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.