Harry Cowles

While down in Aiken, I met with Bob Harrington.

Bob has been a resident of Aiken since 1947 (he was the head of Aiken Prep from 1971-88), so he was very helpful about the history of the tennis court there. He also let me borrow a fascinating scrapbook of his father’s that had a bombshell in it.


Carroll Harrington was the class of 1924 at Harvard. He was the champion of the freshman class in 1921. This was back when Harvard had twenty-nine courts scattered around its houses and hundreds of men who played every day. Harrington then played on the junior varsity his sophomore year and the varsity his junior and senior year, right behind national champion Palmer Dixon. In fact, he had match points against Dixon in the semis of the 1924 college tournament before losing in five.


Harrington played in the first-ever intercollegiate squash match, Harvard v.  Yale, held at the Racquet & Tennis Club in February 1923. Harvard won 4-1, with only Lucien Williams of Yale scoring for the Eli (Williams was the 1922 intercollegiate tennis champion). The Harvard v. Yale squash rivalry is thus the oldest in the world, as Oxford and Cambridge didn’t start playing each other until 1926.


I learned that Harry Cowles first came over to help Harvard squash in 1921-22 rather than a year later. So it was fifteen seasons in Cambridge, not fourteen. He was called Henry Cowles in the papers, which quoted him on his notions of coaching: “I’d like to add that I teach the game as it was played by Dr. John Cummin of the Harvard Club. I consider his game most skillful and based on the theory of billiard shots.”


Cummin, I learned by poking around the web, was the class of 1892, a doctor and a member of the Harvard Club of Boston’s squash committee. And apparently, he was the source of wisdom for the greatest squash coach in history.




Glorious Aiken. Last weekend I played in the Nordy Knox, the old Aiken Handicap court tennis tournament.

It is the oldest handicap doubles tournament in the U.S. and attracts players from England and Australia. The beauty of it is that you get to spend a long weekend at perhaps the world’s most unique playable court: it has spawned two world champions, is the home of world #3 Cam Riviere, is most isolated court in the world and has perhaps the most newspaper-clipping adorned bathroom wall I’ve seen at a tennis club.


Moreover, the village of Aiken has a few amenities that no one else can offer.

My partner, Mit Carothers, invited me to what his polo team practice, so I spent a lovely afternoon at Powderhouse Field watching a half-dozen chukkers. I played a round at Palmetto, the grand old golf course of the south (started in 1892 by Tommy Hitchcock, partially designed by Alistar MacKenzie and the nineteenth club to join the USGA). I heard many ribald tales from Masters week—Augusta National is twenty-odd minutes to the south and the Aiken Handicap used to be on Masters weekend until the Masters became such a huge deal in the 1970s. I visited the local historical society, which is housed in one of the many nineteenth century mansions that northerners built when they created a winter colony in Aiken over a century ago.

And I played croquet at Green Boundary Club with Wayne Davies. Wayne might just be one of the great athletes of our time: he was world champion in court tennis for seven years; he was a fine racquets player, winning the U.S. professional title; he got to forty in the world in squash while working as a court tennis pro in Bordeaux in the early 1980s; and now he’s consistently coming in the top ten in the U.S. croquet nationals (fifth in 2007, ninth last year). Down in Aiken for a few week’s break from his job at the Westmoor Club on Nantucket, Wayne took some of us out for an hour’s clinic. I was losing badly in a game of singles to Andrew Gould of Melbourne when time was called. 

The Nationals

Got an email a couple of days ago: “Who has won the national doubles in both squash and court tennis?” That was easy: Ralph Howe and Morris Clothier. And now Addison West, who along with Trevor McGuinness took the 2011 BMO Capital Markets U.S. Squash Doubles Championships men’s open division title, can also claim that rare feat of dominating the amateur four-handed games in two sports.

At the national singles, it was Old Home Week. For all the names in the draw, it could have been played a decade or two ago. In the women’s draw, a smattering of teenager came and one, Sabrina Sobhy, age fourteen, knocked off former champion Shabana Khan, age forty-two. Shabana, it must be said, had a world ranking three years before Sabrina was born.

On the men’s side, there were more blasts from the past with forty-somethings Richard Chin, Jamie Crombie and Damian Walker not only entering the tournament but each winning their first round match. Does it say something about the strength of the U.S. game when forty-one year olds like Chin and Walker (the latter turned forty-two the week after the tournament) let alone a forty-five year-old like Crombie can all still make the quarters of the nationals?

Or does it just say that the three of them are gifted and hardworking? For when has the nationals had three quarterfinalists ranked in the top seventy-five in the world? Not until last year.

And Julian Illingworth, statistically the greatest American man ever, won his seventh straight title. Now he stands alone, beyond any other male player, ahead of Stanley Pearson who won six nearly a century ago. Julian is now tied with Alicia McConnell who won seven in a row in the 1980s and only has Demer Holleran, who was national champion nine times, to catch.

It is possible he’ll do it. He would only be thirty when he could surpass Holleran in 2014. That should be easy if you use this year’s nationals as a forecasting tool—if he follows Crombie’s training regimen, he could still be playing in the tournament in 2026.

And Sabrina Sobhy will probably be at that 2026 nationals, as she’ll just be twenty-nine  and in her prime. Will she be Shabana-like and play in the 2039 nationals? 2039—just seems impossibly far away.

Live Streaming Tennis

Court tennis just joined the Internet Age.

For the first time, the United States Open is live on the web. Last year, the final eliminator at Tuxedo was live, with Tiger Riviere putting together the feed. But now, the firty-ninth annual national championship, hosted by the Racquet Club of Philadelphia, is finally accessible to people all around the world. Jon Crowell has placed two cameras in the left corner of the dedans and a microphone that can pick up the marker’s calls. It is pretty good stuff. The finals of the singles is at 12:30 on Sunday the 3rd and the finals of the doubles is at 5:30 on Monday the 4th.



An even richer experience is being offered by RealTennis.tv. The brainchild of Frederika Adams and Paul Brown, they launched in October of last year. Their first major tennis event was the European Open early last month. It was a wonderful production, with expert live commentary, post-match interviews, and a multitude of camera angles.

They also just shot the world racquets doubles championship, complete with an overhead camera, so not just court tennis is getting the live streaming treatment.

Freddy, a transplanted American photographer, is excited about the future of RealTennis.TV. “Our plan now is to see if we can get five events in the schedule so that we can help to raise money to fund the streaming through banner ads and donations from loyal viewers,” she told me. “We are also keen to buy our own kit so we don’t have to keep renting it which is a substantial part of the cost.”