Around the World in 50 Courts; The Halfway Mark

In July 2002, my daughter, soon to be a college junior, decided she needed to tune up her French so off she went for six weeks in Paris with a roommate. My wife and I followed at mid-month for a few days of parental reconnaissance, a couple of business meetings and the continuing quest to play all of the courts in the world.

We arrived on the same day as another of their roommates and joined the three of them for dinner with their host family in the Place de Clichy near Montmartre. The area might have been a little sketchy but probably no more so than Le Marais where we were staying.

The jetlagged newcomer roommate was not there for the language and, toward the end of the dinner, after much translating for the host family, she asked “is there one phrase I should know that will be useful throughout the trip?”

My daughter and her now-veteran-Parisian roommate (they had been there for two weeks) piped up in unison, “ne me touche pas.” Don’t touch me.

Apparently, they had discovered a difference between Parisian mores about college girls and those they were accustomed to in Cambridge.

Not necessarily entirely comforting for the parents, but she would be 21 in a month, so we just looked at each other and shrugged.

On July 13, our anniversary, we rented a car and took the three girls to Fontainebleau, ostensibly to show them INSEAD as an alternative to the business schools known through the college grapevine to the budding capitalists.

But you know the real reason. I wanted to play tennis at the world’s largest court located at Fontainebleau Palace. Rudy Chelminski, an American reporter who was then president of the club, hosted us for a lovely picnic lunch at his house then sent me off to play singles in the afternoon. Thank God I don’t drink, or I would surely have died on that huge playing surface.

The court at Fontainebleau has several unusual features.

It is larger than normal because it followed the original dimensions of a series of outdoor courts that were actually designed for triples not doubles or singles.

There were many iterations, both outdoor and in, that led to the design of the existing court:  Francois I (along with a rebuilding of the entire palace between 1528 and 1540); Henry IV (1599 and 1601); and Louis XV, though he was only a spectator not a player, (1732 thanks to a fire 30 years earlier). As always, the revolution was unkind to court tennis and the court was in disuse for a long period from 1789 and again from World War I to 1990.

The second unusual aspect is that it has two doors rather than the one we are used to at the net. Of course, this makes little difference as the features are the same for everyone and we all learn to deal with them. In 2008, I attended the world championship played there and, if the best in the world can deal with differences among courts, the rest of us can too.

It also has a flat ceiling above the clerestory windows with a wonderful crest painted on it. As I looked skyward in frustration at miscues, I imaged the centuries of others who had seen the crest at similar moments.



Arnaud Domange and Kate Leeming were the head professionals at the time, but Kate was just off knee surgery and was not playing. Apparently, the knee has gotten better as Kate now spends her life on extraordinary solo bicycle expeditions to unusual places like Antarctica.

They found an opponent of appropriate standard and it seems like we played a vast number of sets of singles, the outcome of which escapes me. At the end, he asked if I was in the military because he thought I ran a lot. The outcome no longer mattered. That was the win.

Bastille Day seemed like a pretty good day for a tour of Versailles even though the famous tennis court oath (Serment du Jeu de Paume) had actually taken place on June 20, 1789. The Estates General commandeered the court when Louis XVI, correctly anticipating that things might not go well for him, locked them out of all the other rooms large enough for the gathering.

The court was not actually owned by the king; it was built by two “paumiers.” (In French court tennis is called Jeu de Paume – game of the palm – because it was originally played bare handed. Hence a professional or court manager is called a “paumier” or “maître paumier.”) They made their living renting it out to players and gamblers. It was the scene of an oath passed by 576 to 1 not to separate until a new constitution had been established. It was the actual beginning of the French Revolution that became better known when the Bastille was stormed about three weeks later.

By now, you have seen many pictures of court tennis courts and you might be curious how 577 people would fit into one of them. Well, they enter through the same door that we do today. But what do those people do when they represent every part of French society other than the nobility and the clergy? The answer is that they do just what you would do: they go and stand with her friends and allies while glaring across the net at the others.

Given the placement of the door, some went to the left and others to the right when entering the court and this is the origin of the concepts of left and right in politics throughout the world today.

The next and last court in France for this trip was Paris. Despite a spectacular navigational error of walking the 4 miles from Le Marais to Rue Lauriston, I barely arrived in time for two hours of morning singles with Laredo Massip, the professional.

At least the walk sent me past the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume on the way there and back. It is now an art museum located in the Tuileries near the Place de la Concorde, but it began as a court tennis court.

The Paris court has both clerestory windows and a greenhouse ceiling which provide perhaps the best natural light of any court on earth. If anything, perhaps too much of it. There are also lots of shadows. Sunglasses would have been nice on a bright July Paris day.

As in all French courts, the chase lines extend to 12 or even 14 rather than 6 though they are spaced closer together. To the Anglophone ear, calling a chase as “the last gallery would win by one” adds an element of confusion to a game already possessed with a good dose of complexity.

There was much sightseeing with our daughter and her friends that curiously centered on the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume and, by the time my wife and I took the Eurostar to London, “ne me touche pas”(don’t touch me) had been replaced by “assez du jeu de paume” (enough court tennis) as the most useful French phrase to know.

The Royal Leamington Tennis Court Club in Leamington Spa was the first stop in England. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, later Emperor Napoleon III of France, spent his exile in Leamington spa but there was no court at the time.

In 1844, the absence of a gentlemen’s club in the town drew leading citizens to create one and they included a court tennis court. There was a little play between the world wars because of an absence of young people, but it revived as a center of play and entertainment, especially under the chairmanship of John Camkin that began in 1978.

Francis Hamilton was again our host and several of us had a morning game and lunch at Leamington before moving on to nearby Moreton Morrell. Had we drunk the champagne on offer at lunch, Moreton Morrell would have turned into a near death experience.

The Moreton Morrell Tennis Court Club was built in 1904-1905 as a private court owned by an American, Charles Tuller Garland, whose father had enjoyed great success as a banker. He also built a cricket pitch and a polo field. Around the time Garland died, the property was sold to Colonel R J L Ogilby. In 1963 a group of subscribers, assisted by Garland’s daughters, bought the court to be operated as a club.

Again, we had two hours of enjoyable doubles that would have been significantly diminished had we not avoided the lunchtime champagne.

The court at Oratory School opened in 1989. It was a lifetime project of Adrian Snow, the school’s headmaster from 1972 to 1988. Oratory advanced the art of watching a game that is played inside a box by adding glass to various walls with rooms behind for spectators.

I have now had the pleasure of playing there several times and they always seem to come up with skilled opponents to create challenging games. Given its location amid several other courts in the Thames Valley, there are many from whom to choose.

Men’s world champion, Rob Fahey and women’s world champion, Claire Fahey have just become co-head professionals at The Oratory, which is a positive sign for the future.

We went back to Hardwick in the afternoon, but more about that in connection with their centennial (Centenary in England) that would happen five years later.

The final day included a cricket match at John Paul Getty’s country house. Fortunately, that was a spectator activity and we were seated comfortably on the lawn as I was seriously confused by such routine concepts as overs.

On this trip, I passed the halfway mark toward completing the world tour, but I still had a job and it was time to go home.





11 Responses to “Around the World in 50 Courts; The Halfway Mark”

Tim Harrison, September 29, 2020 at 9:30 am said:

Fontainebleau is the only court I’ve been to with actual doors at The Door(s) – although when we played there, one was out of action, and we had to walk under the net. Did you walk along the “balcony” on the end walls ? Not for the faint-hearted !
Did you go upstairs at Leamington ? You can get above the Main Wall for a great view. I recall the refreshments at Leamington and Moreton were excellent.


Haven Pell, September 29, 2020 at 2:19 pm said:

Tim, I had forgotten about that narrow balcony but I was up there in 2008 during the world championship. I guess Francois I did not have architectural safety reviews in the 1600s. I did not make a similar excursion at Leamington.


Temple Grassi, September 29, 2020 at 6:20 pm said:

In Paris you can stay in a hotel that used to be a jeu de paume. Estimates vary, but some say that at the time of The Revolution there were 500 courts in Paris alone.

In the picture of the Tennis Court oath, you will notice that many of the participants appear to be overcome with emotion. As you know , the French are an emotional ‘crowd’. So do yourself a favor and go to Aiken and ask to play with Francois ver Glas! He is the quintessential Frenchman. His hand gestures, facial expressions, and vocal outbreaks are typical of the passionate French player ( OH,NO! MON DIEU! OO LA LA! )


Haven Pell, September 29, 2020 at 7:28 pm said:

I should have added the idea of 500 courts in Paris alone plus the story of the court on a boat that capsized in the Seine even though some might be apocryphal.


Temple Grassi, September 29, 2020 at 7:45 pm said:

The fashionable ladies of Paris would put minature Courts in their hair do! No joke , this game was huge in France. Maybe some of our French players will chime in on this- in French! So cool!

Alexander G. Walsh, October 02, 2020 at 3:37 pm said:

Great job Haven. Fontainebleau is the bounciest court ever & the palace with it’s furnishings is in many ways better than Versailles. One of Napoleon’s abdications was there. Great place & well worth the trip.


Haven Pell, October 02, 2020 at 5:43 pm said:

Maybe that is the trick to “older people tennis” a really bouncy court and a lot of running around?


Dale Jenkins, September 04, 2022 at 1:52 pm said:

You are doing God’s work with your descriptions of the various courts. How close are you now to fifty?


Haven Pell, September 04, 2022 at 5:34 pm said:

Dale, Technically I have played every existing court in the world but the one we are building in Washington is about to be completed. I doubt I will have much trouble getting on it. In an odd quirk, I have played more courts than there are.


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