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Connoisseur At Large: Surviving the Game

Jack Smith

“Oh, this looks like fun,” said the Connoisseur’s companion, looking up from her magazine. “Operation Fitness,” she recited, “a coed boot camp where drill sergeants whip the elite into shape.”

The Connoisseur was chary. These faux boot camps aimed at disciplining the smart set seemed more in the tradition of Kraft-Ebbing than Rockne and Lombardi. He hadn’t forgotten his own welcome into the service—the bad haircut, the 5 am wake-up calls, the obstacle course. Oh, it had its moments, but few he cared to repeat. And, as he recalled, no one had enlisted to tone up his abs.

Anyway, the most demanding mentor he’d ever known didn’t even wear fatigues, but rather tennis whites. The place was the upper reaches of the Philadelphia Racquet Club, where legendary club pro Jimmy Dunn had harangued and bullied generations of Philadelphians into winning national championships in three sports: squash, racquets, and court tennis.

It mattered little that the latter two are such exclusive pastimes that hardly anybody beyond the genteel orbits of a fewscore gentlemen’s clubs know what they are. On the Connoisseur’s first day as a member, Dunn led the way to a court where a pair of men were engaged in racquets, perhaps the fastest game in the world. Similar to squash, the game is played with a projectile the size and hardness of a golf ball in a court with slate walls. “The ball travels at 120 miles an hour,” said Dunn with a wry smile, watching the Connoisseur’s face grow pale. “Every now and then somebody gets his jaw or wrist broken.”

Court tennis is considerably less hazardous, though even more arcane. The court replicates the interior of a medieval courtyard with windows on three sides. The racquet is heavy and lopsided, and the ball is the size and consistency of a baseball. The scoring system is complex, with some points deferred and played over.

Nonetheless, the newly recruited young Connoisseur descended into the locker room clutching his paraphernalia. “Ah, you bought a racquet,” said a friend. “Congratulations, you’re now world-ranked.”

It was hard to say no to Dunn. The product of a blue-collar neighborhood, the feisty Irishman had the shambling gait and the knotted biceps more common to boxing gyms than tennis courts, but he’d won five national professional championships in racquets and 26 court tennis world championships in singles and doubles. Even in his 70s, he could frustrate the club’s best players in competition.

As an instructor, he wasn’t easy to please. A lesson typically began with Dunn throwing down his racquet and yelling, “Son, you’re never going to learn this game.”

As the Connoisseur soon learned, court tennis was more than a game—it was a way of life with its own etiquette, its own pantheon of heroes, its own vocabulary. For enthusiasts it was a matter of pride that it took a year just to learn to keep score. They not only spent hours on the court learning to play, they immersed themselves in nine centuries of lore.

For them court tennis was a passion. For the Connoisseur it was a pastime—a concept that didn’t escape the notice of his doughty old coach, who, nevertheless, wouldn’t let him leave the sport as a loser. “Wait until you win at least one match in a tournament,” he insisted.

After several months of practice, the Connoisseur’s opportunity finally presented itself. Through the third set the score was close, or at least so he thought. As the referee called out “Match point!” the Connoisseur served and watched the ball bumpty-bump along the roof, then drop onto the court, whereupon the receiver whacked it back toward the far right-hand corner. The Connoisseur ran over and flailed, but the ball went bouncing past him. He slumped in a corner, the very picture of defeat as his coach walked over.

“Congratulations,” Dunn said wryly. “You won.”

He had? Of course. His opponent had lost the “chase,” with his shot bouncing too far from the rear wall. What joy! The Connoisseur could retire with dignity.

But Dunn was reluctant to lose his recruit. “You know, I think you’d be a natural for racquets,” the Connoisseur heard as he turned to walk away.

No doubt, it was going to be boot camp all over again.

Photo by Rod Foster
Photo courtesy of TRG-AMR North America
Photo by Darin Schnabel
Copyright 2013 American Honda Motor Co., Inc.