adds Ronaldson Publications, the publisher of virtually every modern book on the game (including the one these stories will become in late 2022).
Chris was world champion in the 1980s, but, to me, his real mark on the history of the game is as a teacher and as a person who knows more than anyone in my lifetime about making the game attractive to a multitude of players of all abilities. He has coached world champions and beginners, players a great ability and players of nearly none.
Marketing court tennis requires creating addiction and there is simply nobody in the world who creates addiction like Chris. The easiest way to see this would be to remove everyone he has influenced – from the top to the bottom of the game, pros and amateurs alike – – from our midst and see what was left.
It would be less. Believe me, a lot less.
To me, this illustrates an important truth about the 53 courts we have now visited together.
Yes, it matters what you are doing. The game is addictive, and it keeps your hooked long after your skills have departed. Fortunately for older players, there is so much to know that the younger, fleeter and more skilled pass us by a little slower than in other games.
Yes it matters where you are playing and we are fortunate to have some truly fascinating and colorful venues.
But, in the end, it is the people who matter the most: friends, rivals, partners, adversaries, those who get it, those who don’t, the skilled, the less so, the beginners, the veterans, the competitors, the social players, the amateurs, the professionals, the players and the camp followers. All add threads to the tapestry, but none more so than Chris Ronaldson.
John A. Murphy, May 28, 2021 at 8:39 pm said:
Excellent report. Revives pleasant memories of a tournament in Pau, followed several years later by a group participation in Le Trois Tripots, led by Simon and Paul. Both events were wonderful.
I believe there may be a connection, via James Gordon Bennett, between the Newport Court and the one in Pau.
PS: Shouldn’t the word after Thames Valley be “as”?
Haven Pell, May 29, 2021 at 12:11 pm said:
There is a James Gordon Bennett connection. He definitely had fingers in many pies including sending Stanley to find Livingston. Thanks for the typo. I found and fixed it. I fear there is another that I detected when reading the story to my wife. Now I can’t find it.
Chip Oat, May 28, 2021 at 9:20 pm said:
Haven Pell, May 29, 2021 at 12:12 pm said:
Garrard Glenn, May 28, 2021 at 10:32 pm said:
It seems the French, upon occasion, can be as frosty as ever.
Temple Grassi, May 29, 2021 at 6:42 am said:
Playing at the Paris court some years ago, one of the local players came out on the court while we were ‘knocking up’.
He yells in a heavy French accent-‘you have left your bags and gear all over our sofas and chairs!!! You must be from Kentucky!’
Haven Pell, May 29, 2021 at 12:24 pm said:
well, okay, maybe it is more than angry trinquet players
Haven Pell, May 29, 2021 at 12:12 pm said:
Hell hath no fury like a trinquet zealot deprived of an hour or two of weekly court time.
Peter W. Bragdon, May 28, 2021 at 10:34 pm said:
To use an Aussie expression, Haven< "Good on you" for pursuing court tennis to the ends of the earth.
Dottie and I actually visited Radley College in the autumn of 1960 on our way to Australia by way of England, France, Italy and Greece.
Haven Pell, May 29, 2021 at 12:14 pm said:
Much would have changed had you stayed there. I suspect there would have been a rink rather than a court tennis court.
Håkan Lonæus, May 28, 2021 at 11:41 pm said:
Haven, as you are closing in on the end of your journey, may I suggest a brief stop in Stockholm to say prayers for Charleston and for Princes Court in the Finnish church in Sweden, on “slottsbacken” next to the Royal Palace? The church is housed in what is called “lilla bollhuset” – the little ball house. Before it became a church, it was the court tennis arena in Stockholm, since the princes had visited London, and brought back royal tennis to Stockholm.
There is an exhibit of the churche’s past as a court tennis arena on the balcony at the back of the church. And while you are there, perhaps an overnight cruise across the Baltic may be in place to view the athletic building adorned with the moniker “Jeu de Paume” in St.Petersburg? There may even have been a practice area on the more informal third floor of the hermitage for le jeu de paume… that we are still trying to get the facts on. You can see a framed litography of the little ball house hanging on the wall above the entrance to the pros office in your own Princes court…
Haven Pell, May 29, 2021 at 12:16 pm said:
Thanks for the comment. If I complete all of the existing courts, I can start on those that no longer exist, like the two you mentioned.
James Walton, May 28, 2021 at 11:49 pm said:
Beautifully written, as ever. I realise that this is not the last article, that you have a couple of courts yet to play, knees and quarantines permitting. But it’s a big chapter, and entirely appropriate (and I’m sure deliberate) that the last two words in your article are ‘Chris Ronaldson’ . The world has changed a lot since the 1970s, and to some extent the game would have changed (or died) regardless of its people, of which Chris has been outstanding. Fortunately, thanks to many willing hands (not all of them on bloody tennis committees) !the game has flourished. On the list of those who led it in the right direction in its present renaissance must be the name ‘Haven Pell’
Haven Pell, May 29, 2021 at 12:18 pm said:
James, you are kinder than I deserve especially in comparison to Chris. You are also correct that the last two words of the story were entirely intentional.
firstname.lastname@example.org, May 29, 2021 at 2:51 am said:
Temple Grassi, May 29, 2021 at 6:35 am said:
I totally agree with JW about the impact/leadership that Haven has had on the game. Without him, there certainly would not be tennis in the DC area and we all look forward to this blog -Here’s hoping it goes on and on!
Haven Pell, May 29, 2021 at 12:23 pm said:
If the last few are completed, we could always begin again. This time I would take both pictures and notes so I was less reliant on the internet and fading memory. When the quest began, it never occurred to me that I would write about it. Reporters take notes for good reason. Pictures too.
Kate Perkins, May 29, 2021 at 8:38 am said:
A whole new world for this reader. Fascinating. It must take real skill to play on such small and odd-shaped courts? My only question, being a newcomer, is how is ventilation handled? It must get very hot in those small, indoor spaces. Very well-written, this article. Thanks.
Haven Pell, May 29, 2021 at 12:27 pm said:
The trinquet courts are smaller and often open to the outdoors. A court tennis court is the size of the better known tennis courts from fence to fence. Ventilation is an issue, especially in the early months of COVID.
Walter Deane, May 29, 2021 at 2:11 pm said:
Great post, and what an amazing story about Pierre Etchebaster’s family!!!!
Haven Pell, May 29, 2021 at 3:08 pm said:
Thank you Walter, there are quite a lot of Pierre stories that are rarely told.
Richard Meyer, May 29, 2021 at 4:52 pm said:
Marvelous reminisces , Haven! Keep up the good work for “We chosen few, we band of brothers”
Haven Pell, May 30, 2021 at 6:07 pm said:
Please get the European public health officials to lift travel restrictions and there will be three more to write about.
Theo Bollerman, May 30, 2021 at 4:51 am said:
Looking forward to the book, a great Read it is
Haven Pell, May 30, 2021 at 5:21 pm said:
Thank you Theo. I just bought Chris Ronaldson’s new book. Beautifully done.
Dick Friend, May 31, 2021 at 1:53 am said:
That machiavellian Simon Berry getting you to fall for his clever net-weighting system to fertilise his garden. But before calling “bullshit” I must say that the tennis “garden” in south-west France has flourished with his fertilisation of tournaments, and may the Trois Tripot flower again soon!
Haven Pell, May 31, 2021 at 4:15 pm said:
Dick, I will spring to Simon’s defense. He paid for the fertilizer. I was a mere spectator. He also contributed useful corrections to the original version of the story, for which I am most appreciative.
Peter Mallinson, May 31, 2021 at 4:38 am said:
Another amusing and educational episode as always, Haven. I have to point out one minor error in that Radley is not one of the 4 remaining all-boys schools in the U.K. ! In fact there are quite a number, including Tonbridge, a famous rackets-playing school, St. Paul’s, an old highly academic London school with a relatively new rackets court, and others (including Warwick School founded in 914- shame they didn’t build a tennis court!). We look forward to your visit to Wellington College- previously all boys, but partially co-Ed from 1977 and fully so from 2006. Peter
Haven Pell, May 31, 2021 at 4:09 pm said:
Note to readers: Peter has not lost his mind. The version of the story he read said that Radley was one of four all boys schools. I pinched that nugget from Wikipedia, which gets me a well deserved wrist slap. Thanks to Peter’s comment, I changed the story to reflect the new information. Thank you Peter, for contributing to greater accuracy.
Mick Domagala, June 02, 2021 at 3:01 pm said:
What a great – and unexpected – finish to this story. I most certainly would be counted among those who have been influenced by Chris Ronaldson’s contributions to the game. Without him, Ivan would have never pestered me with offers of a couple free lessons, and I would have never known this wonderful game.
Thanks for yet another interesting post.
Haven Pell, June 02, 2021 at 6:50 pm said:
John Duns, June 05, 2021 at 2:10 pm said:
Very interesting articles- especially about the French courts which I’m yet to play. Thank you.
Looking forward to bringing Jesmond Dene players across the pond to play the new Washington court in due course.
Haven Pell, June 06, 2021 at 10:53 am said:
Thank you John, we look forward to building an intercity tradition with Jesmond Dene. Glad you like the stories.