Real Tennis: Unreal world for a real game

John Carlin in Washington reports on a new home for an old royal pastime
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The Independent Online
The CIA may not have caught on yet but right under their noses, barely a mile away from spy headquarters in Langley, Virginia, a small group of well-heeled Washingtonians are engaged in an act of dastardly subversion.

Armed with curiously shaped rackets and balls that are white, but not quite round, the plotters are challenging the very principles on which America was built and the Cold War won. Refusing to worship at the altar of the free market, shunning the Founding Fathers' republican ideals, daring to proclaim that love and art are the supreme quests of civilised man, they have embarked at large cost on a venture that is monarchist in spirit and guaranteed never, ever to make a profit.

Under the banner of Sport for Sport's Sake, they have founded the US capital's first, and very probably last, real tennis club. Haven Pell and Temple Grassi, president and vice-president respectively of the International Tennis Club of Washington DC, are the conspirators in chief. Austin Snelgrove, a young Englishman, is their trusty lieutenant and agent provocateur.

Construction of the court cost $650,000, all of it raised by voluntary contributions from 200 of the 7,000-strong masonry who play the game in England, France, Australia and the US. Mr Grassi, a tall genial fellow whose easy largesse hints at aristocratic Italian blood, is said to have donated a sum in the region of $50,000. Mr Pell, whose father and grandfather were enthusiastic practitioners of the royal sport, put up $10,000.

"Unfortunately the returns are not good," Snelgrove said. "Because you always run at a loss, you're much better off, with a much lower investment, using the same space to build a couple of squash courts. But the contributors are not in it for the money. They're in it for the love of the sport."

Snelgrove, fresh from obtaining a degree in biology and chemistry at the University of Brighton, is the newly appointed club pro, his task to recruit new members and instruct them in the arcane ways of the world's most royal and ancient ball game. His duties, as befalls all real tennis pros everywhere, include supplying members with their weapons of battle: he manufactures the balls with his own bare hands.

He also runs a shop which sells bow ties, Ascot ties and braces, items all which would not have looked out of place in the wardrobes of the 50 or so distinguished ladies and gentlemen who gathered at Prince's Court on Wednesday night to chat, sip wine and nibble at small tuna sandwiches. The occasion was an exhibition match between Snelgrove and Nigel Pendrigh, a visiting champion from England ranked 20th in the real tennis world.

Watching from the comfort of two rows of leather and wicker chairs, the guests combined hard-core devotees with amused, confused newcomers to a game invented 900 years ago by bored French monks and taken up in the 14th century by the French-speaking kings of England and France. Snelgrove's new charges - 20 members so far have paid the $1,500 entrance fee plus $150 monthly charge - are coached first in the secret code words employed to describe the cloistered architecture of the court. Until you know what to make of the dedans, tambour, galleries, penthouse and grille there is little point in trying to apply racket to ball.

"Lawn tennis is to this game as checkers is to chess," Grassi said. "The attraction is that it is a strategic, esoteric, highly skilled game which combines tennis, squash, pool and backgammon rolled into one."

A polite inquiry into who might be attracted to the game drew what appeared to be - delightfully expansive gentleman that he was - a suspiciously defensive response: "All sorts. People, I know, have tended to think we're just a bunch of elitists but they come here and see that while the background is royal, it is a magnificent sport."

Ed Bartlett, sporting a tweed jacket and blue Yale tie, had his first ever real tennis lesson with Snelgrove last week. "I joined," he said, "because friends are here but, frankly, I look at the tennis I've always played and I can only conclude that evolution does work." Another friends, a real tennis fanatic named Henry Wheelright who lives on a nearby farm, disagreed. "I think lawn tennis is in serious decline. Just watch: this game is really going to catch on. You get hooked on it, like fishing."

Real tennis will catch on in Washington up to a point. Pell said that, to avoid clutter on Prince's Court, the club had set a limit of 125 members, after which the doors would be closed. For there is one thing he values about real tennis that money just can't buy. "Those of us who play," he said affably, with the air of a man who has left capitalism's struggles far behind, "we realise that it is a very likeable thing to do."