HRH Real Tennis Tour 2018 USA
Court Tennis Tour 2018
â€œWhy on earth do you want to do that?â€ This is the sort of question you might think, but should rarely ask out loud. Particularly when discussing an apparently mad endeavour such as running a marathon every day, or climbing some notorious, far-flung mountain, or rowing across an ocean or skiing across a frozen continent; for what might seem mad to you or me can give someone else enormous pleasure. Well, actually, itâ€™s probably less to do with pleasure and more to do with the satisfaction of setting and overcoming a particular challenge.
From many years of experience of The Duke of Edinburghâ€™s International Award I have learnt that this strange human characteristic is not particular to any one culture, but can be found anywhere in the world. Itâ€™s been a long time since I did my Gold Award, but I now find that I have succumbed, once again, to this peculiar trait and have set myself a bit of an ambition; not an overly dramatic one I hasten to add, but perhaps an appropriately eccentric one: I have decided to play every Court, Royal or Real Tennis court in the world.
This is not an unusual ambition among Court Tennis players, but Iâ€™m not aware of anyone who has tried to do it in one calendar year. Inevitably, once I started discussing this with the some of the experts I soon discovered courts I had hitherto unheard of, such as â€œtrinquetâ€ and â€œtripotâ€. My researchers have therefore produced a list of about 50 courts in 5 countries (taking into account benign ownership, permissions, playability etc.) and my aim is to play three sets of doubles on each court.
The Duke of Edinburghâ€™s International Award
Apart from the personal need to do this sooner rather than later (in other words while I still think I can!) there are some other factors behind my rather bizarre choice of activity. The common element is The Duke of Edinburghâ€™s Award. Real Tennis was my choice of Physical Activity to achieve my Gold Award, which inspired a bit of a passion and a sport which I have continued to enjoy. 2018 marks thirty years of The Duke of Edinburghâ€™s International Award Association, formed to help the growing spread of the DofE around the world which today operates in more than 130 countries and territories and involves more than one million young people. Above all I hope to open young peopleâ€™s eyes to the opportunities out there, sports clubs to be more open and welcoming to potential players and adults to be more encouraging; to experience the satisfaction of helping a young person to achieve a goal of their choice.
To this end, the whole tour has an additional economic purpose with an attempt to leave a financial legacy for the benefit of young people. Clubs have been asked to find different players for each set, who could be novices, juniors, seniors or professionals, hopefully sponsored. The DofE will also benefit from fundraising activities and opportunities generated by the tour.
Charting My Odyssey
The Court Tennis Tour started on 18th January in Cambridge where I learnt to play. Today there are two courts, there was only one in my day and it was unbelievably cold as the photographs from that time show. A number of players have asked me to record my observations of each of the courts, how they differ and how they play. So I am endeavouring to chart my Odyssey around the courts and countries* for those who are interested or who simply think Iâ€™ve gone mad and are still wondering, â€œWhy on earth do you want to do that?â€!
* what follows are only the American courts, but the numbering is the total list.
Court 32 â€“ Washington
The first of the United States of America leg of my Odyssey kicked off at the appropriately named Princeâ€™s Court. This was my second visit to the newest court in America, built in 1997, it is it is also rather unique for three reasons: itâ€™s built at one end of a massive indoor multi-sports hall which in itself is part of the Sport and Health Fitness Centre in McLean. You might think, therefore, that the court, let alone the sports hall, would be relatively easy to find, but not so! Well, itâ€™s at the top of the building for one, the staircase is like a hotelâ€™s â€“ enclosed and hidden â€“ and there is little signage to help. I was very glad I had a guide!
For the intrepid, the challenge is worth it as the third reason is the courtâ€™s principal feature: a unique glass main wall. This makes for a great club room with unrivalled viewing. On the whole itâ€™s not that distracting for players, unless, I suppose, the spectators were to start having a wild party or a fracas, but nothing like that happened during this afternoon! The court itself is black with a blue bandeau, the floor is concrete painted red, the Penthouses are made of wooden panels rather than planks. The overall effect is relatively generous with the ball generally slowing after bouncing so it does take cut. However the glass wall creates no drag or spin, so the ball comes off this quicker.
The one discernible quirk of this court is the Penthouses which do slow the ball noticeably, which helps the serve, but can and does affect other shots. So I found that a ball off a Penthouse, end wall and then side Penthouse could just drop back onto the court or even develop back spin. Luckily itâ€™s not a common or intentional shot so it doesnâ€™t happen very often. The last feature Iâ€™ll mention is that above the out of court line is netting which is all that separates the court from the rest of multi-sports hall. I mention it only because it makes you think about the rest of the ingenuity of the construction.
The three sets were pretty evenly matched and progressively demanding, although I sensed that there might just have been an element of jet lag beginning to affect my own game not to mention the humidity. The locals certainly knew how to use the height of the court to lob rather too effectively. Huge thanks to the club for making me feel so welcome and for supporting the day so generously. Special thanks to James Greeley for running the junior masterclass and for Ivan Ronaldson who marked all three sets. And so this little tour of 9 cities and 10 courts in 12 days is underway . . . did I really agree to it?
Court 33 â€“ Philadelphia
This was my first visit to the historic Racquet Club and it turned out to be quite a memorable one. The street frontage typically disguises whatâ€™s behind and would be unremarkable except for the not so subtle flag over the front entrance! Perhaps the bigger one just comes out for special occasions?!? The entrance hall, staircase and rooms off are impressive and grand by todayâ€™s standards. Upstairs it becomes a warren of rooms, squash courts (including the first doubles squash court), swimming pool, a huge changing room, a â€˜torture chamberâ€™ (my expression for a room full of so-called â€˜exerciseâ€™ machines) and finally on the top floor their famous racquets and tennis courts, both built by Joseph Bickley.
Another very high court with a lovely pitched roof, although the glazing has been blacked out, so is lit artificially by a myriad of strip lights. This works well until someone lobs the ball over the lights when it is very easy to lose sight of it. The court is a traditional black with a dark red bandeau, the floor is painted red and the upper areas are white. There are some windows, but relatively small and one wonders quite what happened before electric light! There are also two high level viewing galleries either side of the Service End. The Penthouses appear slightly steep and the back wall seemed livelier than under the Dedans, meaning the ball sits up more at the Hazard End, but definitely not so at the Service End. The Tambour, however, is obtuse and demands respect by the uninitiated!
There was a very large turn out by the members in spite of the heat and humidity, in fact I reckon Iâ€™ve been in saunas that have been cooler than this court! The advantage the spectators had were a couple of very large electric fans, one being situated just by Hazard The Door, yet every time we changed ends this fan had an unfriendly knack of always turning away so that those of us on court never got to enjoy a breeze. The last set was especially gruelling and I found myself in the middle of a family: father, daughter and husband; not sure what Iâ€™d done to deserve that draw?! Somehow we managed to play 37 games in all; no idea how I survived that, it was more of a test of endurance than anything else!
Robert Whitehouse was our marker throughout and John Lumley ran the masterclass with a number of novices who came through the local Outward Bound centre, some of whom showed real talent. The reception after the event was thankfully held in one of the air-conditioned club rooms on the ground floor, although there were so many people there that it seemed just as warm! Lovely atmosphere and hopefully some future support for the Duke of Edinburghâ€™s Award.
Court 34 â€“ Georgian Court University
This University, in Lakewood, New Jersey, was founded by the Sisters of Mercy, so imagine my surprise to be shown into the Casino. Evidently these were very progressive and enterprising nuns! It transpires that the Casino is a very large, historic building which pre-dates the University and constructed by George Gould, the former owner of the estate. Now when I say â€˜largeâ€™, you have to imagine a central hall which was designed as an indoor Polo arena, surrounded by a ballroom, swimming pool, Racquets court and, of course, a Tennis court.
The Tennis court was originally rescued more than 30 years ago and has been beautifully restored, particularly the woodwork, in fits and bursts by various enthusiasts. This has another very high pitched roof with glazing at the apex, we were fortunate to play on a cloudy day as the sun can and does affect the court. The wrought iron beams are integral, much like a conservatory. The colour scheme is traditional black with a dark green bandeau, red out of court line and pale green upper. The floor is concrete, painted red. There are also small windows down each side and some additional lighting at high level down the middle, but unobtrusive, all in all giving a wonderful spacious feeling.
However there is nothing benign about the way it plays. All the surfaces create drag, so although the ball comes off the floor relatively slowly, everything else reacts to and produces spin, in particular backspin off the Penthouses, slices or sidespin and of course cut! Therefore it was with some relief that circumstances encouraged us to change the format of play which made it a little less competitive. The first pairing was with three leaders of the game, including the president of the USCTA and the chair of the Preservation Foundation who had been instrumental in the restoration, but because they couldnâ€™t quite work out which pairing would work best decided to change after every 3 games. The next two sets were with students and staff from the University who were essentially beginners, so we kept the same format allowing everyone to play with each other. It actually worked surprisingly well and itâ€™s even possible that some of my tips may have helped!
Robert Whitehouse once again did the honours of marking all three sets for us and has been instrumental in promoting and coaching the game at Georgian Court. With luck, the event may have generated some wider interest in the University and help to secure the future of what is a gem of a court and building. It has certainly helped raise the awareness of the Duke of Edinburghâ€™s Award and I am particularly grateful to the Universityâ€™s President for his support and interest, as well as his staff who were involved in making us feel most welcome during our short stay.
Court 35 â€“ Chicago
The experience on this court was quite a contrast. First and foremost it is air-conditioned, alleluia! Secondly, it is rather dark and gives the impression of playing in a shoe-box; I was assured it is not shorter than your average court, but it certainly feels shorter.
The optical illusion is created by a roof that is fully enclosed, wooden and pitched, so depends on artificial lighting which I found relatively dim and took me some time to adjust to. They are also set quite low so can be obtrusive. The colour scheme is black, with a dark red bandeau and out of court line, the upper surfaces are grey and the floor is painted red. The Penthouses are quite a contrasting light coloured natural wood; they are also relatively steep so the ball can come down very close to the Back or Dedans walls. The Tambour is obtuse and the floor is quite bouncy so the ball does stay up most of the time and requires a heavy cut to have any effect.
The problem I had to begin with was simply judging the pace of the ball and court; it took me the whole of the first set to work out what was going on! The second and third sets felt much more comfortable, massively helped by the temperature on court. As I said, quite a contrast to the last few courts Iâ€™ve played!
The Racquet Club dates from 1923 and is very much in the style of the day. The Tennis Court was only recently restored, having been turned into a not-very-successful indoor lawn tennis court. The work prompted the Club to create a really nice bar and room behind the Dedans making the climb to the top of the building well worth it.
Once again, we were made to feel very welcome and there was a knowledgeable crowd of supporters to urge us on. John Cashman and Steve Virgona did the marking honours under slightly challenging conditions as the background noise of the air-conditioning as well as the crowd along with the usual poor acoustics makes it all quite hard work. Steve ran a masterclass with a few young people including a couple of Bronze Award participants from one of the local Boys and Girls Clubs.
The court has a couple of unique design features of note. If you look carefully, the Bandeau has one or two rats running along it and on the halfway line on the Back Wall is a picture of â€œBillyâ€ the terrier catching them, a reference to an illustration in the changing rooms. Considering my encounter with a gnome at Canford, Iâ€™m quite surprised no one has introduced â€œChase the Ratâ€ on this court!
Court 36 â€“ Aiken
Normally weather isnâ€™t really a consideration when playing an essentially indoor game, but on this Odyssey the challenge of reaching all the courts can come in all shapes and forms. So it was just our luck to arrive in America at pretty much the same time as Hurricane Florence decided to make for the Carolinas. Getting to Aiken was a priority, but we had also been invited to Charleston where they are planning to build a new court. We decided to cancel the Charleston element being on the coast, but to wait and see on Aiken. One day it was off, next day it was on, then it was re-scheduled for the end of the American leg; finally the weather cleared and we were able to fly in and out to do a modified version of the original programme.
Aiken actually missed the worst of Florence that became a tropical storm and only had a couple of inches of rain, considerably less than those who received a direct hit and got more like 40 inches! However, we experienced clear skies and 30C degrees, plus humidity. There wasnâ€™t a thermometer on the court, but let me assure you it was very hot!
This is a beautiful Joseph Bickley court built in 1898 much as you would expect with a high pitched roof, glazing in the centre and windows down each side. They have recently covered over the glazing and replaced with quite large and powerful lights which can be obtrusive and the intensity of the light on the floor varies. The floor itself is classically red, painted and relatively bouncy. The Penthouses are relatively steep so the ball can come down sharply; theyâ€™re pale blue which contrasts well with the traditional black walls and white upper areas with a white out of court line. Iâ€™m now getting used the obtuse Tambours in this part of the world.
It took me a while to get used to the lighting and the bounce, or at least thatâ€™s my excuse. We also had to cope with one or two dodgy balls, by that I mean that when you hit them they made a completely different noise! Thankfully the first set was relatively gentle, but inevitably the standard improved progressively over the next two. It will come as no great surprise to learn that my own game headed in the opposite! I did, however, earn huge brownie points from all the locals for simply attempting to play 3 sets, let alone actually enduring more than two and half hours on court and playing 37 games!
At the net there is a pineapple painted on the wall (the state symbol of South Carolina) which I was informed represents southern hospitality. Well I can vouch for that! We were given a great welcome and despite suggesting that they keep the event small there was a considerable turnout. Our grateful thanks to Trey Bogue for marking all three sets, but his suggestion to the crowd that they keep the noise down resulted in almost total silence! I finally persuaded them in the third set that we really did need some vocal support to keep us going and they did relax! A huge relief all round that we did make it to Aiken.
Court 37 â€“ Boston
Boston has quite a long history of Tennis. The first court in the country was built here in the 1870s, curiously by an American who came across the game in France. The Tennis and Racquet Club owns the third court which was built in 1904, just across the road from the second from which the founders were ejected for drinking too heavily. There are apparently two other disused courts in Boston.
This is an unusual building with the changing rooms in the basement and the courts (Tennis, Racquets and Squash) on the third and fourth floors. The middle of the building used to be offices, but now forms part of the Berkeley College of Music. I was rather hoping that our games might have been accompanied by the sounds of some of the students, but it was not the sound of music which came drifting down the galleries, rather the strains of a small and angry child who was evidently most put out that they werenâ€™t allowed on the Tennis court to play with the balls. As I learnt later, the small person decided racquet balls were not a viable alternative!
Much of this court is fairly traditional: black with dark green lines; white upper surfaces and red, painted floor; obtuse Tambour and relatively steep Penthouses. The key differences are that the glazing in the pitched roof has been covered and while there are windows down each side the main lighting is artificial and indirect; the floor has a type of lacquer finish which makes it quite shiny yet sticky at the same time. I find indirect lighting quite diffuse and less defined as a result I found that I was slower picking up the ball. The floor has quite a drag effect so that balls off the floor onto the wall, especially under the Dedans, can die or come back very low.
We had three particularly evenly matched sets and in spite of the challenges of the court I had one of those lucky days of being surprisingly on target in terms of the winning openings, including a high lob into the Dedans when attacking a particularly low chase. Meanwhile our opponents had some near misses, just hitting the Bandeau, one of which nearly took me out on the rebound. Then a cross-court Main Wall boast from just in front of the Door had me taking evading action, but not quite quickly enough and it somehow caught my left hand. Two of our three sets were timed out after 45 minutes which just goes to show how even they were.
There was a good turnout of club members to cheer us on and support the day. The club has two British professionals: Tony Hollins (?), who ran the masterclass with the juniors, and Leon (?) who marked all three of our sets. Huge thanks to them, the board and all the members for making us so very welcome.
Court 38 â€“ Newport
This was one court I have played before, but that was 27 years ago so it might just as well have been the first time. However, just to make me feel as if it was yesterday, Jacques Faulise, who had been a marker for that pro-am, was invited back to mark the final set on this day. Mike Gooding and Nick Howell shared the honours for the other two sets. Iâ€™m very grateful to them, of course, but I did feel a couple of Mikeâ€™s calls were a little harsh which Iâ€˜m sure had absolutely nothing to do with the very good lunch we enjoyed at Harbour Court (thatâ€™s the Newport home of the New York Yacht Club, not another Tennis venue!)
When I arrived at the National Tennis Club I was given a swift tour of the Hall of Fame and was slightly amazed to discover I was in it! Of course Iâ€™ve never been â€˜inductedâ€™, I just feature momentarily in a film about the origins of Tennis â€“ I know I look very young in the film, but I didnâ€™t realise that Iâ€™d been playing it for that long!!!
The notable features of this court are that the playing surfaces are grey, there are windows set in the back wall above the Penthouse which give a great view from the Pro-shop and they have the largest Bandeau in America; I know this because I kept finding it above the Dedans! The wooden pitched roof is enclosed so all the natural light is from windows on each side, the overhead artificial lights are good, but can be obtrusive. The Tambour is obtuse and the Penthouses steep, however the floor and walls are true. The Grille had an electronic clock which also became a timer, counting down our 45 minutes per set.
Our three sets were pretty evenly matched and closely fought. I played with two left-handers which always makes for a more interesting doubles pairing. Because of school times, the masterclass happened at the end of the session with a good crowd of juniors. There was a loyal group of supporters who stuck it out and seemed to be enjoying the Tennis. On the whole I found this to be a true court, well lit and for once I actually seemed to play with some consistency. Thanks to one and all for a great afternoon.
Court 39 â€“ Tuxedo Park
When it comes to settings, this court probably ranks in the top five. Set at one end of a large meandering lake that fills a wooded valley, the view from the veranda is truly memorable. Dotted around the lake are various not insignificant homes, most of which are at least a hundred years old, with all sorts of stories attached to them. The view might have been in the top three if it hadnâ€™t been for the series of clay tennis courts and accompanying netting built between the Tennis court and the lake!
This is another very classic court with a pitched wooden roof and beams where the central glazing has been covered as have the windows along the Penthouse side, so the natural light is only from above the Main Wall yet even this is indirect since these windows are behind an extensive viewing gallery with a wooden balustrade. The walls and Penthouses are black with green lines, the upper surfaces are white. Additional lighting is from strip lights which are not too obtrusive and provide a very even light. The floor is a very dull red, painted and slightly shiny so is relatively quick. However it was the slightly larger balls that took the most getting used to, although they might bounce more, they were also a bit heavier! The Dedans has a post in the middle of it, painted in the same green as all the other uprights, I mention this only because having spent most of the afternoon in Newport hitting the Bandeau, my first effort on this court hit the post and came straight back out. After cursing my luck and apologising to my partner I then discovered that it counted as â€˜inâ€™ . . . phew!
Tim Chisholm is the professional here and obviously has a good rapport with the members. He usually had an encouraging or disparaging remark for us as we changed ends, evidently picking up on my slowness around the court he wondered if Iâ€™d had too much pudding the night before! He also suggested that my partner tried moving his feet more . . . then, as if to reinforce this remark, the lights went out on the court; I did think that motion sensory lights was a little on the cruel side!
Once again, I found myself in the middle of a familial contest, only this one was marital. I and my fellow opponent hovered around the sides in trepidation in case one of the flurry of forces, volleys and boasts should happen to come our way! Thankfully this gentle display of marital harmony occurred after the children from the local school had been dragged back to their classes. Although some of them had been on the court before, for several this was their first encounter and it was only as spectators on this occasion, but I hope that our little exhibition might have tempted some to give it a go.
I am particularly grateful to the members who came to play and watch as a mid-week event isnâ€™t very convenient, the Park being livelier at weekends and during the holidays. To Tim for marking all three sets and our hosts who generously put us all up for the night as well as serving us such a delicious dinner and breakfast, which some of us obviously enjoyed rather too much!
Courts 40 and 41 â€“ New York
Our final destination of the American Tennis Odyssey, however the Racquet and Tennis Club has two courts: East and West, although how youâ€™re supposed to work out which is which after the labyrinthine route to the fourth floor is anyoneâ€™s guess? As part of the rules of this challenge I had to play both courts, so we ventured onto the West Court first in the afternoon of the same day Iâ€™d played Tuxedo. I then returned the following morning to encounter the East Court. This was not a good plan!
Sitting in a car for rather too long between Tuxedo and New York was not a great way to keep everything supple and moving, nor was standing around at a reception after nearly 6 hours on court. Itâ€™s been a long time since Iâ€™ve felt quite so tired and sleep deprived as on that final morning. How exactly I got through these two sessions remains a total mystery, but it was definitely helped by some very sympathetic playing partners.
For the West Court I only had one set of players, so we did a round robin: 3 sets of first to 6 games or about 35 minutes on the clock, changing partners for each set. It actually turned out to be remarkably even and we managed to play 26 games in all with only one pairing actually reaching 6 games. For the East Court there were two sets of players, so we did the same round robin format, just a slightly shorter time limit. As we got closer to lunch the Dedans began to fill up with more viewers and we tried our best to put on as good an exhibition as we could muster, although by now I was simply on autopilot! I was especially grateful to my companions who would gather at the net each time we changed ends to exchange pithy comments ensuring it never got too serious. Only when we were all ready did we then move to our respective ends. Somehow over the course of the morning we played 39 games, probably a record for the entire Tour.
Trying to distinguish the playing characteristics of the two courts is quite difficult; theyâ€™re even painted identically with no court emblem either at the net or in the Grille. The Tambours are obtuse, the walls and Penthouses are a greyish black, the upper surfaces white and the lines black; the roofs are probably the most notable feature as they are predominantly glazed, albeit opaque or frosted to limit the glare, but still provide a great deal of natural light. The cast iron beams are integral which maximises the height. From previous experience, the floors, which are painted red, are quick; the ball tends to stay low and cuts well. It might have been the calibre of player, but the East Court, which is the show or match court, is the tougher of the two with the walls responding better to spin and making the balls stay down more.
The obvious difference between the two is that the viewing gallery between them has mesh guards on the West Court above the Penthouse, whereas overlooking the East Courtâ€™s Main Wall is open. Personally, I found it easier to locate the Grille and Dedans on the West Court than the East Court, in fact after several failed attempts at the Grille on the East Court I decided I might as well have a go at the Winning Gallery and to my surprise and appreciative delight from the Dedans the ball actually went in!
My thanks to the Club for their support of the event, to the pros: Barney Tanfield and Adrian Kemp who shared the marking honours over the two days, but most especially the players who, as on each court, contributed financially to the Duke of Edinburghâ€™s International Award. Over the ten courts we managed to play just short of 350 games. I also want to thank the USCTA who were incredibly helpful in setting up and supporting the Tour and in return we hopefully raised the profile and some much needed funds for their Restoration Foundation (check). My only regret was that we didnâ€™t manage to get to Charleston to support the new court which is just about to start construction, hopefully we might be able to reschedule a visit when the court opens.
To my surprise and relief I survived the US Odyssey of 10 courts in 11 days and avoided any serious injury, for which I must also thank the various club physios who were instrumental in trying to keep me going. All in all, thoroughly exhausting, but the whole trip has been truly rewarding.