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.