Young bloods bid for hoop and glory

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CROQUET, THE genteel game that was once the preserve of upper- crust Englishwomen in ankle-length skirts, is being gatecrashed by teenagers, foreigners and men with streetfighter nicknames.

Competitors at this year's British Croquet Open, starting in London tomorrow, include Chris "Kruncher" Clarke and David "the Beast" Maugham.

But most eyes will be on Jacques Fournier, a 17-year-old high-school boy from Phoenix, Arizona, who could become the first American to seize the British Open title.

Croquet traditionalists will be horrified if he succeeds in usurping the current champion's reign over the quintessentially English game, but croquet has come a long way since its Victorian heyday.

Wooden mallets have been replaced by fibreglass shafts and cast aluminium heads, bored with strategically placed holes for better balance.

Croquet lawns are cut every morning for fast play, and the referee inspects the width of the six hoops. Each must offer precisely 3/32 inches of clearance. Balls are exactly 1lb in weight.

The players are masters of strategy who expect complete silence while they work out the tactics of their "wiring" shot, "triple peel" or - for the truly talented - "sextuple peel".

"It is the ultimate shot, very difficult and very rarely seen," said Paul Campion, secretary of the Croquet Association. "It is a game of brain, not brawn. These tactical manoeuvres are aimed at disadvantaging your opponent."

Mr Campion dismissed old-fashioned notions of a game of good manners. "Politeness doesn't come into it," he said. "This is a serious competitive sport. We don't talk about politeness in cricket or tennis, so why should we with croquet?"

This year's British Open, at The Hurlingham Club in Fulham, west London, promises outstanding play, high tension and possible upsets, according to croquet aficionados.

Jacques, who flew from Arizona at the weekend, is one of the teenage "wizards" taking over a game once considered an arena for the more mature.

Young hopefuls from this side of the Atlantic include Kriss Chambers, a 17-year-old Bristol boy with a handicap of minus 1 (they range from 20 to minus 2) and Matt Burrow, 19, a roofer from Jersey, who plays off minus 1.5. Mr Burrow said yesterday that he "just ignores" the ribbing from friends. "It's a great game, very competitive and traditional. It is always different. You never know who you will play or how they will play."

Among the older competitors are Chris Clarke, a 28-year-old accountant from Newmarket who took the Open title in 1997, and David Maugham, a computer expert in his mid-thirties.

Croquet is enjoying a national resurgence. The Croquet Association has seen a steady increase in membership, while more schools are offering the sport to pupils.

It first came over from Ireland in 1850 and enjoyed two decades of popularity before lawn tennis took over. This week the tables will be turned; as the Wimbledon championships finish, the Croquet Open is just about to start.


Sport section, page 7