Around the World in Fifty Courts “We Are Not Alone”
Some use the words “we are not alone” to suggest the existence of extra-terrestrial life. When used in that way, a deep voice and creepy music add to the desired impression. Others use the words to comfort those in distress, but generally they change the subject to “you” instead of “we.”
Finally, there are songs, about which I know nothing, but either of the first two could readily apply to an effort to play in every court tennis court in the world. At least, so I learned in late April 2022, when I set out to play on the two courts that have been built since my last foray.
Publishing deadlines loomed and Covid travel restrictions were in decline so, in March, the time seemed right for a trip to Wellington College and Bordeaux. I was spurred on by a random game in Washington with an overseas visitor called Ben Geytenbeek. He is a 26-year-old Australian physics PhD from Cambridge who has played in about 35 of the world’s courts. At his age, I had played in about four. He is also a seriously thoughtful observer and student of the game.
To me, the benefit of knowing others with the same goal exceeds that of being one of the few to have done something. The former seems supportive while the latter feels excessively competitive. Besides, there isn’t even a Guinness World Records category for this quest.
At the conclusion of our game in Washington, I invited Ben to join me, and he promptly accepted as to Bordeaux, which he had not played, but declined as to Wellington College, which he had. It seems he has a job in addition to his real tennis addiction. I also asked him to share the genesis of his interest in the game and here is what he sent me.
My real tennis pilgrimage started a few months after I first picked up the game in Cambridge. After going with a couple of friends to a “come and try” session, I got hooked straight away and, after two months, was playing every other day. I started visiting other clubs as part of club matches or other trips I was doing around the UK. Around Christmas in the first year of playing real tennis, I travelled to Australia to see family and, during the trip, visited the three active Australian clubs. By then I had the bug, enjoying turning up to a seemingly random location, spotting the building that looked most like a real tennis court then knocking on a mysterious door and finding warm, welcoming people inside. It amazed me that travelling across the globe I could still play some weird game with a stranger and have a lot of fun with it.
The next northern summer, I raced through the first half of the list of clubs. That summer, I spent a lot of time in London on the weekends with nothing to do before a BBC Proms concert in the evening, so found myself taking the train on day trips from London to check out a new court. The bug had well and truly bitten. By now, holiday plans were being set up with tennis courts in mind – be it a trip to Paris or a road trip through southwest England. I finished my UK list (but for Fairlawne) in November 2021 at Queen’s and have started now on my US list beginning in 2022.
The second suggestion that I might not be alone came from a Facebook post by Jon MacNeill Speirs, who also seems hot on the trail of playing them all. While I was on the Wellington/Bordeaux trip, he was playing several courts in England, and I only missed him by a day at Holyport.
Here is his reply to my request for his thoughts on playing them all.
As soon as I mentioned on social media that I have played all clubs in the UK, some pointed out that I have not played at Fairlawne or Falkland Palace. I pointed out that I mentioned clubs, rather than courts, as there is less ambiguity about which are in use or not. However, the bigger goal is to play all the courts, not just in UK, but in the World.
I have played on 5 of the courts in the USA – Racquet & Tennis Club (x2), Tuxedo Club, Racquet Club of Chicago, and International Tennis Club of Washington.
Covid interrupted my flow of international trips to play more. I certainly intend to play all, and ideally before I turn 50 in summer 2023.
I became addicted to the game after first being introduced to it at Holyport. Playing a physical version of chess, in an indoor court bigger than a lawn tennis court, is a privilege.
My view of real tennis is that a good conversation is very much like a good game of tennis in physical form. An interesting dimension to the game is that spectators, in close physical proximity, and certainly within hearing range can be part of the exchange. This results in some fun banter in social games, and unparalleled engagement with the battle on court. A great aspect of the game is that it cuts across ages, genders, professions, and backgrounds among others. This normally leads to a lively and interesting post game conversation to reflect on the game and life in general.
The community is strong and embracing. I have certainly felt welcome and far from a stranger when visiting other clubs. All the courts and clubs have interesting histories and backgrounds, with every court being unique.
The third was Malcolm Thorp, with whom I played at Wellington. He has played all but two (Chicago and Bordeaux) and he presented me with a Wikipedia print out listing all of them complete with his checkmarks showing where he stood. He even made a handwritten entry for Harbour Club, which no longer exists. It does not appear that he counts Greentree, which, for the last 20 years or so, has proven to be all but impossible.
Finally, (protocol might have required me to list him first), there is H. R. H. The Earl of Wessex, also known as Prince Edward. In 2018, he made a world tour and played in all but one as a fundraiser for the Duke of Edinburgh Real Tennis Challenge. Again, despite his highest-level contacts, Greentree proved elusive. He also wrote eloquently and humorously on the subject.
Well, now that I am feeling not quite so crazy and generally a little better about myself, back we go to the effort itself. The two new courts I played were the first I had visited with the intention of writing about them. Up until then, I had not the smallest idea of writing a book, so the notes and photographs were sparse indeed.
I should also add that these were the first I had played while in the process of building a court, which gave a design perspective to my observations. When you are solving construction problems, it makes the solutions developed by others all the more interesting.
I took the night flight from Washington to Heathrow, which lands at 6:30 in the morning and whistled through the border formalities as if Covid had never existed. By 7:30, I was in my Vauxhall rental car connecting my phone to a splendid dashboard screen. Up popped the audiobook to which I was listening, my favorite podcasts and, most importantly, the map. Simply entering the postcode provided precise directions to Wellington College and told me I should arrive by 9 o’clock. It was a long way from a carsick Temple Grassi opening and closing the notebook of MapQuest directions 20 or so years earlier.
Nonetheless, I recited my traditional English driving mantra: “stay to the left and, at all costs, avoid Reading.”
The court at Wellington College is the brainchild of William Maltby and Peter Mallinson, both graduates of the school (for American readers, the word college denotes a boarding school). It was officially opened by Prince Edward on 21 September 2016.
There would be two days at Wellington, the first with Peter and the second with William, but they are one experience that is readily blended.
The use of the post code as Satnav (GPS) directions is a fine strategy if you are willing to accept the occasional error. After all, mail can be delivered to one place while games are played in another. So it is at the Wellington College Sports Center and, to be fair, so it says on the club’s website. Sadly, that detail proved more than my up-all–night–flying brain could absorb, so there was a bit of back-and-forth in getting there. This excuse fell apart when I got lost on my second visit but in a different way.
Nineteenth century British public schools are generally impressive, and Wellington College is no exception. It is located on a 400-acre rural campus and was built as a monument to Lord Wellington and inaugurated by Queen Victoria in 1859 (seven years after his death). It now educates about 1200 boys and girls.
Unsurprisingly, there is a strong military tradition. Seven hundred seven Old Wellingtonians died in World War I and another 501 were killed in World War II. All are memorialized on plaques where their names are listed by one of the 17 houses in which the students live throughout their time at the school. Perhaps the casualty statistics are less surprising when you consider that the College was established to educate the sons of deceased Army officers. Over time, a scheme of reduced fees was established to permit children from all the Armed Forces’ deceased personnel to attend, irrespective of rank or branch
To complete your image, a cricket match was in progress while I was there.
When I finally did find the gated entrance, I was greeted by a guard who kindly told me to disregard a do not enter sign and proceed along the road until I found the sports club, which consists of several buildings, any of which would be large enough for a court tennis court. I was able to identify the correct one thanks to a row of nearly finished tennis balls on the windowsill. From there, one turns a corner and enters a courtyard that has an excellent coffee shop and restaurant on one side. It appears to be highly popular with women players on a spring morning.
When entering the building, you see a corner of the court itself, but the first thing that caught my eye was a basket for the deposit of wine corks that are used to make the centers of the balls.
I was greeted by Head Professional, Danny Jones, and the club’s professional intern, Alex Machin, a 19-year-old who was being supported by the Investing in Professionals program of the Tennis & Rackets Association. I was expecting to play doubles later in the day, which would have allowed time for a bit of catch-up and possibly a snooze, but I was summoned onto the court after a session in which Jones was teaching Machin some new techniques.
After a nice warm up with Danny, I was treated to a superior set of customer tennis by Alex, who had clearly already mastered that skill.
The court itself is somewhere between royal blue and pale purple. As far as I know, it is the only one of its kind, though increasingly, nontraditional colors are being chosen. The floor is a pale gray. Both are poured concrete which is arguably the truest surface that can be created today, but it is also the most expensive. The difference was made possible by Peter Luck-Hille who also provided design and construction guidance. The penthouses are natural in color and made of a rare wood that was again financed by Luck-Hille.
The posts between the galleries are also unusual, as they consist of a pair of square columns rather than the customary round pole.
The club room is comfortable and is furnished to a standard that is appropriate for a school and the pro shop appears well laid out with considerable visibility to the surrounding areas.
Peter Mallinson, the immediate past Chairman of the College’s Board of Governors, was to be part of a doubles game in the afternoon, but he arrived early and showed me around the College, which was most impressive and compared quite favorably with the nicest boarding schools that America has to offer.
We saw some cricket, met the Master, James E. L. Dahl, who has been head of the school since 2019, saw the chapel, and the boys and girls, newly returned from vacation, at lunch. Interestingly each of the small lunch tables had a group of students, either boys or girls, but not even one had a mix of both. This was not so much the case for those who had taken their lunches outdoors.
We also met Master of Real Tennis, Simon Roundell, whom I invited to bring both his boys’ and girls’ teams to Washington.
In the early afternoon, Peter and I were joined by Richard Marmoy, Malcolm Thorp, and Alex Machin for three excellent sets of tennis, punctuated by laughs and gentle taunting.
Before we began, I warned them that afterward I would ask each what he liked and disliked most about the court. This was viewed as a subterfuge to disrupt their concentration.
Thorp – plays true, good light, no dislikes
Mallinson – location (not entirely surprising); first genuinely coeducational facility; wish there was a room above the club room for more viewing.
Mormoy – fast, accurate.
Machin diplomatically ducked the question. (Clearly the T&RA is doing an excellent job with its Investing in Professionals program.)
Later, William Maltby, another former Head of the Board of Governors, and a leader of the effort to build the court, would confirm that one of his goals was to create a fast court that would encourage the traditional floor game. He was especially informative about the process of building the court and he had some excellent ideas that are included in a separate chapter on that topic.
Maltby gave much credit for the end result to Luck-Hille, the driving force behind the court at Middlesex University known sometimes as Burroughs and sometimes as The Millennium Court because it was completed around 2000.
According to Maltby, Luck-Hille favored the highest quality on every aspect of the court and stepped in to fund the additional cost as needed.
The goal of having a fast court has been achieved, despite some early difficulties with air pockets in both floor and walls that had to be redone. Both were smoothed but have “played in nicely” according to Maltby.
During the afternoon we watched groups of college students learning the game with commentary from Simon Allcock, a faculty member who serves as Deputy Master of Real Tennis to Simon Roundell. The students, both boys and girls but in separate sessions, showed real promise and Allcock pointed me to the honors board showing the winners of games that included names like Freddie Bristowe and Cesca Sweet, both of whom are on their way to high-level tennis careers.
I asked about the dress code as, in many other courts, whites are generally required or at least encouraged. At Wellington, Allcock informed me, “all that is required is that you wear either your house or college colors.” Interestingly these include black, yellow, light blue, white and seemingly several others. Even the College team colors vary depending on the sport.
Wellington is also a club that is open to others, including state school (public school in the United States) students from nearby towns. Costs for those students are funded by the Dedanists, a charitable group of tennis players who support the game.
By late afternoon, the day came to an end with not much sleep, no lunch, and no celebration of the Queen’s 96th birthday. I departed for Sutton-Courtenay, a village near Oxford where I would stay for the rest of the trip.
Did you know that George Orwell, under his real name, Eric Arthur Blair, and Lord Asquith, a former Prime Minister, are buried there?
Freeloading and Other Injustices
Attentive readers will have discovered that world class skills are not required to play in all the courts in the world, but there is an area in which such high-level capabilities are required: freeloading, but first a bit of court tennis freeloading history.
In the years following World War II, when I began ascending my learning curve about the game and pretty much everything else, the British government restricted the export of pounds sterling. A visitor could only bring £100 to the United States and that did not go very far even then. The custom arose for Americans to pay for everything in the United States while English players would pay for everything on return visits to their country.
Unsurprisingly, record keeping for drinks consumed and paid for being what it is, distrust arose and thus did I learn the concept of “the Great British Sponge Fleet.” Almost certainly, there are people my age who, as children, learned about American freeloaders in just the same way. Though unintentional, it appears to have become an ancillary mission on my part to continue this practice and reclaim any alleged accounting deficits.
Through absolutely no fault of their own, the victims of this practice have been James Walton, his wife, Carolyn Holmes and their daughters Bella and Georgia. I have stayed with them in the charming village of Sutton Courtenay on more than a few occasions and for long periods of time. This trip alone would add nearly 2 weeks to my life list.
No matter what my mother and father might ever have told me about court tennis travel and financial practices during the 1950s, the Waltons should not have had to bear the entire brunt of any putative deficits. Nonetheless, they did, to my eternal gratitude and, yes, more than a bit of shame.
This trip saw a change of dogs. Monty, oh he of heroic flatulence, has been replaced by Humphrey, also a boxer, but with significantly better intestinal management skills. Both were (or are) chasers of balls, forders of streams and enthusiastic but ultimately unsuccessful hunters of birds and varmints.
James fixes companies, sometimes in the role of CEO, and he has recently taken that job in a medical device company. Carolyn is an interior designer with many lovely houses in England and abroad to her credit. Bella and Georgia have moved along from Downe House School to University and now to careers in London where both are superyacht professionals with Burgess.
Each of the girls came out for a Sunday lunch, which lasted from noon to about five. Both were picnics and one culminated in a long walk on the Thames and paddle boarding. I sensed a significance to the gentleman caller.
On an earlier trip, Carolyn and I had spent a rainy afternoon watching a Colin Firth movie during which I smoked indoor cigars. My wife, who was not present, was properly appalled at the cigars, while James was equally appalled at Colin Firth. The cigars have gone, but the television watching for this trip consisted of the eight-part series, Clarkson’s Farm, featuring former Top Gear car show host Jeremy Clarkson’s hapless attempts at farming in the Cotswolds. He combined his old and new interests by buying a largely unsuitable Lamborghini tractor.
There was a lunch with Chris Ronaldson, who is recovering from knee surgery, and Maggie Henderson-Tew. I am not sure what happened to the other guests as there was clearly food for 25 or 30 people but we had a fascinating discussion of the past, present and future of the game.
Chris is a former world champion and head professional at a variety of courts including Oxford, Melbourne, Troon, Hampton Court, and Radley College, plus several consulting stints at the revived Bordeaux court and Bristol. He might well be the game’s greatest thinker. Maggie is the Radley College Club Captain and a court tennis advocate of the highest order. She is also a superb cook, so I think the no-show lunch guests really missed out.
I spent another afternoon at Holyport with Prince’s Court president, Vern Cassin, his father (also Vern) and Sarah Backhouse, where the Washingtonians were soundly thrashed. The same afternoon, the British Masters team appeared for practice before the upcoming age group world championships in France. A lovely afternoon talking with old friends, Lesley Ronaldson, Simon Talbot-Williams, William Maltby, John Prenn, and Sue Haswell who was afflicted with back issues.
The court in Bordeaux is a replacement for an earlier one I had played and that was later sold and razed. It is a striking building located in a light industrial section of Merignac near the airport, so near in fact, that I was able to walk between my hotel and the plane.
Ben Geytenbeek and I met at Gatwick airport for the EasyJet (only if you absolutely must) flight to France. As is the custom in court tennis, he identified himself by holding up his racket.
We had an enjoyable dinner upon arrival and spent the following day playing at a court that was new to both of us.
The Bordeaux court is under the leadership of head professional, Nick Howell, who is ranked fifth in the world.
The dark green and dark red colors are superb, and I learned that they are traditional in Bordeaux. I should probably not call the red burgundy, but so it seemed to me.
The court itself is excellent and plays to a high level even though it was built to a different budgetary standard than Wellington.
Behind the dedans is a pro shop and clubroom, both of which are comfortable and entirely fit-for-purpose. There is a sitting room at the serving end that overlooks the court through a large glass window in the back wall.
Above the out of play lines is a recessed balcony surrounding the court from which superior viewing is possible. This should come in very handy in late June when the World Doubles Championship will be held there.
The building itself is in a sports park that offers other games including soccer and padel.
We had three hours of excellent doubles during which to get the feel of the world’s newest court. It is thoughtfully designed, and it demonstrates that an excellent court on which players will have a wonderful time can be built on a budget, which is vitally important to the future of the game.
I spent the final Sunday of the trip at Hardwick House, the most traditional of courts and in the most traditional of ways with a rained-out — and thus indoor — picnic.
This painting of the court, by the Hon. Neville Litton, shows the artist at the hazard end and Charles Rose, grandson of the founder at the serving end.
Vern Cassin, Sarah Backhouse, Vaughn Williams, Suzy Williams, James Walton, Carolyn Holmes, Carolyn Fox, David Fox, Rachel Heslop, and I were the fortunate participants in the day’s events.
Each player drew a number out of a hat, which determined the pairings for multiple short matches. Fortunately, Sarah Backhouse was the winner as the prize was a crown of spring flowers.
Unfortunately, there was a sad moment at lunch when we raised a glass to Francis Hamilton, who had died a few days before. He and Catherine had been set to join us that day.
Francis was a founding board member of Prince’s Court who climbed a chain link fence in Newport with me to play his first game since leaving Oxford about four decades earlier. He was the chauffeur and provider of the great white Oldsmobile for the Eclipse Tour in 1999, and a near 40-year friend, who will be much missed.
Status of the Quest
If you have ever wondered what a person looks like when achieving a long-sought objective, here is your answer.
For the third time, I had now completed playing in every court in the world. Pau came along after I had played all the others, so I had to play that in 2007. Now Wellington and Bordeaux are added to the life list. Covid travel restrictions could have thwarted the effort but didn’t so another bullet was dodged.
I returned home to finish turning these stories into a book and to continue working with my Prince’s Court and Westwood teammates to bring that new court to fruition later this summer.
Playing on it will mark the fourth time that a checkmark has been placed next to every court in the world. That picture might be a bit more emotional.