Note: This story of the building of Prince’s Court first appeared in the Winter 1998 edition of the Alumni Horae, the alumni magazine of St. Paul’s School. I chose not to update any of the information to more accurately reflect the last 22 years. There are several anachronistic references, like “sport of kings” that I would have used at the time but no longer. There are also some errors that I chose not to correct because I believed them at the time. For example, Henry VIII was not playing court tennis when Anne Boleyn was beheaded, but she was betting on court tennis when summoned to the Privy Council to be sentenced.
There is a man in Texas who is the patron saint of those who undertake “unlikely” tasks. This man wishes to build a trebuchet. In fact, he wishes to build the largest trebuchet in all of history. First, you should know what a trebuchet is, just in case you don’t. A trebuchet is a catapult of the sort used to besiege castles in the Middle Ages. But the Texan trebuchet is more ambitious. When completed — there have been several tries and many years of effort — it will launch a Buick. The Buick will fly farther than any Buick has ever flown before. In fact, the Buick will fly farther than anything has ever flown off the sling arm of a trebuchet. The man has devoted much of his adult life to this. He has a website. He is seriously into it.
Should you ever set off on an unlikely, perhaps even weird endeavor, remember this man. He is important to you. His life’s mission is weirder than yours. He can be pointed to when others make small circles around their ears with their fingers and drift away from you at social gatherings. If you do what I did for the last ten years, people will make those small circles around their ears with their fingers and they will definitely think you are crazy. They will even say it. They will tell your wife. She will agree. She will roll her eyes. You will identify with the trebuchet guy. He will become your hero.
You see I built a court tennis court, one of only about 40 in the world. Court tennis is the forerunner of tennis, as the rest of the world knows it. That upstart game was created in the 1870s by Colonel Wingfield as a gentle recreation to be indulged in by ladies and gentlemen at English house parties. By the time Colonel Wingfield lowered the bar to make an easier game, court tennis had existed for almost 900 years. Henry VIII had played it even as his wife, Anne Boleyn, was being beheaded. The battle of Agincourt had been lost because the archers were wasting time gambling at “real” tennis while their enemies practiced their craft. And, only about a century earlier, the French Revolution had begun with an oath taken in a court. But Colonel Wingfield has prevailed. His game is far more popular — only about 5,000 court tennis players remain in the world today.
Why then does one do this? Why does an ordinary working stiff with a wife, no dog, and three tuition-consuming children spend 10 years raising money, designing the court, finding a site and generally hitting his head against the wall to bring a little-known game to Washington, D.C.? The easiest answer is because he didn’t know any better when he began. While true, that is probably not the only reason, and I have spent some months trying to figure out the others. It has not been easy.
One reason, of course, is so obvious it is easily forgotten. I had in fact played the game before. On vacations from St. Paul’s, my father frequently took me to Greentree, the home of John Hay Whitney, owner of the New York Herald Tribune and later Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Mr. Whitney had a private court which, I assumed, was pretty normal. Somewhere around V Form year, I figured out that it wasn’t. So, while other 15-year-olds were at little league with their Dads, I was stepping into the middle ages and hitting solid felt tennis balls over a drooping net and into obscure openings in the walls with French names like “grille” and “dedans” My “little league field” was in a very large house decorated with significant French Impressionist paintings, many of which were recently donated to the National Gallery. This, too, turned out to differ from the experiences of other 15-year-olds, but again that was news to me.
As tough a teacher as he was — and believe me he was – the experience of learning from my father must have been a positive one because I went on to play court tennis at Harvard for four years. We regularly thrashed Yale, Princeton, and Penn for the national collegiate championship before crowds numbering in the low single digits. No trophies or pictures survive this athletic dynasty because none were awarded, and none were taken.
This was my exposure to court tennis, and it was enough to make me want to bring the game to my hometown.
The project began in my kitchen. Cocktails might have been involved. Ok, they were. A group of friends, who had also played the game in other cities but lived in Washington, got together to talk about whether it could be brought to the capital of the free world. We thought it would take a couple of years at most. Find a site. Design the court. Hit up the cadre of tennis fanatics in America and elsewhere for contributions. Gather up some members and play ball. We were wrong. It took longer. A lot longer.
We were smart enough to know this was not a money-making proposition, so it had to be financed with contributions. Nowadays, that means tax-deductible contributions. We had to find a school or other charity willing to accept our donation. This had been tried some years earlier when a generous and highly skilled benefactor offered a court to his alma mater, Princeton. It was summarily rejected as elitist before anyone ever even heard of political correctness. Not promising.
But we have lots of private schools in Washington, so I set off to sell the idea to the headmasters. I met them all. They were not impressed. Bishop John Walker, whose responsibilities included a cluster of schools surrounding the National Cathedral, was the only person who was even polite. But that was only because he had taught me at St. Paul’s and felt obligated to hear me out.
The Washington International School, an institution catering to the children of the diplomatic community and the World Bank, was the only school to show any interest. They were so new that they had no alumni old enough to be generous. They saw it as a “development opportunity.” We designed a building to meet their needs and ours, and we were ready to go. Only three years had elapsed since the kitchen meeting. We were ready to begin when their board ran amok. They wanted a $1 million contribution to let us proceed. The project died. For the first time.
Surely there were more schools, perhaps needier ones. I found one: Mt. Vernon College, a struggling women’s college with a declining enrollment whose president had a background in development. She looked upon us as hope for her tiny school. Again, designs were prepared. We even held a competition for architects who spent considerable time and effort to create some innovative plans. Again, we were set to go. But simultaneously, Mt. Vernon borrowed a considerable sum from Georgetown University and pledged its well-situated campus to secure the debt. Less kindly people might suggest that Georgetown was motivated in making the loan by the desire to solve its space problems rather than the preservation of women’s higher education. Georgetown took one look at our idea and shot us out of the water a second time. Three more years had gone by.
These failures took a toll on our long, suffering board whose interest in the idea dwindled as their friends and family made ever more fun of our prospects. Two failures, when success was at hand — and worse had been announced to the public — contributed little to our self-esteem. Some early supporters began to drift away. I learned a lot about the management of volunteer boards, but sadly I learned most of it long after the knowledge would have been any use. There was little board left to manage but, fortunately, a small group of loyalists soldiered on while listening to monthly reports of imminent success followed by abject failure. In retrospect, they were as much a support group as a board of directors. In my life, I will form no greater friendships than with this group of half-a-dozen Americans and two Englishmen who kept the embers of the idea glowing.
I will spare you the trail I pursued of wretched warehouses, industrial parks, historic renovations, and other quixotic ideas. I learned a lot about the geography of our city but accomplished little during this period. Many more failures, most of which I have repressed. It seemed the moment to drive the garlic spike into the idea.
But we got lucky. And, oddly enough, luck was at the hands of a lawyer. He had long been working with us and had, in fact, come up with the ill-fated Mt. Vernon idea. He discovered a provision in the tax law that found its way there after the Olympic debacle of 1976. The Russians had beaten us badly. In the midst of the cold war, that was a big problem. State sports seemed to be the answer but not one with which our country was comfortable. Tax deductible sports were the next best thing, so a line was written in the Internal Revenue Code permitting every sport in which there is international competition to have a foundation, accept deductible contributions, and own an athletic facility. We didn’t need the schools anymore and surprisingly the IRS is not allowed to be concerned about elitism. If you are a sport — we are — if you are international — we are — and if there isn’t another, the foundation is yours for the asking. Well, it is not that simple, but it only took another year.
Now, any place was fine. We no longer needed to bootstrap off an existing charitable organization. An element in our favor was the over population of indoor tennis courts. Colonel Wingfield’s game is too difficult for the mass of American recreational athletes, and former players have abandoned the game in droves. The owners of these empty courts are keen to put them to better use and, after only two more years of negotiating, we had a deal with the largest owner of sports clubs in the area to convert one of their courts — at our expense — to the game of Kings.
Our architect knew we were nuts but since we had paid all his bills, he was kind enough to keep drawing pictures. The construction firm was another matter. The last court built in this country was after the war — the First World War. My father had renovated a court in Newport, R. I., but that contractor knew enough not to do another. I doubt the firm we ended up using would do another either, but that was ok. They built ours in only about six months.
Finally, in October 1997 we opened. Representatives from almost every court in the world were on hand. More importantly, my 86-year-old father, then in declining health, was able to be with us. So long as I live, I will never ever forget the look on his face when he first saw the result of ten years’ work.
A court tennis court is the size of a regular tennis court from fence to fence. Smooth dark gray concrete walls more than 20 feet high border it. These are a part of the game, and the ball is frequently hit against them to great advantage. Along three sides of the court are shed-like structures with sloping roofs and irregularly placed openings called galleries. A drooping net topped with thick green felt bisects it. The floor is lined at one, yard intervals to mark “chases” at one end and “hazards” at the other. Though chases and hazards are important concepts to an understanding of the game, they are best left to another day.
My father was looking into this unique court through the first glass wall ever used in the game. It was designed to open the game to a wider audience. The first child to see Disney World could not have been more taken by the sight. Seven months later, to the day, my father was dead, and only then did I understand another of the reasons I had pursued this project. So far as is known (and there are actual published, hardbound books on the subject), we are the first father and son to build court tennis courts in the history of the game. The day after the opening, he and I played a match against one of his favorite professionals and a long-time sparring partner, but that disappointed him a little. We only split sets.
A third reason was revealed the week after my father died. I was playing in the semi-finals of our first club championship, and I was defeated convincingly by a 15-year-old, lawn-tennis phenomenon who had taken up the game only months earlier. He went on to win the tournament, and he will be one of the great champions of the game in years to come. Had we not put this game next to his practice court, he might never have seen it, let alone get hooked by it. In the finals this young man beat another beginner, albeit a tennis professional, who believes he is the finest Hawaiian court tennis player in history. It might be true. In fact, we have succeeded in broadening this game from elite and often all-male confines to a larger arena.
In a broader sense, there was another reason and it, too, is pretty obvious. I like sports. Indeed, I like this game. It is sport for sport’s sake and nothing more. That became clear while watching the semifinals of a professional tournament. The number two player in the world was in a five-set struggle and leading 30-15 in the final game. He called a ball down on himself. The referee (known as a marker) had missed the double bounce. 30 all. Another point was played, and he won it. 40-30. Then, at match point, he got a bad call and said not a word. Deuce. But he was done. A few more points and it was over. He smiled as he shook his opponent’s hand and as he thanked the marker for his efforts. A welcome change from some of what we see on athletic fields today.
Now a year later, there are 50 players in Washington, many of whom are new to the game. We have played matches against Australians and teams from many courts in England. This week we will play against Hampton Court, built 400 years ago by Henry VIII. Visitors to Washington contact us over the Internet to arrange games with us. Friendships have developed that might otherwise never have happened. Our women players aspire to play Sally Jones and Penny Lumley, the world’s best. We have teenage girls who might play someday before sparse crowds for their colleges.
In the end, I could try to think up countless reasons to have done this. Maybe it does not matter. Had I known at the outset how hard it would be, I might never have started. But then I wouldn’t have seen that look on my father’s face. Or had the chance to introduce this game to a 15-year-old who might in time become a champion. Or maybe even someday build a court.