National Tennis Court in Newport, RI | Real Tennis, Anyone?
More recently, the game lost one of its biggest supporters with the death of Clarence (Clary) Pell, father of the aforementioned Haven N. B. and first cousin of former Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell. Clary Pell, who was the force behind the restoration of the Newport court in 1980, insisted on calling lawn tennis “lawners” and court tennis just plain ” tennis” in deference to its historical precedence. Newport now hosts a doubles tournament named after him — “The Pell Cup.” Following the lead of these two pioneers, and to honor Henry VIII (a big player when he was between wives), I plan to play all my future matches in doublet and hose, complete with Nike swoosh. I can see it now: Air Hose.
For years I toiled at ordinary lawn tennis, suffering the occasional McEnroe meltdown when too many balls hit the net tape and fell harmlessly on my side of the net. But in court tennis, I have found my game: Most mis-hits are still in play – they may sail onto the roof at either end and roll down for your opponent to take a swing at or bounce high off the side wall, but they’re still in play. “Unlike lawn tennis,” says Wharton, “in court tennis it’s very rare that a ball is unreturnable.” And when you do connect solidly, the squashlike racquets are strung so tightly that it feels more like hitting a golf ball than a tennis ball.
Some former lawn tennis players are so bewitched by court tennis that they never go back. Berry Packham is an accountant from England who now lives in Newport and used to play “lawners” five times a week. One fateful day he found all the regular tennis courts occupied, and somebody suggested he go have a look at court tennis. “I haven’t been on a lawn tennis court since,” he says.
These days it’s difficult to find a court tennis court unoccupied. The sport is growing in popularity in England, partly because of Prince Edward’s advocacy. “Courts in England are booked from 8:00 A.M. to midnight,” Packham sighs. The National Tennis Court at Newport, adds Wharton, is booked from 55 to 80 hours a week, and the club employs three pros. In the hour that I sat in Wharton’s office, the phone rang at least a dozen times with bookings. The small, cluttered room also functions as the pro shop, snack bar, social room, training room, and ball-making facility. In fact, almost every spare moment of a court tennis professional’s day is spent making balls — a cork core is wrapped tightly with cloth tape, which is then secured with string, after which two hand-cut hourglass-shaped pieces of felt are nailed into place. Finally, the covering felt pieces are hand-stitched together.
“Is the thread special-ordered from the sewing room at Buckingham Palace?” I ask Wharton.
“Actually, it’s CVS dental floss,” he says. “Our favorite.”
The floss remark worries me. Though I obviously have a God-given gift for the game, my real purpose is to hobnob with the nabobs in Newport. But what sort of snob would be seen hitting a ball laced with dental floss? I give Wharton a wink. . “Say, old man,” I say hopefully, as I push my straw boater back off my forehead, “isn’t this game “elitist’?”
He laughs. “Anything that’s rare gets the tag ‘elitist’ put on it. Do you have to be wealthy to play court tennis? Not at all. We sort of get a bad rap, because of the nature of where the game is, in the clubs. The game itself would appeal to anyone. This is not an elitist club.”
Darn. Despite my uncanny knack for hitting the nick (that is, striking the ball so that it lands where the end wall meets the floor and rolls rather than bounces), I must give up court tennis. Newport’s National Tennis Court is too plebian for my purposes, I realize, as I trudge away from Wharton’s non-elitist office. Outside, I consult my map of Newport. Now where is the Newport Yacht Club? Surely a $30 million America’s Cup boat could use a crew member who can polish a penthouse and bang the grille with such ease.