My Grandfather’s Shoes

The Danby Cup is a team event for players who are over 70 years old in a little-known game called court tennis. It is part of a biennial series known as the World Masters Amateur Championship that includes individual (singles and doubles) and team (country versus country) events at the over 50, 60 and 70 levels. Should the need arise, individuals can exclude even marginally younger opponents by playing in over 55s, 65s, and 75s as well. This year, 90 people from four countries made their way to the east coast to give it a go in one or more events. A laurel wreath evoking Greek mythology symbolized the competition.

The game is played in only four places: Australia, France, Great Britain and the United States. About 60% of the world’s players live in England where half the courts are located. Australia and United States have fewer courts and fewer players while France is a rounding error.

Don’t take that to mean it is not a good game or a game unworthy of love. It is a terrific game, perhaps one of the best, (a court tennis professional, for whom I have the highest regard, took issue with the words “one of the” earlier in this sentence when I sent him a draft for comment). Besides, anything that gets older people off the sofa and replaces the TV remote with a racquet is almost per se a good thing.

There is another aspect of the game that could serve as an example for sports that are mired in scandal. There might be ten or eleven thousand court tennis players in the world and there are less than 50 courts. Those who play at one court are warmly welcomed at all of the others. Take up court tennis and you will have friends in four countries. As your tenure in the game increases, you come to know pretty much everyone who plays, and that puts a premium on your lifetime reputation. In court tennis, reputation correlates with sportsmanship.

Typically, the results of these age-group competitions show an inverse correlation to distance traveled and a positive correlation to the total number of players in a country. The United States hosted this year, which was good for America (distance), England (more players) and bad for Australia (distance again).

Not surprisingly, there are very few players over 70, as the game requires mobility, strength and cunning. As the years go by, mobility and strength diminish while cunning often increases.

Then there is the pain. The hard floor takes a toll on hips and knees while the heavy racquet and ball do the same to wrists, elbows and shoulders. Jury rigged bracing solutions are legion as are ice packs and bottles of ibuprofen. If you are over 70 and still playing, chances are you are pretty broken down.

Sometime in the future, 70-year-old players will look far better than they do today. They will have stretched for their entire athletic lives, but they are not very mobile now and, even in doubles, the court is big, the racquet is small, and the ball goes fast.

An easy story could be written that would demean the game with hash tags like #Privilege, #WASP or #POSH. If it were more widely known, The New Yorker would have run more cartoons about it, but a story can be both true and undeserved.

There is another category in which mocking stories would be undeserved. Do you know why cheating is so frowned upon in golf? Because it is so easy. If there were not an absolute ethic against cheating in golf, there would be no game at all. Same with court tennis. There are too many rules and too many close calls. The referee, called a marker, sits at one end of the court looking through a net, and some calls will happen at the other end nearly 110 feet away. Often the marker must depend on the players to help him.

In court tennis, the rule applied when this happens is simple. It is actually more than rule. It is an ethic. It is a definition of one’s self. If in doubt, call the play for your opponent. It has been this way for eight or nine centuries.

I have been involved in this game for my entire sports life as well as my father before me and his father before him. I learned to play at a private court in Long Island located inside the owner’s house. Here you will need a sense of dimensions. A court tennis court is 40% longer than the better-known tennis court and about the same width. It is three stories high. The cement walls are part of the game. When I said, “inside the owner’s house,” I did not mean adjacent to it. There was a significant swimming pool on the floor beneath. Today, the impressionist paintings I passed on my way to play with my father as a teenager are to be found in the National Gallery in Washington.

My father ran the Long Island court while its owner was President Eisenhower’s Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. He also restored the court in Newport, Rhode Island that had been idle for 50 years as a result of a fire. My grandfather was president of the only club in New York City where the game is played. I inherited the same aberrational gene and helped to build a court in Washington and will soon have to replace it.

As a child, when I was not walking past the Impressionist paintings to play court tennis with my father, I often did things like eat dinner and there I was told stories — the WASP equivalent of Norse tales of pillage and plunder.

One that I heard often became known as “my grandfather’s shoes.” He was playing a different game called rackets in England and he was very good at it. He would go by steamship in the 1920s to play in multiple tournaments in London, Manchester and various English “public” (read private) schools. He remains the only American ever to win the British amateur rackets singles title. (Rackets is an even smaller game than court tennis so don’t look for him on the Wheaties box. The two games are often played by the same people in the same places.)

Well, it seems that before an important final in England, my grandfather’s shoes went missing. He had to borrow a pair from someone else. I have no idea what happened in the match. The WASP folk tale did not include the result, but the story went into great detail as to the distraction created by the missing shoes. Not surprisingly, after the match was over, the shoes magically reappeared in their appointed place.

The lesson imparted from grandfather to father in the 1920s and from father to son in the 1950s was simple – “don’t believe a word of this English fair play myth. They cheat.”

I might have believed that to some degree in the 1950s, but the 1960s pretty much put an end to generalizing. I could not let myself believe that a whole country cheated. Plus, I saw, on more than one occasion, that we happily cheated them back. This was most notably accomplished through hometown rulings made by those who administered the game.

Here a distinction should be made. There are US-UK competitions in which cheating is rampant. For at least a century, it was an art form in the America’s Cup, which now routinely resolves disputes in the courtroom.

Now back to the Danby Cup.

After an initial decision not to bother to travel any distance to lose in the first rounds of the World Masters, the phone rang last winter (or maybe it was an email). It was our over 70-team captain inviting me to play on the U. S. Danby Cup team. Cue the ABC Olympic music. Picture a flag on my white shirt. Don’t picture the beleaguered team captain bent double over a barrel scraping the bottom to find the necessary six players. I said “yes.”

The individual events went according to form: quick first round losses to stronger opponents. In the over 70s, the teams no longer play singles. The court is too wide for those with ample mid sections perched on artificially braced stick figure legs. In the Danby cup, there are six players divided into three doubles pairs. It takes two matches to win.

France did not have a team and Australia barely mustered five players so one poor fellow had to play twice. They were beaten by both Great Britain and the United States who then played each other for the gold.

For some reason, the order of play is one, three, two leaving all of the pressure on the second-best team. As a “barrel scrapee,” I was in the third pair and came on court after our stars had won a three-set struggle.

Fifty years ago, John McPhee wrote a brilliant book called “Levels of the Game” about the 1968 United States open tennis championship final between Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe. He used virtually a point-by-point framework to explore the differences between the two players. Robert Lipsyte, the New York Times reviewer, called it the high point of American sports journalism. This is not the moment for that even if I could do it.

Over seven decades in sport, my attitude has evolved. It needed to. Wins and losses were over-emphasized to both my father’s detriment and mine. I needed to separate the ideas of playing and competing because I was not very good at combining the two. There were cocktail and dinner parties surrounding the age-group festival and I found myself feeling sorry for those who thought this event “life-defining.” I preferred my more recreational approach of trying to be as good as I could be, which would either be enough or not. It is entirely fair to describe my late-in-life approach as a second choice, as most of the best athletes both play and compete, but I’d rather do one even marginally well than fail to do both.

Before the match begins, it is useful to know a couple of things about the players. I was the worst, which means I rank barely in the top fifth of the world’s players and I drop to the top third when compared to those who have recorded results in a worldwide computer ranking system during the last year. If compared to those who are over 70, my ranking zooms to the top 10%, but that compares me to players not to competitors. Those at the middle or bottom of the world rankings don’t play in championships. Nearly everyone at this event was ranked higher than me. My partner was better than me and our opponents were better than either of us. At least according to the computer.

My partner and I won the first set 6-2. We led 5-4, 30-15 in the second and we were serving, which provides about a 60-40 advantage in court tennis. The ABC Olympic music and the flag-waving were two points away.

Now, here is something useful to know about court tennis. The court is not symmetrical. The two ends are different, and you only serve from one of them. You don’t take turns serving; you have to earn it, either by making your opponent do something bad or by doing something good.

At that very moment, my grandfather’s shoes again disappeared. I hit a ball that was about to do something bad but in fact hit our opponent, resulting in what should have been a point to us.  It should have been match point. The opponent denied being hit and the referee, sitting about a hundred feet away, did not see it.

When that happens, and it happens often, the call is left to the player, but it is axiomatic in court tennis that, if in doubt, you make the call against yourself. As in golf, there can be no cheating simply because cheating is too easy.

He didn’t. The crowd – maybe 20 or 30 – gasped.

If you have ever competed, especially as an individual, you know how this goes. The delicate balance, often called flow, is disrupted. The best athletes “re-rupt” after disruption but the average ones don’t.

We changed ends at the appropriate time and eventually lost the game for five all. After a struggle, we lost the next and thus that set. We had a chance to win the third set as I channeled a psychologist friend and his Zen teachings. I also channeled my tennis player wife, who has had a far more distinguished career in tennis and squash than me, but a career that was often marred by cheating. “Remember, they only cheat at the most important points,” she says. “For a cheater it is an art form.”

We lost the third set 6-4, shook hands (somewhat icily) and watched our final pair lose decisively.

Fold the flag. Stop the ABC Olympic music. No gold medal for us.

Back in the same locker room, where both my father and grandfather had sat after wins and losses, I was quietly imagining my grandfather’s shoes. It would have been easy to fall into the WASP myth trap: “don’t believe a word of the English fair play myth; they cheat.”

The shoes did not magically reappear, but three separate Brits did, each with a variation of “that was a disgrace, he is known for it, he must never be allowed on an international team again, so sorry.” So did the offending player, with the words, “wonderful match it’s a shame anyone had to lose, half point each don’t you know.” He disappeared with no reply from me because he did not seem to expect one. Just as well.

I have found a prominent place on my desk for the silver medal we won. Some athletes hate silver and have even thrown such medals away. I won’t.

It will remind me of the conversation I had the next day with my Zen psychologist friend.

“I still get to be me, and he still has to be him.”

Whole countries don’t cheat but the individuals who do sometimes make that hard to remember.

34 Responses to “My Grandfather’s Shoes”

Richard Meyer, November 15, 2019 at 7:46 pm said:

A wonderful essay, Haven. I love the picture of you and Dad at the opening of Princes Court. Richard

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Haven Pell, November 15, 2019 at 7:51 pm said:

Thank you Richard. Court tennis certainly contributed to my aversion to cheating.

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Matt Fraidin, November 15, 2019 at 10:06 pm said:

I agree with Richard and I agree with the unnamed court tennis professional who bristled. Thanks for sharing this.

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Haven Pell, November 16, 2019 at 6:10 am said:

Thank you Matt. Cheating is binary. You either do it or hate it.

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James Walton, November 16, 2019 at 1:25 am said:

A masterpiece in reflection, well written and rather more interesting than most sports stories. Printed copies should be available in the dedans of all the clubs, for moments of quiet reflection. By the way, the British Open starts at Queen’s on Sunday and Carey is broadcasting it.

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Haven Pell, November 16, 2019 at 5:47 am said:

Thank you James. If printed copies were available, as you suggest, they would represent my largest “print sales” ever.

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Dan Bacon, November 16, 2019 at 7:41 am said:

Wonderful, Haven…

I went over to Greentree several times with ADW lll and your nice story brought back lots of fun memories…

Danny

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Haven Pell, November 16, 2019 at 7:49 am said:

Thank you Danny. I am glad you liked it. Beginning in January, there will be a series on almost all the courts in the world. The first will be Greentree because it was where i first played. Hope you like those too.

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David Barry, November 16, 2019 at 8:14 am said:

Brilliant piece, Haven. Really superb writing. Your modest self-deprecation is fun, as is the precision of your story-telling. I have an incomplete memory of attending a court tennis match in Boston during the ‘60s with the late Rosie Blake. She was wearing a short skirt (a mini, I guess) and my hair was Peter Fonda “Easy Rider” length, with rimless glasses from the same movie. We were not dressed for court tennis nor particularly appreciated, and I apologize now for the distraction we caused then. We were looked at with unveiled curiosity, as if possible escapees from the zoo. I think I remember some of the game. It was singles, and I think I recall the noisiness of the players making the strokes, which I would not hear in tennis until advanced microphones brought the real noise to the tv audience. Much kudos for such a well-wrought piece. This has a similar tone and style to “And We Still Don’t Want You!” Which is my favorite HNBP piece so far. Keep them coming!

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Haven Pell, November 17, 2019 at 8:35 am said:

Thanks Dave, watch this space for more of those. Love the customer feedback.

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Tim Warburton, November 16, 2019 at 9:48 am said:

Dave/Haven
Perhaps we need a link to the aforementioned “And We Still Don’t Want You” piece….. revs up all my elitist English musings.

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Haven Pell, November 17, 2019 at 8:32 am said:

Tim and Dave, point well taken. I will reprise that story. There are also some others along similar lines. Time for those too.

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Analog, November 16, 2019 at 9:53 am said:

That’s a great story. Your opponent’s team mate could have called it as well as he was nearest to the non call. If the gallery could see it, surely both players could as well. At 30-15 your opponents “silent partner” could have dispatched an EZ ball into the bottom of the net – I will do that in lawn tennis – that at least replaces the point but not the timing in the game. Great sports writing!

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Haven Pell, November 17, 2019 at 8:30 am said:

Thank you. I appreciate the comment. You are correct about the partner too. As we all know, there are many life lessons in sports. While winning is surely on the list of goals it need not always be at the top.

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Charles G Houghton, November 16, 2019 at 10:13 am said:

Haven – thank you so much for the article, which brought back so many wonderful memories of playing court tennis with your father in Newport. He was definitely over 70 and I so think it is the best game. All the run of squash but far more complicated.

Wish I could still play but a bad accident on roller blades messed up my left leg and going left and right just does not work. I am like an alligator on dry land, I can only go forward and backwards but turning is a slow process.

All the very best and I was delighted to read that you are still out on the court with the right spirit.

Chuck Houghton

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Haven Pell, November 17, 2019 at 8:27 am said:

Thank you Chuck. Sorry to hear about the roller blading accident. What a bummer. The game misses you.

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John Beale, November 17, 2019 at 8:00 am said:

William Buckley would have loved this piece. Articulate, self deprecating stories about lesser known sports. I watched Temple play at the Racquet Club of Philadelphia and I loved the game even though it was too deep for a simple cove to fathom. Thanks for a wonderful read.

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Haven Pell, November 17, 2019 at 8:25 am said:

Thank you John. Glad you liked it. I plan to do more with this topic including a monthly series beginning in January. One theme, perhaps videos, would be veteran players explaining the game to newcomers. True, it is complicated but many have picked it up. It would be interesting to see who could make it the clearest. Maybe you should be on the judging panel?

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Vaughan Williams, November 17, 2019 at 5:32 pm said:

Good stuff . I wonder who your oppo was. Hardwick now has an over 70s singles competition now, I am in training ! Best Vaughan

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Haven Pell, November 17, 2019 at 6:42 pm said:

Play well in the 70s. You would represent your country well in the Danby Cup.

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John Austin Murphy, November 17, 2019 at 6:42 pm said:

Haven, I have forwarded your instructive essay to several others touring English courts with me right now.

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Haven Pell, November 17, 2019 at 6:45 pm said:

Thank you John. One of the best parts of this game is the welcome we all receive everywhere we go. Enjoy your tour.

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Madeline Rockwell, November 18, 2019 at 9:47 pm said:

Nice bit of writing. Thanks…

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Richard Moroscak, November 19, 2019 at 11:48 am said:

What an incredible article Haven. As always extremely well done.

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Haven Pell, November 19, 2019 at 2:43 pm said:

Thanks Rich. The game is worth preserving

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Haven Pell, November 20, 2019 at 9:40 am said:

I guess she’d be flattered at her post mortem impact on the fellas.

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Jimmy Weekes, November 21, 2019 at 8:38 am said:

Ah, Greentree. I remember those wonderful bathtubs, the pool and watching our fathers play on Sundays. I also remember hearing that Larry Chaplin did a naked cannonball off the diving board while Mrs. Whitney was enjoying her breakfast, banning us all from pool use for a while. As a tennis player I was in the bottom 40% of any group of players I ever encountered, but always enjoyed it. I can recall one afternoon watching your father playing against you and Peter on the grass courts at Piping Rock. I believe that he invented trash talk. He had you two in knots.

I tried to play court tennis a few times, once with Towny Grey, and having a very hard time serving, as I am a lefty. When I first took lawn tennis lessons from Pierre Etchebaster he would not teach a southpaw and switched me to righty. George Ellis caught this and switched me back, but I was too lazy to relearn the serve, so I would serve righty and play lefty. Mediocre from both sides of the plate.

One question, has there ever been a reall good left-handed court tennis player?

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Haven Pell, November 21, 2019 at 8:25 pm said:

Great memories Jimmy. I will do a post on Greentree in late December or early January. The naked cannonball has been attributed to many including (erroneously) me.

Camden Riviere, who goes back and forth with Rob Fahey as World Champion, is a lefty. There are others in the world top 10 as well.

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Temple Grassi, November 23, 2019 at 6:16 am said:

I have been playing this game since the mid 1970s and I have never come across cheating🤞. Maybe I’ve been lucky or maybe I’m naive. If you do cheat in court tennis, people are going to hear about it and your reputation will be ‘shot’.
A great article – thanks for posting- gotta run- on court at 7:45 am!!! Playing in Philadelphia in The Jimmy Dunn with my partner and new friend, Mark Beauchamp from Boston/England/Australia.

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Haven Pell, November 23, 2019 at 7:41 am said:

Keep beating the drum for the integrity of the game, Mr. Ambassador. It inspires newer players.

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Simon Talbot-Williams, December 06, 2019 at 2:49 am said:

Read so many times Haven, the cringing becomes more intense each time. As you know I was one of the “20-30 gaspers” and then one of the three to apologise. I remain ashamed of my countryman. I am sure the offending person will not feature again but if there is any risk of him doing so I will always make my opinion known and then continue to protest until he withdraws or is withdrawn!

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Haven Pell, December 06, 2019 at 6:43 am said:

Thank you Simon. Your comment means a lot. We are fortunate to have a good thing going in this game. On balance there is far more contribution to well being and country-to-country relations than there is harm. It is aspirational to think there will be no harm whatever, but we can all do our best to minimize it. I appreciated the gasps. I appreciated the apology. More so, I appreciate your comment. Hope we get to play soon.

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