Around the World in 50 Courts – The Eclipse Tour
The decade of working to bring court tennis to Washington was behind us, but we had no idea how much lay ahead. The game does not sell itself, and the ongoing effort to recruit players gave rise to a new name for Temple Grassi – the Ambassador. He has continued to lead that effort for nearly 25 years.
We had also begun to realize how little we really knew of the game as a whole, and we decided to see how our new-to-us court tennis compatriots lived and played.
Two of our board members throughout the development of Prince’s Court had moved back to England though they did attend the opening celebration in October 1997.
Brigadier Ian B. R. Fowler had completed his tour of duty at the British Embassy in Washington and returned to Broad Chalke in the south of England with his wife, Jan, after retiring from the British Army.
Francis and Catherine Hamilton had also returned to London and Oxfordshire after many years in Washington while he was with the International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank.
A bit like Moses and the Promised Land, the Fowlers and Hamiltons did not get to enjoy the result of their volunteer development efforts in Washington. Both of their contributions to our court are recognized by the Fowler-Hamilton Cup, a handsome trophy awarded (but not given to) the winner of any competition between a touring British side and Washington.
We missed them and, in the winter of 1999, began to plan a trip to play some courts in England during the summer of the eclipse that would pass over Cornwall, the southern part of England, and the northern part of France. With the date of the eclipse firmly fixed at August 11, we set ours (August 6-14) to bracket it.
Should you ever organize such an effort, I strongly recommend including a recently retired British Army officer who is steeped in logistics. In an era when email was barely nudging faxes aside, Ian Fowler prepared eight separate versions of the itinerary. Each included names, addresses, phone and fax numbers, opponents (with handicaps), match pairings and names of dinner guests.
2020 readers will be entirely unable to relate to handwritten entries in my giant Day-Timer calendar that kept the logistics organized. The stack of paper is ¾ of an inch high, with all sorts of attachments related to various events. Today, all of this information would be far more conveniently contained in a mobile phone, which would also have provided significantly more in-the-moment decision making and flexibility. Nonetheless, so it was, and it was a lot better than my grandfather’s era when he traveled by sea, or my father’s era when he and Alastair Martin hired an assistant tennis professional to drive them from court to court.
A second important requirement is a car to transport what became a five-person traveling team: Fowler and Hamilton, who would only occasionally be joined by wives too clever to commit to the entire trip; Temple Grassi; me; and my then 21-year old son, Willy. Our wives were also too clever for this venture, staying home to look after other children. Or so they said.
When he left Washington, Hamilton shipped his 1993 Oldsmobile 88 Royale back to England where he happily drove it to the end of its useful life despite the inconvenience of left-hand drive. Here is the mighty Oldsmobile in service at the wedding of his older daughter in 2003.
As important as a car of sufficient size to accommodate five players plus gear might be, the ability to navigate from place to place is at least equally so.
The very first “Sat-Navs” were being marketed to gadget obsessed males who were also known for resistance to direction following. For the marketers, the solution to this problem was to provide a seductive female voice to utter such phrases as “take the sliproad on the left” or “enter the roundabout and take the third turning.” She quickly became known to our group as the “tart in the sky,” a name that also provided a most unfortunate but entirely intentional acronym. (See earlier references to wives cleverly absenting themselves.)
In 1999, there was another anachronistic step that had to be taken. The governing bodies of the game in the various countries had to approve tours. Likely that says more about communication decades earlier because governing bodies are slow to change procedures.
The approval process technically required an application to the United States Court Tennis Association including names of participants, their handicaps, the precise date of each court visit and so forth. This would then be passed along to the Tennis & Rackets Association in England and thence to each club to be visited in quest of approvals adorned with wax seals. (Okay, I made up the wax seal part.)
This was plainly impractical and was certainly short circuited at least by us though, technically, the “rule” would remain in place for about another decade until obsolescence was acknowledged.
On Thursday, August 5, 1999, the team assembled at the Hamiltons’ house on 30 Sussex St., London SW1. There, among other things, we were introduced to a room that was actually under the street (or at least the sidewalk). It had a trap door in the ceiling through which coal could be dumped, though it was no longer in use and probably had not been in quite some years. Likely, many such rooms have been repurposed as wine cellars.
Uniform or Suit, Decorations, No Swords
So were we admonished on the tickets to the Sovereign’s Parade at Sandhurst, which was to be our first stop.
It is welcome news to the international traveler that he need not explain the reason for a sword in his luggage to air travel officials, even though the attack on the World Trade Center and resulting airline security checks were still more than two years in the future.
The parade is also known as the passing out ceremony for new graduates — both male and female — of the Royal Military Academy. At a reception before the parade, we talked with several of them and many appeared headed for Afghanistan, even then.
Iain Park-Weir, of 1994 Philadelphia scrapple fame, was the Sandhurst Chief Protocol Officer and, despite his many other obligations on such an important day, saw to introducing us to those real tennis players who also had army ties. There were many.
We were also shown the ceremonial cannons used by officers-to-be for shooting croquet balls further and less accurately then was probably prudent, especially after the consumption of strong drink, which was most often the case.
Readers have different desires. Writers about travel have to help them experience the place without overwhelming them with unnecessary details. “The train left at 6:14 PM” will not resonate as much as a description of the steam engine lurching into motion.
Those who write about sports cater to readers who want results, highlights and, increasingly, human interest, but sports writers tend to write about important events, and the Eclipse Tour was emphatically not in that category. Results of obscure tournaments are tedious enough but results of friendly games are clearly excessive.
With more than 40 courts to go in this world tour, that is an important caveat. It is also especially important for you, the reader, to know that I, the writer, know that too.
Some readers will want to read every detail about their home court, and, in many ways, they are akin to parents who want to see their child’s name in the report of a game. Nothing unreasonable about that, but there are other excellent sources of additional information for those who get hooked.
It is a delicate balance given the range of readers, but there is one thing upon which we can all agree. The “then we ate prawns” problem – a mention of the routine events that always happen – is deeply into crashing bore territory and must always be avoided.
With that in mind, let the Eclipse Tour games begin.
Fourteen Courts in Nine Days
Fortunately, about half of the courts in the world are located in the southern part of England, and they are easily accessed from London or from each other. It is not unreasonable to get up in the morning, play on one from 10:00 to noon, grab a quick lunch at a pub and play another from 3:00 to 5:00 before dinner and bed. The day would generally include a hundred or so miles of driving under the soothing guidance of the Tart in the Sky.
That is a pretty good description of most of the days and, even if I could remember the details, I would leave them out. Think an unlikely group of five men who had been brought together by exposure to a most unusual game enjoying an adventure to say nothing of each other’s company.
Here is a map of the first half of the trip
Uninjured by croquet balls shot by cadets from cannons, we arrived at Holyport for the first tennis stop on the tour.
It is a pleasing free-standing building with a clubroom that might once have been a swimming pool at one end. Since there were five of us, we must either have taken turns or been joined by local players.
The court has had two near death experiences but, on each occasion, has been rescued. Our visit was about midway between rescue one and rescue two.
We were unable to visit George Wharton’s lodgings under the grill penthouse, whence he departed to become the head professional in Newport. I’m not sure I even knew that story at the time.
The economics of a single freestanding court are a challenge, made easier by listed building status thus reducing the value of the land and structure to others; but, ultimately, they all seem to require patient benefactors.
We stayed two nights in Broad Chalke and played at Canford School on the intervening day. Steve Ronaldson was and is the head professional and is reputedly the best ball maker in the world. He makes them all for every world championship.
He is also known for his tricky serves though it is possible he got an assist from the sandpaper-like surfaces of the penthouses that existed at the time. A court has existed at Canford since 1541 but nobody knows precisely where. The existing court dates from 1879.
Thanks to Ian Fowler, a sizable Canford delegation had attended the Prince’s Court opening two years earlier and some of them turned up for our return visit.
Though Broad Chalke is a tiny village, it is not too small for an annual flower show nor too small to support an enthusiastic cadre of church bell ringers, an activity we were able to observe but not try lest we inadvertently hang ourselves.
If King Arthur had played court tennis, he would surely have played at Hyde House in Bridport near the south coast of England. The building is constructed of huge stones and is perched on a hill that invites a strong wind to provide an appropriately foreboding atmosphere.
As seems to have happened often, this is the second Hyde Court. It was built in 1883 and revived in 1998. It had been requisitioned by the US Army in World War II and not treated kindly. It was originally lit by clerestory windows above the main and penthouse walls, which seems to have been the optimal pre-electricity design. Of course, proper lighting has since been installed.
The sword in the crest is sometimes replaced with a tennis racket and, allegedly, the tambour has a twist as it ascends, sending the ball off at different angles depending on how high you hit it. Like golf courses that penalize mistakes and reward excellence, this might be a feature worth emulating but it would assuredly be controversial.
Later in the afternoon, we played at Bristol Real Tennis Club, another court built in 1998, though this one from scratch. The project began as a restoration that later proved unfeasible but was completed on the grounds of Clifton College.
Modern purpose-built courts are likely to play more consistently than older ones, but you don’t get the feeling that King Arthur might have played there.
For those who favor anything quirky about court tennis, the Bristol Real Tennis Club, then known as Bristol & Bath has the best address in the game — Beggar’s Bush Playing Fields.
Petworth House was the next stop and, to me, the most notable feature of Lord Egremont’s estate is that the deer park is located inside the walls. Fourteen miles of walls. Should a deer park be a part of your housing needs, this is an important consideration, as you would not wish to be snubbed or looked down upon by other deer park owners.
Courts on the property date from the 1500s and the present one was built in 1700, though later destroyed by fire. It was moved stone by stone to a different location not once but twice since then.
According to John Shneerson in “Real Tennis Today and Yesterday,” a handsome book well worth owning, “The Reverend Thomas Sockett was appointed Rector in 1796 and was also the Earl’s Secretary and tutor to his 43 children, who together with his 15 mistresses all lived at Petworth House.”
Apart from jousting, it might be difficult to find another sport with such a colorful past.
Again, the day provided a contrast between old and new or as our second stop was Seacourt at Hayling Island, built in 1911, the very same century in which we played it. It was a rescue in 1960, this time by the Danby family, among others, who have become synonymous with the court ever since.
This court favors cut, and it makes even a moderate player feel like a champion as the ball dives to the ground off the back wall. He feels less so when this is done to him, however.
Hayling Island might be the only venue in the world in which a racket sports enthusiast can play court tennis, lawn tennis, squash, rackets and badminton, a one-stop quintathlon.
On August 10, we got an early start to drive from Broad Chalke to London to play at the Marylebone Cricket Club also known as Lord’s. The tennis court, originally built by Thomas Lord in 1838, is part of the Mecca of world cricket and includes a full-sized stadium surrounding the cricket ground.
To describe one court tennis court as more traditional than others is to risk losing the non-tennis playing audience because all of them appear to be far more traditional than tennis as they know it. That notwithstanding, Lord’s is more traditional than others. In 1999, white balls were still in use though they had been replaced by yellow virtually everywhere else.
If you ever hear of professionals drawing post-match baths for members, it is probably a reference to Lord’s. The giant bathtubs remained in 1999, but you were on your own to manage depth and temperature.
Cricket itself remains elusive to me, but we visited the Long Room, which overlooks the cricket ground. It is more or less like going to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
On one occasion, a ball hit by a batsman struck a robin in flight and the ill-fated bird is also honored in the Long Room.
By now our youngest teammate, Willy Pell age 21, had been putting up with four people well into their 50s for several days and one of the attractions of the entire trip to him was seeing the eclipse on Wednesday, August 11. The initial plan was for him to take a train to Cornwall, but the weather was not looking favorable, so he changed course and went to Lille in France, where he reportedly did see the eclipse at a popular viewing spot for his demographic. He reported no other activities during that venture, and nobody asked. As they say in Vegas, “what happens in Lille stays in Lille.”
Here is the second part of the trip.
Hampton Court Palace is the site of the Royal Tennis Court built by Cardinal Wolsey for Henry VIII beginning in 1526.
According to its crest, the tennis court came into play in 1530 and, at the time I was there, it was in mid-Ronaldson dynasty with Chris, Lesley and Ben all employed as professionals — and living at — the palace. There are rather a lot of apartments to choose from.
Our professional in Washington is Chris and Lesley’s son, Ivan. A member once asked him where he grew up and he replied, “well, in a palace.”
As with other older (i. e. pre-electricity) courts, it was also originally illuminated by clerestory windows. If I seem obsessed with that idea, it is because the solution seems a significant improvement over greenhouse roofs.
As I stood in the doorway leading to the vast gardens and park area that includes a golf course, I had an unusual déjà vu of having been there before. Though it took some time to figure it out, I realized that I had been there 40 years earlier on a sightseeing tour as a 13-year-old.
On Wednesday, August 11 from 10 AM to 12:30 PM, the eclipse was to be visible. Unsurprisingly, given the fickle English weather, it was not.
We took a glance skyward from the parking lot at Prested Hall before playing both of the courts that had been completed only two months earlier.
Mike Carter had built the courts mostly by himself with plans that were more fluid than firm. Perhaps he is descended from someone who had moved the Petworth court stone by stone on two occasions?
He chose to mark out the chases with different colored striping. It was also the heyday of glass walls and spectator viewing. Mike chose to locate his behind the receiver.
We played both courts and moved on to Newmarket, a court built by Sir Charles Rose in the Kentucky of British horseracing. More about Rose when we get to Hardwick, another court he built.
The court in Newmarket towers over its surroundings as four-story buildings often do when located in villages. If the tart in the sky is confused by the precise location, the clever motorist need only glance above the surrounding roofline.
Its interior is maroon and blue, the colors of Rose’s racing silks. Built in 1901 the court was a relative newcomer, but it has also had its tribulations, serving for a time as an auto repair shop. In 1999, there was a motorcycle dealer, but at least it was next-door.
Elizabeth I spent a good deal more time at Hatfield House than we did. She grew up there and later alternated between Hatfield and the Tower of London, while England fought the Protestant / Catholic battle between Mary and her. Had a court existed at Hatfield House at the time, the entire history of women’s court tennis might have taken a sharp turn.
The penthouses are pink, and the floor is flagstone, played smooth since it was built in 1842.
If you go down the hill, you will find a pub on the right at the foot of the street. A little plaque informs that it was a scene in a Charles Dickens novel, a touch it makes traveling in England a delight.
If a second “touch” is needed, we had cocktails that evening with David Winstead who had rented John Betjeman’s house from the Landmark Trust. Betjeman was Poet Laureate from 1972 to 1985.
He was also the author of “A Subaltern’s Love Song,” which I recited to my lawn tennis playing wife at our bridal dinner. I have a near perfect record of stumbling through the ending and it happened again on that occasion. It is lucky this story is not a podcast or a video, but here is a link to the poem.
Hardwick house deserves a story all of its own, but I have now played there several times and there will be other opportunities. You might even learn why the Canadian maple leaf features in the family crest.
Charles Rose built a court within sight of the Thames in 1896 and, according to the Times, it was “nearly as perfect as foresight and sagacity can make it.”
That would not do for Rose, who packed his wife off on a round-the-world trip in 1907 and built a new one in her beloved rose garden thus cutting off the view of the Thames from the house. We can speculate on her response when she got home. The reason suggested was that the new one was closer to his house and thus a shorter walk. The remains of the old court were visible a short distance down the drive. The vestiges of a fives court also remain.
Perhaps, it was muted because she had become accustomed to a husband, after whom the Mr. Toad character in Wind in the Willows was fashioned.
We had an all-day team match in which various pairings of our five played against various Hardwick members.
At the end of a multi-day, multi-court tour, two things can happen. You can play very well because you’ve been playing every day — often twice — for two weeks or your body can have been destroyed and you can barely move. Fortunately for us, it was the preferred outcome.
Throughout the day, Lady Rose, then in her late 80s or 90s sat in the center of the front row of the dedans spurring her side on. Probably in an act of hospitality, the home team lost the decisive final match. One of the players apologized to Lady Rose for letting down the side and she replied, “if you’d but bent your knees.”
Our final stop was Merton College, Oxford, which has been home to a court tennis court since at least 1595, with the current one dating from 1798. I am told it is the smallest court in the world, by several feet.
Court dimensions are not standard throughout the game. They had better not be because we would not want to reduce the already small number of courts by disqualifying any of them.
The smaller the court, the greater the emphasis on touch and finesse. This is well-known to those like me who possess neither.
One of our Oxford opponents looked like a rugby player – strong and mobile. After the match we asked how he learned about the game. This is quite a standard question for court tennis people to ask because we are always looking for the magic solution to increasing our numbers.
He replied that he was a plumber and had been “called round to fix the loo.” He asked what was going on and more or less never left.
We were guests at a dinner hosted by an antiquarian book seller called Philip Powell-Jones. The members of the Oxford Senior Tennis Club (as distinct from the Oxford University Tennis Club, which shares the court) joined us for a sizable pig roasted on a spit.
Perhaps you have an impression of what a court tennis playing antiquarian book seller might look like? Perhaps your impression includes tiny glasses worn far down the nose? You could be forgiven if you did.
In looking around the house during the course of the evening, I noticed what seemed to be an unusual number of photographs of a British Army officer standing on craggy mountain tops accompanied by far shorter but extremely tough looking Nepalese in similar knee length shorts with long socks. There were also several knives with curved blades hung on various walls.
Philip Powell-Jones was a retired general in the Gurkhas.
If playing a medieval game with a Gurkha general cum antiquarian book seller at one of the world’s oldest universities is not enough to draw you into the game, I’m not sure what else I have to offer.
Heathrow to home put played to a trip that added 14 courts to the life list.
We had played in more than a quarter of the world’s courts in a week and a half, but geographically these are the easy ones. The Thames Valley has the largest concentration of court tennis courts in the world. Lifetime, almost half of the world’s courts had now been played, but the remaining ones were to prove a far greater geographical challenge.