May 29 2005 : The 3rd annual Irish Real Tennis Championships were held this past weekend.  Lacking a court of their own on which to compete, a small band of players traveled to the UK for the third straight year. This year, their kind host was the Royal County of Berkshire Real Tennis Club, better known as Holyport, a beautiful old court about 30 minutes west of London.

The Court

Holyport, in a village of the same name, was built in 1889 by Sam Heilbut as part of his estate which for years was in the Martineau family.  The club was formed in 1953.  When the last Martineau, Mrs. Janne Cahill, passed away in the 1980’s, a small group led by Chris Ronaldson (the “godfather” of real tennis’ modern era), Colin Lumley and others bought the tennis house and a few surrounding acres.  The main house still stands, serving as a nursing home, and much of the estate’s grounds remain open (the area being in a “green belt”).

The tennis house at Holyport.

The village of Holyport is hard by Ascot. This is horse country, where small clusters of  “semi-detached” houses dot the countryside, sharing the landscape with equestrian facilities, polo fields and acres and acres of meadows, sectioned off by hedgerows, a unique and most beautiful alternative to New England’s ubiquitous stone walls.

Here, in late May, spring has arrived. Everything is green, birds twitter in the hedgerows, cats sun themselves lazily, horses graze and gaze, masters here of all that they survey. 

A view from the author’s accommodations.

Holyport’s tennis house is reached via a one lane pitted asphalt and gravel driveway.  If not for the sign, one would swear they’d been misdirected.  But a few hundred yards in, tucked behind a trim row of picturesque cottages on Holyport Street, stands the tennis house, a freestanding structure housing a court, royal dedans and modest changing facilities up a flight of stairs.  The royal dedans was expanded by the present owners to include what was once a small indoor pool, the only vestige of which is a curious tiled and vaulted ceiling reminiscent (in miniature) of the pool beneath the court at Greentree. 

It’s a wonderful feeling, to travel across an ocean, jump in a car, negotiate the other side of the road and find your way to a little gem of a building like this.  The skylit roof looks in great shape; it and the high clerestory windows provide so much natural light that nothing more is needed on a bright day.  The penthouse is a bit curvy, especially on the hazard end, and the bandeau could use some repointing, but these are nothing more than the idiosyncrasies that make traveling to new courts so much fun.  It’s like collecting notches in your gun.    The narrow tambour makes for a little misjudgment on the close ones, but it’s all in the game.  Like the game of baseball, in which no two ballparks are alike, neither are any two real tennis courts.  Home court advantage has meaning, and it’s an entertaining challenge to unlock the bounces and spins peculiar to each court.  After a couple hours’ practice, I surmised that in balance, this court (and the balls!) were going to be kind to my game. 

The Championships

The 16 players in this event, played as a handicap, were separated into groups of four by standard, in a “play them all” doubles round robin.   Matches were all 8-game pro-sets (no ad), and it was games won that determined the top finishers who would make it through to two finals on Sunday, an “Open” for the top two finishers, and a “Closed,” for top finishers among those who were Irish by birth or heritage. 

   Back row, left to right: Professional Nick Wood, Roland Budd, Richard McGregor, Tom Cox, John Previte, Brian Rich, Tim Church, Mike Bolton, Tom Greaves.

   Bottom row, left to right: Katie Bolton, Jim Duncan, Ben and Bear North, Sheila Reilly (kneeling), Adam Pyne, Alastair Mackeown, Doris Siedentopf.

   Not pictured: Laura Duncan.

Thus, Tim Church (H-36, Queens) met Richard McGregor (H-41, Holyport) in the Open, while Sheila Reilly (H-34, Newport) met Roland Budd (H-45, Dublin) in the Closed.

Open Winner Tim Church (left) and Finalist Richard McGregor.

The Open was played off a rec ½ 15, owe ½ 15 handicap, and it was close from the start, with never more than two games separating the players.  Although Richard McGregor took the early lead, owing player Tim Church’s excellent serving and somewhat greater fitness proved out, and he drew even at 4-all, and eventually won the match 8-6.

The Closed was played off a somewhat steeper handicap, owe 30, rec ½ 15, with Sheila Reilly owing.  Roland is a fit athlete, a fine squash player, and Reilly, while having the benefit of much more time on a tennis court, could barely make a dent in the first four games.  However, with the realization that her opponent was less dominant with his floor game than his volleys, she shortened up her game and drew even midway through the match.  Unfortunately, while at least two more games went to 40-all, an error here and there at crucial moments by Reilly made the difference and the Irish native prevailed, 8-5, winning the 2005 Irish Closed title, a fitting finale to the 3rd Annual Irish Championships.

Right: Roland Budd, 2005 Irish Closed Champion.

Thanks to the pro’s for their excellent marking, great patience with an ever-changing format, and to Bear North, most particularly, for organizing the event, despite having her hands full with a future Irish champion, Meg North, 9 months.

 Future Champ Meg North