Around the World in 50 Courts — Unplayed and Unplayable
In September 1998, U. S. President Bill Clinton was in a spot of bother thanks to a controversy about his relationship with a White House intern called Monica Lewinsky. He fell back on his legal training and attempted a defense of his veracity by saying, “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”
His effort flopped spectacularly and humorously, but this is not a story about Bill and Monica, fun though that might be. It is a story about the meaning of a word. Actually, a word and a phrase.
This “Around the World in 50 Courts” series is about an effort to play in all the court tennis courts in the world and we need to figure out what “all” should mean. If the word means every court that has ever existed, then game, set, match. Nobody has ever done it or ever will. If the word means every court available during your lifetime in the game, the quest at least becomes possible, which makes it a topic of barstool conversation. If I am to have any chance at all, I will have to go “full Bill Clinton” and figure out a reasonable meaning of the word “all.”
It will probably not be a winning argument in the minds of other player/travelers, who have a followed the same path and perhaps it shouldn’t be, but at least it would not be the subject of late-night television skits.
There are at least six courts that have existed during my lifetime and that I should arguably have played if I am to make the “all” claim. They are: Royal Melbourne Tennis Club (Exhibition Street); Bordeaux (Rue Rolland); Versailles; Dublin; Lambay Island; and the Sun Court at Troon. Two others – the court at Harvard and the Clarence Mackey Court on Long Island – fell into disuse close to the time of my birth. The court at Myopia was by then long gone.
Some of these have disappeared entirely and others exist as re-purposed spaces, but it seems unlikely I will ever strike a ball on any of them.
Royal Melbourne Tennis Club (Exhibition Street)
Like many courts, the idea for this one is lost to history, but a court did exist in Hobart in 1875. Beginning in 1881, members of the famed Travers family of Australian tennis players had discussed the idea of a court in Melbourne with members of the Melbourne Club (founded in 1838) and members of the Athenaeum Club (founded in 1868).
Based on the design of Hampton Court, the new one opened on April 23, 1882. In short order, the club was £1000 in debt and losing £450 per year. Halving the rent saved the day and the members finally bought it in 1896. In 1897 Queen Victoria allowed it to be called “Royal.”
On it went through World Wars I and II, both of which pretty much killed court tennis in Australia. There was a proposal to wind up operations in 1941 that was turned aside by a fundraising effort.
Debt increased steadily after World War II as expenses consistently outpaced revenues and ever larger sums were borrowed.
Finally, by the early 1970s, a plan was developed to move to cheaper real estate on the outskirts of the city and, in 1974, three important things happened: the new courts opened; Chris and Lesley Ronaldson arrived; and the Exhibition Street court was closed.
I was playing the game by then and had played in about four American courts, but I never played there, and now I never will. Thoughts of world tours and playing them all would not arise until three decades later.
Bordeaux (Rue Rolland)
The city of Bordeaux flourished on the triangular slave trade and a court tennis court was built in 1787, just in time for the French revolution that dealt a hard blow to the game.
In the 1820s, the court was flipped end for end, which, as far as I know, is the only time that has happened. It would be interesting to know why. Sun and access to ancillary facilities are two possibilities that come to mind.
The court fell into disuse in the years from 1837 to 1879, when it was restored to play. What a fun dinner party it would have been to bring those who restored Bordeaux together with those who built Prince’s Court 120 years later. Or the recently completed court in Merignac 140 years later? Or, indeed, all the Bordeaux courts?
Play continued through the 1920s and 1930s when the financial situation again deteriorated. Like the court on Exhibition Street in Melbourne, this one was sold for its greater downtown real estate value in the 1970s and the club was moved to cheaper land (and a truly hideous building that has since been sold and destroyed) near the airport in Merignac. Again, I could theoretically have played it, but I never did.
A case can be made that Versailles is the most historically significant court in the world.
Louis XIII had been a tennis player from 1610 to 1643. Louis XIV played from 1643 to 1715 though he got too busy after Cardinal Mazarin died in 1661. He came to prefer billiards.
The court in Versailles was built in 1686 but not by Louis XIV and it was not part of the palace itself. Indeed, the King probably never saw it, though the Dauphin played on it at the time of its opening. Its historical significance derives from the “Serment du Jeu de Paume (the tennis court oath).
On June 20, 1789, the tennis court oath, a key event at the start of the French Revolution, was taken. [We now celebrate the date as International Tennis Day throughout the world. Each court plans a special activity and posts pictures online.] Three days earlier, the 577 members of the Third Estate, who had begun calling themselves the National Assembly, were locked out of a meeting of the Estates-General, presumably because King Louis XVI (who had the keys) was displeased with the direction of their discussions.
This is a pattern often observed among kings who are losing power.
In need of an alternate venue, the delegates found their way to a tennis court located in the Saint-Louis District of Versailles near the palace.
There, all but one of the delegates agreed “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the Constitution of the kingdom is established”.
In the ensuing two months or so, the Bastille would fall (July 14), feudalism would be abolished (August 4) and the Rights of Man and Citizen would be declared (August 26).
It was a big day in the evolution of government, but there was more.
Two interesting questions arise from the image of 577 people, perhaps frightened of being punished by the King, gathering in a large empty room.
Since there were no chairs, with whom with the delegates choose to stand?
How did they get in?
Human nature answers the first question. The delegates would tend to congregate among those with whom they agreed. Well, perhaps apart from Joseph Martin-Dauch, the sole delegate who refused to execute a decision not sanctioned by the King. In the famous Jacques-Louis David drawing, Martin-Dauch is depicted in the lower right-hand corner holding his head in his hands.
With thanks to Frederika Adam, here is the answer to the second question. The delegates walked through the door on the left of this picture showing the court itself repurposed as a recently reopened Museum of the French Revolution. The famous David image is recreated on the back wall.
Now combine the two answers. The delegates walk through a door and chose to congregate among those with whom they agree. Some went left and some went right, and this simple act is said to be the origin of the words left wing and right wing as they are applied to politics throughout the world. Unsurprisingly, given the outcome of the French revolution, the court was rarely used after 1789.
Napoleon III restored it to play from 1855 to 1883 and, on June 20 of its final year, it was converted to a Museum of the French Revolution.
It would be a stretch to suggest I should’ve played a court that closed more than six decades before I was born, but the space might have existed recognizably during my lifetime. The same is true of the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris, which exists even today.
In my defense, however, I do understand the pitfalls of hitting tennis balls in art museums.
Sun Court, Troon
Likely, the best description of the history of this court is found in John Schneerson’s “Real Tennis Today and Yesterday” from which this account is excerpted.
In 1905, when the court was built, Troon was a fashionable and prosperous seaside town. Its wealth had been derived from the nearby coal mines and, in due course, docks were built, a shipyard was opened and finally the now-famous golf club.
James Oscar Max Clark (1877–1958) built a summer house with an adjacent tennis court close to the sea and to the golf course. His family had dominated the paisley thread and weaving industry in the 19th century. Unfortunately, Clark sold the house and the court soon after the end of World War I. The court was hardly used, if at all, during the 1920s.
The house was renamed Lindisfarne, but the court fell into disrepair. Both the house and the court were requisition by the Navy in World War II. It was used as a gunnery school, which is generally not conducive to the preservation of a court tennis court. In 1948 the house became the Sun Court Hotel, and the tennis court was used as a storeroom, motorcycle showroom, gymnasium, snooker hall, boxing training area and for badminton.
Alastair and Jill Breckenridge bought the property in 1967 and carried out extensive renovations. The court reopened on October 11 and 12, 1969, curiously 28 years to the day before the opening of Prince’s Court. In December 1978, Chris Ronaldson arrived to begin another of his resurrections and, after less than a year, left the court at full occupancy.
The court was in regular use until it was sold in 1989 on the condition that the future of tennis was guaranteed. Subsequent owners failed to honor the commitment and the court fell into disrepair until a battle ensued between the options of tearing it down and turning it into a listed building. Though the owner lost that fight and thus the ability to demolish it, the court appears to be in the process of self-demolition.
The court on St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin was built by Edward Cecil Guinness, the first Earl of Iveagh. His family had donated St. Stephen’s Green itself to the City of Dublin and his father was the richest man in Ireland. It has a skylit roof and a black limestone floor often mistaken for marble. The first world championship to be held at a private court was hosted there in 1890.
Rupert Guinness, the second Earl of Iveagh, donated it to the nation of Ireland with the express wish that it be used for court tennis, but this wish has been consistently violated and the court has been used for a variety of purposes including a gym, laboratory, and offices. It now houses an Irish government department.
It was never in play in my lifetime, but the space exists, and it could be restored, which is pretty much the raison d’être of the Irish Real Tennis Association.
It serves as a reminder to get your charitable wishes agreed-upon in writing before you give away assets.
Lambay Island, Ireland
Cecil Baring was a driving force behind the construction of Tuxedo in the late 1800s. During that time, he seems to have encountered Maude Lorillard, daughter of founder Pierre Lorillard and wife of Tuxedo notable, T. Suffern Tailer.
Encounter might be too gentle a word because their legendary affair is thought to have necessitated his departure from: (1) Tuxedo Park; (2) the United States; and (3) Baring’s Bank.
He bought an island 4 miles off the coast of Ireland in 1904 and built a court. The court itself is quite unusual as it has penthouses on both sides, to say nothing of being outdoors.
[Note: outdoor court tennis is not an entirely bad idea, but architects, developers and owners are well advised to take note of the weather. Scotland and Ireland, sites of the only two outdoor courts in the world, might not be best suited to frequent outdoor play.]
Here is a quote from an email I received from Louis Jebb, a Baring great grandson and leader of an effort to restore the court.
After the end of the first world war, Lutyens [Baring’s architect] turned his attention to the seafront on the ground below the castle walls. A new boat house, barns and sheds went up, and the ensemble was completed with the building of the tennis court, raised up on a buttress above the west-facing beach, in 1921. The court always had unique elements in its design. It is built of cement with iron reinforcing, with the chases marked on the floor with pink and gray pigments, and on the walls with shamrocks. When first erected in 1921, the main wall was solid only to head height at either end and to waist height at the end of the galleries at either side of the net. The rest of the main wall was made up of tightly drawn mesh hung on what appear in old photographs to be iron upright poles. This device was presumably an accommodation to the prevailing westerly wind and to maintaining a sea view across the county north of Dublin.
This arrangement was plainly deemed a failure as the following year the main wall was radically altered. A main-wall penthouse, with its own galleries, was built out towards the beach, with openings on to wide steps down to the sand. The penthouse stretches as far either side of the net as the galleries on the service penthouse, with angled walls at either end creating a whole wealth of extra possible shots from either end of the court, the most obvious being an angled boast from the service end into the winning gallery.
The court has been played, perhaps most notably by Prince Edward during his world tour and I have been discussing this project with Louis Jebb for the last 20 years.
Like Troon, it’s absence from my life list is a blot on my copy book.
The court at Myopia Hunt Club, on the North Shore of Boston was last played in 1932, but the building exists. Sometime during his tenure as United States Court Tennis Association President and mine as Chairman of the United States Court Tennis Preservation Foundation, Jim Wharton and I visited the court to discuss the possibility of restoring it to play.
By the late 2000s, it had become the golf course maintenance building and it housed the lawn mowers and other machinery, but the tambour was still visible and there was evidence of the top of the penthouses on the side walls.
Apparently, there was little interest among the members and the club had other, more pressing, priorities. For example, it needed an entirely new electrical system as the existing one was described as “a bunch of extension cords leading from the road to the clubhouse.”
Our host took us to lunch and joined in a lively conversation about the game, but as a project, it was the fastest non-starter I have ever experienced.
The Meaning of “Court Tennis Court”
Now that we have dispensed with the meaning of the word “all,” we must address the question of the phrase “court tennis court.”
This arises because of the existence of any number of courts in southwestern France that resemble court tennis courts but do not include the same features or dimensions.
Thanks to the efforts of Simon Berry and others, several of them are being used as court tennis courts and there is a periodic tournament called Le Tournoi des Trois Tripots that has become one of the most popular in the world.
It is played on the courts at Pau, Bayonne, Clairence La Bastide and perhaps even a fourth in Urrugne near St. Jean de Luz.
Pau counts because it once was a court tennis court and could easily be again.
The others might be close enough but what of the dozens that were never intended for the game?
Ultimately each of us must make our own decisions, but if there are flaws in a case, it is best to point them out yourself.