Around the World in 50 Courts – A Fearsome Dog and An Unfair Nickname
The journey continues with a non-tour of the unplayed American courts. Many overseas visitors tour the United States, playing each court in succession over a short period of time and I suppose some Americans do the same, but I never did.
Playing lots of courts in short order is more appealing when traveling abroad. We will have to leave tales of raucous American road trips to those who have made them. The recordkeeping gets worse too. Keeping track of hithers and thithers must relate to carrying a passport.
This month we will visit four courts: Aiken, Chicago, Lakewood and Noank. The first three are widely known but the fourth will draw howls of derision from those who have tried to play them all.
The four visits took place from 2005 through 2012 so the anecdotes should have been sprinkled about among the other chapters, but chronology is probably overrated so let’s try alphabetically.
It is the height of silliness that I have only been to Aiken once. I had a wonderful weekend there.
Why on earth is there a court tennis court in rural South Carolina? The less than obvious answer is horses.
Aiken is well-suited to horses of all variety — polo ponies, thoroughbreds and steeplechasers — it has something to do with the soil (loamy, whatever that is) and winter climate (neither Florida nor New York).
Thomas Hitchcock and William Collins Whitney lead the development of Aiken as a “winter colony” (the preferred term) for horse owners from New York and Boston. Both have roads (actually lanes) named for their families in Old Westbury, Long Island, where horses used to spend the spring summer and fall. In Old Westbury, that came to an end when Robert Moses, a Democratic operative, carved a highway through the fox hunting and polo fields enjoyed by those who rarely voted as he wished.
Apparently, the Aiken winter colonists didn’t spend all of their time with their horses, so they brought court tennis, another favored activity, with them.
Beware communities dependent on ultra-high-end recreation. An economic whiplash is most severe at the business end of the whip. The Aiken court has not always flourished, and, at times, its very survival has depended on its being endowed by the founders.
For a club that has rarely, in its 120 or so year history, had 100 members, there is another anomaly. It has produced four world champions: Norty Knox, Pete Bostwick, Jimmy Bostwick (also with a lane in Old Westbury named for them) and Camden Riviere. The first three probably owe some credit to Pierre Etchebaster, another world champion, who, for many years, spent a month there during the winter colony season.
At first, the Aiken Tennis Club was only the court tennis court, but, along the way, the members added a club room the featured a pool table. The traditional game is bottle pool as depicted on the Aiken crest.
Aiken hosts two tournaments a year. The Aiken doubles, now renamed for Norty Knox, is for good players and it is played in the spring, conveniently on a weekend adjacent to the Masters golf tournament in nearby Augusta.
The other is played in the fall and is for mid-level players. It is named for Calhoun Whitham, an Aiken stalwart. That event was the reason for my visit in 2004. My partner was Melissa Grassi, daughter of “the Ambassador,” and we made it to the final only to lose to a pair of overseas visitors, who found their way into our heads with various psych-out ploys including drinking Bloody Marys and Bullshots at each changeover.
The court in Chicago has been out of commission, as a court tennis court, longer than it has been in use. It was built in the early 1920s, but the depression killed it, and it was converted to indoor lawn tennis in the 1930s. So, it remained, not fit for either purpose, until it was restored as a court tennis court and reopened in September 2012.
Efforts to reconvert it to court tennis flared sporadically for 20 or 30 years. As with most major decisions at clubs, there were two sides with strongly held views. One liked the undersized lawn tennis court. It had been the first indoor court in Chicago and was thought to attract members during the Depression.
Eventually, it was not as good as the proper indoor tennis courts in the city, so popularity dwindled. The actuarial tables did the rest. As the devotées of the converted court died off, the reconversion side finally won the day.
In the early 1980s, the fight became so rancorous that it contributed to Freddy and Diana Prince moving to Washington and thus did court tennis in our nation’s capital come to pass.
The Chicago Racquet Club is one of the most inviting court tennis venues in the world. There are rooms for guests, the club is traditional and lovely, ladies are welcome and the geographic relationship between the court and the adjacent bar and clubroom is as good as any in the game.
Every club has a crest, but Chicago has a mascot — Billy the Rat Killing Dog. He appears on their ties.
Since it is 2021, every narrative should include a trigger warning, and this is it. The following quote from the October 1822 edition of The Sporting Magazine might well be too much for modern readers. If so, just give it a scan. Or look at the picture at the top of the story.
“Thursday night, Oct. 24, at a quarter before eight o’clock, the lovers of rat killing enjoyed a feast of delight in a prodigious raticide at the Cockpit, Westminster. The place was crowded. The famous dog Billy, of rat-killing notoriety, 26 lb. weight, was wagered, for 20 sovereigns, to kill 100 rats in 12 minutes. The rats were turned out loose at once in a 12-foot square, and the floor whitened, so that the rats might be visible to all. The set-to began, and Billy exerted himself to the utmost. At four minutes and three-quarters, as the hero’s head was covered with gore, he was removed from the pit, and his chaps being washed, he lapped some water to cool his throat. Again, he entered the arena, and in vain did the unfortunate victims labour to obtain security by climbing against the sides of the pit, or by crouching beneath the hero. By twos and threes, they were caught, and soon their mangled corpses proved the valour of the victor. Some of the flying enemy, more valiant than the rest, endeavoured by seizing this Quinhus Flestrum [somebody please translate this in the comments; I am eager to know] of heroic dogs by the ears, to procure a respite, or to sell their life as dearly as possible; but his grand paw soon swept off the buzzers, and consigned them to their fate. At seven minutes and a quarter, or according to another watch, for there were two umpires and two watches, at seven minutes and seventeen seconds, the victor relinquished the glorious pursuit, for all his foes lay slaughtered on the ensanguined plain. Billy was then caressed and fondled by many; the dog is estimated by amateurs as a most dextrous animal; he is, unfortunately, what the French Monsieurs call borg-ne, that is, blind of an eye.-This precious organ was lost to him some time since by the intrepidity of an inimical rat, which as he had not seized it in a proper place, turned round on its murderer, and reprived him by one bite of the privilege of seeing with two eyes in future. The dog BILLY, of rat-killing notoriety, on the evening of the 13th instant, again exhibited his surprising dexterity; he was wagered to kill one hundred rats within twelve minutes; but six minutes and 25 seconds only elapsed, when every rat lay stretched on the gory plain, without the least symptom of life appearing.’ Billy was decorated with a silver collar, and a number of ribband bows, and was led off amidst the applauses of the persons assembled.”
There is precisely no reason that Billy should be the mascot of the Chicago Racquet Club. Chicago is a long way from London, where Billy’s greatest moments took place. His popularity only becomes apparent if you need to use the men’s room. There, above a row of urinals where men are known to spend some contemplative moments, is a print of Billy’s feat.
Given the exposure of the Billy legend, his popularity in Chicago becomes less surprising.
The reopening of the Chicago court was much celebrated in 2012. They actually had two openings, the first for out-of-town visitors including many from overseas and the second for club members. New courts don’t open often so I went to both and spoke at one of them.
My role was to praise the court builders from the perspective of one who had been there. I timed the remarks to precisely match the 5 minutes and 30 seconds it took for Billy to set the world record for killing 100 rats on April 22, 1823. At intervals, I kept the audience posted on the progress of my remarks with a rat counter. “Forty rats in” meant we were at the two-minute mark and “75 rats in” meant we were approaching the conclusion.
There were tournaments both weekends but, as always, the results have long faded from memory.
Georgian Court, Lakewood
Georgian Court was originally a private court. It was built in 1900 by George Gould for his sons, Jay and Kingdon, at his house in Lakewood, New Jersey.
The court is part of a sports complex known as The Playhouse that also included a racquets court, a pool and an indoor polo field with walls painted to make you feel as if you were outdoors.
The rest of the property was rather elaborate as well.
Jay Gould learned his lessons well and became the first American to win the British Amateur Real Tennis championship and, in 1908, the winner of the only Olympic gold medal ever awarded in the sport. In the final, he defeated Eustace Miles, the best England had to offer. Likely, some bets were lost, and poor Mr. Miles had to endure the nickname “Useless” ever thereafter.
The court at Lakewood fell into disuse when the property was given to the Sisters of Mercy, an order of nuns, to create Georgian Court College. The Sisters of Mercy also own Salve Regina University, adjacent to the court in Newport. (Is the game returning to its ecclesiastical roots?) Fortunately, the Lakewood court was restored in the early 2000s, thanks to grants from the State of New Jersey, the United States Court Tennis Preservation Foundation and the United States Court Tennis Association.
If there was a re-opening ceremony, I have no recollection of it, but it has been host to a variety of on and off gatherings of players from other places and, from time to time, a touring side from overseas will include a stop on its itinerary.
Various pros have had stints of weekly visits to encourage play among the college students and, for a time, a Princeton team played there with some frequency.
The most notable feature of the court is the sunlight coming through the greenhouse roof and casting striated shadows on the main wall.
On one occasion, when I took Simon Berry, noted devotée of Basque court tennis and long-suffering court builder, to play there, we simply called lets when we lost sight of the ball in the dappled sunlight and thought our lives might be in danger.
It is an excellent court in superb condition in want people to play on it.
In 2009, Bailey Pryor of Telemark Films completed an excellent video on the history of tennis. It has run frequently on the Tennis Channel in the United States. Pryor began his film just where he should have showing court tennis as the origin.
He made a fine presentation at the USCTA annual dinner in 2009 and showed the film. It included a scene in which four people in medieval dress were actually playing with their hands instead of rackets.
“How did you film that?” I asked.
“We built it a court on a sound stage in Noank, Connecticut,” he replied.
“Is it still there?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, and in the spring of 2010, so was I.
Noank is on the Connecticut Coast part way between New York and Newport. It was close enough to Newport for me to lure Jonathan Pardee to join the adventure. We did not dress in medieval clothes.
The court was made of plywood and had a dedans and tiny narrow penthouses a few inches wide. Its dimensions came from a scholarly book that Pryor had used in his research.
For me, it answered the difficult question of how the game could have been played without a racket on the court as big as the ones in use today. In France, after all, it is called “Jeu de Paume,” the game of the palm. The answer was that it couldn’t. The court had to be a great deal smaller at least until better weaponry than the palm of one’s hands came into being.
This court might have been one-fourth the normal size and we tried many different kinds of ball to make it an interesting game. We also changed the rules often if one technique or another proved too effective.
In this, it felt like my image of the children who created the game many centuries ago. They would have tinkered with the ball and the rules until they hit on something that was worth doing, then they would have continued to adapt.
Our ball choices and rulemaking were not very successful, and it was far more advantageous to receive than to serve. The receiver could easily whack the serve that had to land on the tiny penthouse into the dedans and there were virtually no rallies at all.
But, for a brief moment, Noank, Connecticut had a court tennis court made of plywood and located on a soundstage. A film was made of it and two actual court tennis players made the effort to play on it.
Let the howls of outrage from the other life listers begin. When they discuss courts that no longer exist like Bordeaux two courts ago or Lambay Island, or Troon, they will have to explain why they never played Noank.