King of Games or Game of Kings
Last week, Newport played host to Prince Edward, Queen Elizabeth II’s youngest child. Edward is on a worldwide tour of Real Tennis courts as part of an effort to bring attention to a game he loves and to raise funds for the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award program.
The program, begun in 1956 by his father, Prince Philip, encourages young people from around the world to learn skills, play sports, travel and do service to the community. It has recently expanded to the United States, and the American program’s chief executive, Elizabeth Higgins-Beard and others joined Edward’s entourage to help establish connections and explain the program. Edward had visited the court more than 20 years ago, but this is the first time he is traveling the world to play as many courts as possible.
Real Tennis, or Court Tennis as it is often called in the U.S., is the original racquet sport, probably invented sometime in the 13th century in France. Unlike lawn tennis, where there is a single playing surface divided by a net, court tennis is played in a large room that closely resembles a medieval monastery courtyard, which was the inspiration for the playing court.
With sloped penthouses, angled walls and open galleries, there are 26 playable surfaces off which a heavy, felt-covered ball can be used. References to “tennis” in the plays of Shakespeare and the novels of Alexandre Dumas refer to court tennis, for lawn tennis was not invented until several hundred years later.
Court tennis is probably the most complete integration of architecture and sport in existence. The angles and asymmetric shape of the court require knowledge of geometry and complex strategy. The sport has been described as “three-dimensional billiards” and “chess with racquets.” Most of the 50 or so courts in the world are located at private estates, exclusive clubs or palaces.
The Newport court is extremely unusual in that the upper gallery, which offers an outstanding location to view matches, is open to the public with admission to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. The Newport court is often active 80 hours per week, so there is usually a match in progress. Quiet is requested as sound echoes off the concrete walls, as in an old cathedral. Furthermore, the ball is as heavy and hard as a baseball and striking it cleanly with the asymmetric wooden racquet is difficult and requires extreme concentration. Spectators should also be cautious of being hit by an errant shot.
The Newport court was built as part of the Newport Casino complex in 1880 and was designed by the famous firm of McKim, Mead and White. The complex owes its continued existence to James and Candace Van Alen, who saved it from becoming a strip shopping center in the 1950s.
The court fell into disuse during the Depression and the roof of the building was destroyed by arson during World War II. Cleary Pell, first cousin to U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell, led an effort to restore the court to playability. The construction was completed in 1980, and the court re-opened for play on the 100th anniversary of the original construction. To assure the court’s long-term viability, the National Tennis Club was formed to protect the facility.
Edward’s visit began with a boat cruise around the harbor on the motor yacht Enticer. That was followed by a seated lunch at Harbor Court, the New York Yacht Club’s facility overlooking Newport Harbor. In the afternoon, Edward competed against local players in four matches over a three-hour period, demonstrating both his skill and stamina.
After the match play, he worked with local head professional Mike Gooding to give a court tennis clinic to about 20 young people, many who had never played previously.
Court Tennis, because of its rich tradition and longstanding royal connections, has long been called “The King of Games and the Game of Kings.” During his visit to Newport to support the game, Prince Edward certainly proved those words to be true on both counts.d