October 23, 2005
Court Tennis, (Not Just) Anyone?
By TATIANA BONCOMPAGNI
CHARLES DE CASTÉJA'S list of what to pack for next weekend includes one custom-made tuxedo, one pair of cuff links stamped with his family's crest, a blue blazer, a collared shirt, gray flannel pants, a collection of brightly colored Maitai silk ties and, oh yes, three sets of tennis whites.
Mr. de Castéja, 35, an energy consultant in New York, is going to play a special sort of tennis, one that was last in vogue during the Gilded Age, when vast sums of money sloshed about society's privileged classes (like now) and people dressed for dinner (not like now).
Court tennis is a quirky mix of squash and lawn tennis, played with handmade balls and wooden rackets in an enclosed asymmetrical court divided by a drooping net. It evolved in medieval monasteries, and by the 16th century it was the sport of choice for European nobility. Over 400 years it was periodically embraced by European, then American, upper classes, attracted to the sport's aristocratic cachet and its arcane, complicated rules.
It has been rediscovered by a younger group of highly social players within the last 10 years, many of whom say they were attracted by its elite, below-the-radar appeal. There are only 9 courts in the United States, out of a total 42 worldwide (at 38 clubs), which adds to the exclusivity. In the last five years the number of players in America has increased to 750 from 400. But now, as in eras past, the increased popularity of the sport is as much about its surrounding social swirl as the athletics.
"We don't really care if someone is terrible at court tennis," said Mr. de Castéja, who has been playing since he was 14, when he first saw one of the enclosed courts after a lawn tennis lesson at the Tuxedo Club, where his parents were members, in Tuxedo Park, N.Y. "It's more important that they are charming. Most of the people who play are world-renowned partiers."
Starting Friday, Mr. de Castéja and many of those partiers are scheduled to play in the Hadden Tomes Invitational Championship, a doubles tournament held by the Tuxedo Club. Hadden Tomes is part of a year-round calendar of tournaments held in old-line cities like Philadelphia in the winter and Newport, R.I., in the summer. (For its part, Tuxedo Park is one of the oldest gated communities in the country.)
These weekend-long events add up to an extended house party, with about 150 people traveling up and down the East Coast. Out-of-town players and guests stay with members of each local club and attend cocktail hours, formal dinners and after-parties that can last most of the night. Between these social soirees, they play court tennis. "It's like sport meets a cocktail party," said Camilla Bradley, 29, a clothing designer who is a court tennis player.
The sport's social aspects are helping to create a new set of players: mostly urban professionals in their 20's and 30's who might otherwise spend these weekends going to clubs. In Britain programs at universities and enthusiasts like Prince Edward help attract a young crowd.
The United States Court Tennis Association has organized efforts to reopen courts and attract younger players. More than 40 percent of court tennis players are now in their 30's or younger. Just 10 years ago only 25 percent were in this age group. "It's a meaningful increase in the amount of younger people playing," said William McLaughlin Jr., the president of the association.
The only other sport with a comparable Champagne-infused social climate is polo. "There are a lot of unattached guys, and a lot of the girls who come up to watch the matches find boyfriends," said Mr. de Castéja, who has invited seven single women to the Hadden Tomes, which is named for a late member of the club.
Only the roughly 400 members of the Tuxedo Club and the tournament players are allowed to bring guests; and only 48 players, organized into 24 two-member teams and four divisions, have been invited to play. (All players pay a flat fee of $180, and members pay $125 to attend the nightly festivities, plus an additional $125 for any guests.) Friday and Saturday there are 12 matches scheduled, each about one hour, and on Sunday the finals are played. Anyone playing or attending can go to the parties. "It's like you're part of an exclusive society," said Ms. Bradley.
Court tennis is not exactly easy to pick up. Its scoring system alone can take years to master. The game hinges on a player's ability to create a "chase," which happens when a ball bounces a second time. The players then switch sides, and if the opponent is able to land a second bounce closer to the court's back wall, a point is scored. The most revered players are those who put the court's architectural oddities into play.
Still, the real draw at next weekend's tournament won't be the tennis but the parties. Brian Owens, 28, an insurance broker from Philadelphia who started playing in 1999 after he joined the Racquet Club of Philadelphia and saw a match being played, helps organize the Velvet Rope, an annual summer tournament in Newport. He says he's most excited about seeing the other players and dancing at the parties. "Off the court we're all good friends," Mr. Owens said.
Daisy Prince, who grew up around the sport in Newport, has her own reasons for going to tournaments. "They are full of cute boys," she said.
Traditionally a black-tie party is held on the Saturday night of a tournament. Dan Laukitis, 37, a psychologist who is one of two Tuxedo Park residents organizing the events, has devised a masquerade ball for 150 people this Saturday. Cocktails are to be served at 7 p.m. at the club's bar, followed by a seated dinner at two long candelabra-lighted tables in the formal dining room, then a masked party at a nearby home.
Things can get a bit rowdy at these Saturday parties. Mr. de Castéja ripped his tuxedo trousers recently doing splits on the dance floor. Players have been so hung over that contestants talk about one man who, while playing on a Sunday in Newport, memorably vomited on the court. Another player once missed his call time to play because he was passed out under his bed.
"The parties can go on until 4 in the morning," said Ashley Anne Thomas, 27, a player from Washington. "Some of the best parties I have ever been to have been in Tuxedo."
Part of what makes the parties special, say many guests from earlier years, is how well everyone dresses. Amy Raiter, the director of press relations in the United States for Moschino, the Italian fashion house, attended the Hadden Tomes Saturday evening soiree two years ago and remembers that she paired a Christian Dior gown in burgundy chiffon with Dior jewelry and Manolo Blahnik heels. "It felt like a throwback to the 1920's," said Ms. Raiter. "It was so glamorous."
In addition to the black tie regalia for Saturday night, weekend attendees need cocktail attire for the Friday dinner. Fashionable attire is expected even for watching the matches. Ms. Prince says her ideal outfit as a spectator would include a fur gilet, a turtleneck, a skirt and boots.
What counts for chic on the court is a bit different. Players wear all white, typically shorts and T-shirts, though most women wear tennis skirts and some older players still don cricket pants. Every club has its own emblem, which appears on its polo shirts. For the younger players, shirts from different clubs picked up at past tournaments are considered the height of cool. Ms. Thomas got her favorite kangaroo-appliquéd shirt when playing at the Boomerang Cup, a tournament in Australia.
Like the club emblems, each court is slightly different, one reason that court tennis players, like golfers, say they like to travel to new clubs. The quirkiness of each court makes all the difference.
"What's fun about playing and watching court tennis is that you never know what is going to happen next," Mr. de Castéja said, "and the same can be said about what goes on at the parties."