Around the World in 50 Courts — Some Unusual Ones
There were two trips abroad in 2007 and these will result in three stories because one will be solely devoted to Hardwick and its especially colorful history.
In late May and early June, I went back to England to play 6 courts that were new to me, two that were not and another that is likely to offend court-counting purists.
Ambassador Grassi and Mrs. Pell came along. This was still the MapQuest era when you had to know exactly where you were starting and where are you were going, or the turn-by-turn paper directions would all be for naught. One roundabout does end up looking rather like another, and following the directions for one, which is in fact another, reminds one of early explorers, who feared falling off the flat side of the earth.
Those who design computer software sometimes like to use their customers as beta-testers, though this practice is rarely revealed. When the software in question relates to mapping, the consequences can range from unexpected to fairly serious. For example, it took some doing for the mappers to recognize that there was a difference between an over the road truck pulling two trailers and a Mini Minor. This became apparent when we came to a stop on a long unpaved road/foot path/less than foot path in the middle of a field just short of Melrose in the Borders of Scotland.
After playing at Oxford and having dinner with James and Mary Wyatt (he was the Executive Director of the Tennis & Rackets Association), we headed north to stay with our many times hosts, Francis and Catherine Hamilton, who had moved to Scotland from Oxfordshire.
As you move away from London, the courts become more distant and the ratio of “courts played per miles driven” plummets.
The first goal was Falkland Palace, the only playable court in Scotland and the only outdoor court in the world. There can, and likely should be, a lengthy discussion of the rationale behind building an outdoor court in an inhospitable climate, but, since it was built in about 1539, there are a few remaining decision-makers with whom to have that conversation.
Technically Falkland Palace is a “Jeu Carré,” which differs from court tennis by adding some features and omitting others. Unsurprisingly, given its climate and age, it has been rebuilt many times and some features might well have been changed.
In the early 1990s, when we were re-creating the United States Court Tennis Preservation Foundation, a tax examiner asked about the useful life of a court tennis court. Thinking of Falkland, I replied, “about 450 years… so far, but that was an outdoor one in Scotland, so it could well be more.” I am not sure what the tax examiner thought either of my answer or of me (actually I suspect I do know about the latter), but we did receive his seal of approval.
When playing a new court, especially as you get closer to the goal of playing them all, there is a sense of anticipation – excitement even — as you get closer to the next one. I bet birdwatchers feel the same way.
In the case of Falkland, the anticipation was during the 80-mile drive from Melrose past Edinburgh to the Palace itself. A sunny day turned drizzly and I spent much of the hour and a half in the car thinking this is one of the hardest courts in the world to arrange and I am about to get rained down. I recall being a very quiet passenger, but the sun re-emerged just as we neared our destination.
A damp playing surface was of no consequence whatever as the balls were rubber and unique to that venue. The walls and floor were quite rough, and the game involving Hamilton, Grassi, Pell and Falkland Real Tennis Club Chairman, Simon Sanders, had more to do with sightseeing, picture taking and box checking then with vigorous competition. Of course, we tried for some of the winning shots that exist only at Falkland and this resulted in several balls being hit over the wall. Visitors to the palace were a bit surprised to see gentlemen in tennis whites emerging from an unusual building to retrieve them while they had their lunch. We were surprised to see Sanders hop on his motorcycle and wave goodbye as he sped off after our game.
For some unfathomable reason, the Ladies Hamilton and Pell chose to focus on the swallows swooping under the penthouses to return to their nests rather than our games playing. Yet another benefit of an open-air court. There was an afternoon visit to St. Andrews to see the St. Leonard’s School where Catherine had been Head Girl, the University and the famous golf course where we joined them for lunch. St. Andrews is also the site of the “running on the beach” scene in Chariots of Fire.
There have been other courts in Scotland, but austerity of demeanor is no friend to court tennis.
When Francis Hamilton moved to Scotland, he brought his court development skills from Washington with him. He made a valiant, though ultimately unsuccessful, effort to restore a court at Troon. The property was owned by a nursing home operator, but the court itself was designated a “listed building,” which, for historical reasons, could not be torn down. The nursing home operator was faced with a white elephant in the middle of his property, and he was not inclined to let anyone else enjoy it, as this would have worsened his problem. It appears that he is simply letting it rot in the hope it will fall down of its own weight.
Hamilton also guided an effort, with friends from Edinburgh, to build a court at a cricket club in town. That looked promising until it ran afoul of a member vote requirement. Like austerity of demeanor, member votes are no friends of court developments. There were some other potential sites, but none came to fruition and Edinburgh remains bereft of the game. On the day of our tour of these potential sites, Francis took us to “The New Club” for lunch, so named because it was only formed in the mid-1700’s.
The drive from Melrose to Newcastle upon Tyne is 70 or 80 miles depending on how you go. It is some of the most beautifully desolate countryside I have ever seen, especially the Northumberland National Park. It would be a fabulous bike ride but, given the hills, it might require a brisk start to do it in a day.
Such an idea would have been far-fetched for that day, given the preference for collegiality among fellow travelers, but it is not entirely unrealistic.
A small group of British professionals decided to play every court in England and Scotland and to travel by bicycle from each to the other. I believe they accomplished it, and I’d be happy to join them if they did it again. It wouldn’t be “a first” or “an only,” but I’d stand a good chance of being the oldest.
The court at Newcastle is called Jesmond Dene, and it has one of the highest and most beautiful ceilings in the world.
Hamilton, Grassi and Pell were joined by Hamilton’s son, Tom, then a student at the University of Newcastle.
The next day, Catherine Hamilton saw off her husband and the two Americans, while Simmy Pell followed her example by flying home from Edinburgh rather than continuing the tennis jihad. Much discussion of, “such fun, prior commitments and let’s do it again,” but they clearly thought we were nuts. As I write this, I can think of no compelling counter argument.
Farewell waves and kisses were followed by a drive south to Manchester for a couple of hours of doubles with Jamie Bebb followed by dinner at the Manchester Tennis and Racquet Club. It is a lovely place with both a tennis and a rackets court. We hit a few balls there as well.
Americans might not be entirely familiar with the rituals of port. This can be costly because, if the rituals are not precisely followed, fines can be levied. The fines might include whatever anyone at the table can think of, and given the long history of the custom at that club, there were many penalties to draw upon, including additional drams, money damages, the entire dinner check or feats of daring.
First, the decanter must only go around the table in one direction. If I recall correctly, it is clockwise.
Second, the progress of the port must never stop. It must be passed from hand to hand, with glass refilling as needed. In Manchester, this is “encouraged” by the use of a crystal decanter with a pointy bottom. You could not rest it on the table if you wanted to.
Manchester’s “Gentlemen’s Changing Room” includes a sign in the loo that is the finest example of understatement I have ever seen. With luck someone will add the exact words or a photograph in the comments, but the gist is an admonition to make appropriate use of the brush “should the need arise.”
Manchester to London is a reasonable drive and, when we got there, we split up the lodging. Temple Grassi went to stay with Barbara and Donald Carse, Francis with London friends and I spent a week with Chris and Lesley Ronaldson at Hampton Court Palace.
The major event of the time in London was the 1812 Cup an event named for the unpleasantness between England and our young country that led to the burning of the White House.
The 1812 Cup is the creation of Greg Van Schaack and Bill Colegrave, who organize teams to play multiple matches against each other, have festive dinners and make amusing references to Red Coats and Colonists. Of course, there are renditions of Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans.”
Francis Hamilton played for the English side while Temple Grassi and I played for the Americans. Francis was most noteworthy as he is a direct descendent of Robert Ross (later Ross of Bladensburg, a Maryland suburb of Washington), who led the British attack on our capital. Somewhere along the way, Ross perished, and his body was shipped to Halifax in a barrel of rum.
The sword surrendered to him by American Commodore Barney at the end of the Battle of Bladensburg survived and Francis donated it to the Navy War Museum in Washington some years later. An after-action accommodation between Ross and Barney delayed the progress toward Washington and saved many lives.
Over the years we have had a number of players from the British Embassy as members in Washington. Some were Military and Defense Attachés. There are periodic matches played between them and our American members for the Ross Barney Trophy.
That might or might not have been the first time I played on the two courts at Queens Club, but it was the most memorable. With several prior trips to London, it seems inconceivable that I had not played there, but I could find no clear references in my travel records. Hence this is it. Queens became courts number 41 and 42 – among the very last – to be played, despite Queen’s being one of the most famous court tennis venues in the world.
There is a court in England that is not open to the public. It is owned by a member of the Saudi Royal Family.
Fairlawne and Greentree have much in common. Both are privately owned and were once made available for play to friends and subscribers. Fairlawne is now used once a year, with Chris Ronaldson organizing the outings. Greentree is less generous. The Kent countryside southeast of London bears no resemblance whatever to Manhasset, Long Island, at least until you get inside the gates.
At Fairlawne, you get to visit the tennis court, change and play, but you only see the main house from afar. The court itself is in reasonable condition, but there are soft spots in the walls where plaster has pulled away from the underlying structure.
As I recall, Fairlawne had the fluffiest towels I have ever seen. Each one stood nearly 6 inches high when folded on the shelf.
The Cazalet family, descended from émigré French Huguenots, earned their fortune in Russia, bought the property in the 1870s and built the court. Victor Cazalet, who died in a 1943 plane crash with General Sikorski, was the godfather of Elizabeth Taylor. His brother, Peter, who inherited the estate, trained horses for both the Queen and the Queen Mother.
A few of us got together for dinner that evening at the Hurlingham Club in London. They have been trying to build a court tennis court there for about 150 years, but club politics has always gotten in the way.
It is tempting but churlish to tease the current advocates of a court tennis court at that fine club by saying, “ours might have taken a long time, but at least we finished it in the same century as we began.”
On many occasions, the temptation has been too great, and I have succumbed to churlishness.
For example, here is a picture of the Hurlingham Court, 150 years in the making.
Now that was churlish.
If you ask a court tennis player if he has played at Hartham Park or Knightshayes, the answers will fall into two categories. The less experienced will answer “no,” while those with greater tenure in the game will ask, “are there courts there?”
Technically, the answer is no, but there are stické courts in each, the only two playable ones on earth. Apparently, there are also remains of a stické court in India, but it is unplayable. The name stické comes from the Greek sphairistiké, which means “skill in playing at ball.” Major Walter Clopton Wingfield borrowed the Greek name for the game he invented that evolved into lawn tennis.
Like Falkland Palace, the court at Hartham Park is a cousin game to court tennis with an interesting provenance. British soldiers were often posted far from home and some of them must have missed their games. The most imaginative of these discovered artillery targets, which were 9 ft.² reinforced wood panels. These could be lined up side-by-side and one on top of the other to create a comparable shoebox effect to a court tennis court. It was even possible to create a penthouse along one side, but not on the ends as that would have required mitering, which presumably exceeded the carpentry skills of the young artilleryman.
There are none of the openings that characterize a court tennis court nor is there a tambour as those features would also have required for more carpentry skills than were at hand.
The game must originally have been played with standard tennis rackets and balls, but now the custom is to use balls that have been depressurized by spearing them with ice picks, and rackets strung to the tension of butterfly nets.
The stické expedition included Ambassador Grassi, Vaughan Williams, noted slayer of stoats from an earlier episode, Francis Hamilton, John Mears and me. Our host was Geoff Thomas who had bought the house for use as an event venue.
There are about 25 court tennis courts for every stické court and perhaps 75 to 100 times more players. News of our arrival had spread, and a few of the stické enthusiasts turned out to meet the “court tennis delegation.” It was as if we were the International Olympic Committee and, perhaps to them, it might have appeared that we were. They asked all sorts of questions about how our game had become so big and so successful.
Stické itself is far easier than court tennis and is similar to lawn tennis from which it draws its rules. The primary differences between lawn tennis and stické are the sidewalls that are in play and the serve, which must travel along the sloping penthouse as in court tennis.
Unlike court tennis, the stické players take turns serving and they serve from either end. The best doubles teams include a left-hander who serves from one end and a right hander who serves from the other. If you are right-handed and have coveted a court tennis railroad serve, which must be served awkwardly to impart the desired spin, definitely try stické in which you can serve it normally but from the “wrong” end.
Sometimes it is nice to be reminded that, no matter how small or obscure your game might be, there is usually one that is even smaller and more obscure. It would love to be what you are.