Around the World in Fifty Courts The Wilderness Years
The spring and summer of 1974 we’re not very good for my court tennis, but they were excellent for other aspects of my life. I put check marks next to law school and the bar exam, ended my Upper West Side apartment lease and began the next adventure by getting married, moving to Omaha, Nebraska and beginning work at a law firm.
There must have been a tennis bat in my locker in New York or perhaps at my father’s house but there was no reason for one to be with me in heartland, halfway across the country from the nearest court. Chicago was still nearly four decades away from reconversion to the proper game.
As with many young marrieds, we went home for Christmas and there were occasional forays to Greentree. I also played in New York from time to time on business trips. In the first few of my five years in Omaha, I did not advertise the court tennis aspect of my life but later I took a few of my law firm colleagues to see the Racquet Club. Some aspects of that building might have surprised them but, in general, it seemed more or less as they had expected of me. I had fooled no one.
My father was still living in New York, but it was clear he would be retiring to Rhode Island as he was then in his early 60s. This would be good news for the National Tennis Club in Newport, but bad news for my continued play at Greentree. I would not play there again for a quarter century and then only a time or two.
The National Tennis Club in Newport
The saga of the creation of the Newport Casino, now the International Tennis Hall of Fame, is, to say the least, unusual. By the way, “casino,” as the word was used at the time, had more to do with general frivolity than gambling.
It was commissioned in 1879/1880 by James Gordon Bennett, Jr., who, like Greentree owner John Hay Whitney, was the publisher of the New York Herald. He also sponsored Henry Morton Stanley’s expedition to Africa to find David Livingston.
Bennett was “colorful.” He scandalized his own engagement party by arriving late then relieving himself in either the fireplace or the grand piano depending upon accounts (and perhaps also upon his height). Allegedly he created the Newport Casino because he became angry with the leadership of the nearby Newport Reading Room, which was the leading gentlemen’s club in Newport at the time. Still is.
Bennett placed a bet with his guest, British cavalry officer, Captain Henry Augustus “Sugar” Candy that Candy would not ride his horse on to the terrace of the Reading Room (or perhaps, according to other accounts, up the stairs to the second floor). Candy won the bet, but the Reading Room Governors were much displeased, and Bennett was forced to “take a letter,” a sharply worded letter at that, which was a major affront at the time. For Bennett, the easy answer was to create his own club and he commissioned America’s best-known architectural firm, McKim, Mead & White to design one for him.
The Casino was the site of the first United States National Tennis Championship in 1881 and its many grass courts continued to be the site of the event through the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There was also a court tennis court and a theater. The seats in the theatre were removable so that large dances could be held there.
The court tennis court suffered a fire in 1945 though it did not burn to the ground. It was entirely neglected for more than 30 years, until my father and several other Newport and court tennis notables discovered that the building and most of the court were salvageable.
By then, the Newport Casino had been purchased by Jimmy and Candy Van Alen, both to preserve the grass tennis courts and to create the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Jimmy was often photographed in his Cambridge University lawn tennis club cable knit sweater, and the statue honoring him at the entrance to the building depicts him accordingly.
He was also the inventor of the Van Alen Simplified Scoring System (VASSS) that evolved into the tiebreaker that has revolutionized lawn tennis and made it far more television friendly. In the early years, a VASSS banner would be raised next to a court when a tie breaker was in progress to attract attention and increase excitement.
The abandoned court tennis court came along with the purchase, but it was low on the priority list during the early stages.
USCTA President, Jack Slater, brothers, Sammy and Jimmy Van Alen, sportswriter, Allison Danzig and my father took it on and guided the project completion in 1980 thanks to considerable generosity from the tennis community and to equally considerable forbearance on the part of Walsh Brothers Construction, a family-owned Boston firm launched in 1901.
Given the economics of the game, courts don’t pay for themselves, and new or restored ones depend on philanthropy for their capital costs. Usually not the generosity of the construction company, however. In time, Walsh Brothers was fully paid but Jim Walsh and my father became good friends in the process. For many years, Newport’s major tennis fixture in August was called the Walsh Cup.
Barry Toates was the first professional and he and Karen had a small flat in the club made famous by “Sugar” Candy’s infelicitous ride. Presumably, Karen accommodated herself to the presence of a urinal in “her” bathroom. It was not a long-term situation.
George Wharton was his successor when he was in his early to middle 20s. At the time he was hired, he was an assistant professional at Holyport and was living under the grille penthouse. He describes receiving a telephone call that skipped all the niceties and went straight to the point. “Would he like to be the head professional in Newport?”
Since that seemed a big step up from living under the penthouse of a court tennis court, he said yes and served in that capacity for many years.
He had a wonderful drill that was designed to teach players to hit down on the ball to make it rise, much as golfers do with lofted clubs. He would place a line of tennis balls on inverted paper cups barely 2 or 3 inches off the floor. No, you would not smash your racket if you hit down on those low balls and, just as he described, they would float gently over the net. Though he taught me the idea more than 30 years ago, it remains a work in progress.
My father stayed involved in the National Tennis Club from its “re-inception” in 1980 to his death in 1998, serving once as President. His involvement was not always consultative and fellow board members would sometimes discover actions taken sua sponte.
One such action was the installation of a weathervane on the roof of the club. His version was a discarded court tennis racket frame that had seen considerable play. He had the professional string only the main strings, and those rather loosely. He threaded a clear plastic disk between the strings to provide a surface for the wind to push.
I have no idea how he got it installed nearly 40 feet in the air, but one day there it was.
Now… it is useful to know that his keen imagination was often well ahead of his execution, which could be over-driven by budgetary considerations. Winners of trophies might find their names “inscribed” with red Dymo labels. True, the job was done, but…
So it was with the weathervane. Newport is by the sea and is far from immune to salt air. It is also known to rain. These factors proved more than a match for the design capacity of the discarded racket. Soon it warped to the shape of a potato chip (crisp for British readers), but there it remained until after his death because nobody dared suggest otherwise.
When the coast was clear, Dick Boenning, following the sua sponte tradition but with a gentler eye on the budget, brought spectacular execution to an otherwise excellent idea. This version is over six feet long and has survived for about two decades.
Jay Schochet was a great benefactor of the club providing leadership for several renovations and endowing the United States Professional Championships for the Schochet Cup that annually attracts professionals from around the world for a week of competition and generous hospitality.
The National Tennis Club has hosted world championships and has recently reverted to being operated by the International Tennis Hall of Fame, under the leadership of Todd Martin, former world lawn tennis number four and now a seriously good court tennis player as well.
The Washington Scheme
By then, I was living in Washington, which still had no court — not even a group thinking about one — and my sporadic play took place in Newport and New York.
In the mid-1980s (nobody remembers the exact day), a group of 40-somethings who had played elsewhere decided that Washington lacked only a court tennis court for the completion of an otherwise ideal place to live.
Charles Cudlip, Ian Fowler, Temple Grassi, Francis Hamilton, Robin Martin, Charlie Matheson, Freddy Prince, Randall Roe, Bob Smith, Steve Smith, David Winstead and I met at Freddy Prince’s house for the first discussion of the idea. There were a few others as well, but these stayed the seemingly endless course to completion of the project. We thought it would be easy and that it would take at most two or three years. Oh my, how wrong we were.
The first thorny question related to whether the new club would be all male or open to all. Nobody had thought anywhere near that far ahead when we were asked that question by one of the putative founders. Temple Grassi and I glanced at each other, shrugged and made one of the best decisions in the history of the Washington court by replying “open to all.” This turned out to be one of the defining characteristics of Prince’s Court, but it did not stop the questioner from getting up and striding out of the meeting, never to be seen again.
With three tuition-consuming children and an attention-getting monthly mortgage payment, it was clear to me that I would do better at completing the “to do” list than at writing the checks and thus was the division of labor determined.
We did everything backward and stumbled often. We had a crest, colors, ties, shirts and so forth long before we had a court and several of us would travel to tournaments to get ourselves known and to wave the flag.
We had an inspired design for a club crest. (Surely only a Philistine could refer to it, or any other one, as a logo.) It features: a dove of peace, for the international camaraderie of the game; inverted crossed rackets, signifying the decade of fumbles and false starts; a crown, for the royal origins; a cross, for the ecclesiastical origins; a twisted rope or garland, signifying the complexity of the scoring; and George Washington’s federal star, for location.
Now for the name. Freddy Prince was the finest benefactor anyone responsible for the “to-do list” could ever hope to have had. Ashamed though he might have been at the many stumbles and setbacks, his support never wavered. Clearly, the court should have been named for him. The only problem was that he was too modest and did not want it. Many hours of research in the library of the Racquet & Tennis Club revealed that there had been a succession of Prince’s Clubs in England though none at the time. Technically, Prince’s Court is a successor to those, and we listed them on our fund-raising letterhead. Freddy accepted the plan, but few believed it.
Fundraising remained the vehicle of choice for court construction and we were not a charity to which contributions could be made on a tax favored basis. Hence, our first efforts to find a location focused on every school in the Washington area. Curiously none showed even the slightest interest with the most difficult question being “against whom would we play?”
John Walker, the Bishop of Washington, presided over four schools at the Washington National Cathedral. He was the politest of any, but that was only because he had taught me “Sacred Studies” at boarding school. References to the ecclesiastical origins of the game were unpersuasive.
Along the way, we found a school and a college that might have been suitable homes for the court. The school was relatively new, so it had no older alumni to provide support for new buildings. We had what we thought was an understanding until the board of the school made a last-minute request for an additional $1 million. I looked around the table, gathered my papers, got up and silently walked out, never to return. Some say, “it never hurts to ask” but, in that case it did.
The second involved a women’s college that had a suitable, well located campus in Washington. All-female education was declining in popularity because, as biologists might have predicted, women in the 18 to 22 demographic often prefer to have some men around. In this case, unlike the prior one, there were alumnae to contribute, just too few students, who wanted to attend.
The president of the college, whose background was in fundraising, saw an opportunity to get a generous group interested in her college and perhaps become supportive. Discussions were advancing nicely, but so were discussions with Georgetown University for a $6 million loan secured by a mortgage on the campus. Georgetown’s goal was to make a loan that could never be repaid then to foreclose on the property. Thus, would it obtain $20 million worth of much needed dormitories, classrooms and athletic fields for 30¢ on the dollar.
The scheme was thought to be jeopardized by the possibility of court tennis and well-heeled players (donors?) on the campus so Georgetown torpedoed the project. Outrageously, the same lawyer was representing all three parties and chose to throw the weakest one (guess who) over the side. Considerable pleading from two of her partners kept her from being referred to the Bar Association’s disciplinary authorities.
Several months after we had designed what would have been one of the most beautiful courts in the world, then rolled up the plans because our project had been shot down, an opportunity arose.
The president of the college, to whom I had become close, called to say that Georgetown was going to foreclose on her campus. After hearing her plight, I told her she could stop it by paying off the loan.
“But we haven’t the money,” said she.
“Oh yes you do,” I replied.
We hatched a plan to borrow the money from rival, George Washington University, which had equally pressing space needs. This she did, and only days in advance of the deadline, she appeared with a $6 million check to repay the Georgetown loan. They were aghast but the villains were thwarted.
Nonetheless, there is no court tennis at the Mt. Vernon College campus of George Washington University. It would have been as lovely a court as could have been designed on a steep hillside.
We were, by then, pretty much out of schools to consider and we needed to broaden our horizons beyond entities that could accept tax favored contributions.
Enter Thomas Dick, a young lawyer at a Washington law firm whose family had a history in the game. The rabbit he pulled out of the hat was an obscure provision of the tax law that permitted any sport with international amateur competition to form a foundation that could accept tax favored contributions.
The United States Court Tennis Preservation Foundation had been formed by Dick Boenning, at the suggestion of the United States Court Tennis Association President, Ed Hughes. Unfortunately, it was created under the more traditional section of the US tax laws that did not permit ownership of an athletic facility.
The new provision, discovered by the young lawyer, had been added after the United States was humbled by the Soviet Union in the 1976 Olympics. A national debate arose as to the wisdom of state-funded sports, and the compromise was to facilitate charitably funded international competition.
In the process of changing the foundation from one provision of the law to the other, a tax examiner asked a relatively logical question: “what is the useful life of a court tennis court?”
“Well, Hampton Court was built in 1530 but I believe Falkland Palace is a bit older.”
That seemed a satisfactory answer to his question and the Foundation’s change in status was approved. It would later serve as the vehicle for projects in Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston.
Now we could talk to any landlord or even buy our own property. We explored many before finding a for-profit chain of sports clubs that had built 19 indoor tennis courts at the height of the tennis boom a few decades earlier.
The demographics for tennis players were right, but they had badly underestimated the skill required to play the game. After a few flailing efforts, the prosperous players quit in droves and left the courts dark and empty.
Their 19th tennis court only had a value if all of the other 18 were full, which they never were. It was an easy decision to rent one in exchange for half of the revenue and ultimately that arrangement has lasted for 22 years.
Through the early 1990s, we had two British board members. The first was Ian Fowler, a Brigadier in the British Army assigned to the Embassy. The second was Francis Hamilton, who had played at Oxford and worked for the World Bank.
Fowler turned many a female head at the Tuxedo Gold Racquet dance when he wore his dress uniform complete with silver spurs.
Hamilton had not played since Oxford and was keen to try his hand again. In connection with a fundraising event in Newport, during a summer tournament, he and I had an early morning hit before the day’s tournament play began, thanks to finding a succession of hidden keys to unlock doors to the court and to retrieve the balls. Fortunately, nobody reported sighting two gentlemen dressed in tennis whites scaling a chain link fence at 6:30 in the morning.
Hamilton moved back to England before the court was completed but he went on to lead valiant, though ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to restore the court at Troon and to build one in Edinburgh.
On the Whole, I’d Rather be in Philadelphia
This is the epitaph chosen, but not eventually used, by W.C. Fields. In the early 1990’s, it also served the court tennis needs of Washingtonians.
Before Prince’s Court was completed, Fowler arranged for our nomad team to play the British Army Combined Tennis and Rackets Touring Side. Our match took place in Philadelphia on October 10,1993, almost four years to the day before Prince’s Court would open.
Iain Park-Weir was one of the more colorful members of the British side. He wore a bowler hat and carried a furled umbrella (though not on court). He will appear again in a later chapter as the Chief Protocol Officer at Sandhurst. We all stayed in the same hotel and a few who knew Philadelphia went to a greasy spoon called “Little Pete’s” for breakfast on the day of the match.
Ever the enthusiast, Park-Weir asked what the breakfast specialty was, and we replied, “scrapple.” Now, many countries have such meat products and they have different names, but scrapple is essentially the southernmost end of a northbound pig that is formed into a square patty and placed under a pair of fried eggs. He tucked in with enthusiasm.
Sometime later, he and I were paired in a singles match that went to three sets, with neither of us ever holding more than a one game advantage. At four all in the final set, Park-Weir’s game collapsed. He exited the court in haste after a perfunctory handshake and returned a few minutes later with a red face and beads of sweat on his forehead. The morning scrapple had kicked in.
The Racquet Club of Philadelphia was formed in 1889, but not at its present location. In 1907, it moved around the corner to where it is found today. In 1900, the club built the first squash courts in the United States apart from those found at St. Paul’s School, thus claiming to be the birthplace of American squash.
Jimmy Dunn spent 50 years as a professional at RCOP, about 35 of them (1949 to mid-1980s) as Head Professional. When he began, he was told, “you are Irish, you are a red head and you are left-handed, you will never make it.” Along the way, he broke his left arm then switched to playing right-handed, never to look back.
He was irascible and probably did little to reduce the tensions between New York and Philadelphia that roiled for decades. Curiously, rackets purchased at other clubs by his members tended to warp significantly faster than those purchased from him.
Likely his most significant contribution to the game was his relationship to a community leader (or perhaps a priest) in the blue-collar East Falls area of Philadelphia. He arranged to be tipped off to teenaged boys who might have been in greater need of “guidance” than others and he hired them as apprentices. Many of those – Tom Greevy Tuxedo, Joe Crane Boston, Jimmy Burke Boston, Ed Noll Philadelphia, John Cashman Chicago among others – became leading head professionals at American clubs.
Would Washington Ever Happen?
There were many projects underway in the late 1990s; it was a Golden Age of tennis court building. They were funded in different ways depending on the country in which they were located, its customs and, often, its tax laws.
Ours was funded through tin-cup capitalism. We were totally dependent on philanthropy and thus at the whim of the donors. We began on the back foot because the layout of the space allotted to us required viewing from the side rather than the end. This led to the controversial glass wall that, like many other firsts, turned out to be a good start that led to many subsequent improvements.
We had to avoid any other controversies as to the design of the court lest we turn off even more of the old guard on whom we were dependent. Charlie Matheson, a player and an architect, was charged with determining all of the dimensions.
Rather than picking and choosing among different features of courts around the world, which inevitably would lead to objections from potential donors, I asked him to follow two rules.
Rule one: pick one court and copy it exactly.
Rule two: lie, even to me.
As a result, I have no idea what the dimensions really are, but Charlie always told me it was Newport.
I suspect everyone responsible for building a court tennis court has had nightmares of their project misbehaving by providing unexpected bounces. My nightmare was that the ball would bounce over my head rather than the customary knee to waist height.
Thanks to the use of lightweight concrete on the floor that was bound together with fiberglass hairs, that is precisely what happened in October 1997, when Temple Grassi and I hit the first balls with a touring side from Australia that “pre-opened” the court while the paint on some of the lines was still wet.
Steve Ronaldson, who had provided our first professional, Austin Snelgrove, played George Wharton in the opening match and it was remarkable that they could hit the ball at all. We had to close for a month the following summer to repaint the floor and generally solve the problem.
Snelgrove stayed a few years before returning to England and leaving the game. He was succeeded by Tim Johnson, the best Hawaiian ever to play the game, a few stand-ins on interim bases, Will Simonds, the former Head Professional in New York and, finally, Ivan Ronaldson, who has been with us for 15 years.
Michael Do and his nephew, Vu Hoang, style themselves as the Vietnamese Bathurst Cup Team and they are undoubtedly the best from their country in the history of the game.
Ryan Carey has been the driving force behind the Cherry Blossom tournament that, with his unique imagination and flair, has attracted players from around the world. He has also significantly advanced the art of streaming major matches over the internet for the enjoyment of players in Australia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States.
I can’t compete with Moses because I only spent about half his time in the wilderness but, unlike him, I made to the promised land of court tennis in Washington.
Thus, did Newport, Philadelphia and Washington become courts number six, seven and eight on the life list.
I was 51 years old and needed to get going if I was to have any chance of playing all of the courts in the world.