Sport | Wry Society

The tennis court

A game of old boy versus young blood serves as a swift induction in the etiquette of English country-house tennis.

May 02 2010
Adam Edwards

It was in the late 1980s when Sir Richard Cann inherited both his title and a rambling Hampshire rectory whose fixtures and fittings included an overgrown Edwardian lawn-tennis court. A chorus of sensible advice suggested that he demolish it, or at least resurface it in clay or concrete. However, Sir Richard took no notice of the killjoys and decided to restore the court to its former glory. He had always enjoyed the game – he’d played it briefly when he was at Harrow – and intended to start swiping away once more in order, he said, to work up a decent thirst.

Within a few years the baronet, with the help of his under-gardener Kevin, had turned the scrubby rectangle into a manicured sward fit for a Federer forehand. And it had been kept in perfect nick since. In the summer Kevin became, to all intents and purposes, a full-time groundsman, mowing, fertilising, spraying, top dressing and rolling the turf.

And every summer weekend evening, if the weather was clement, Sir Richard would take to the court in an old Aertex shirt, moth-eaten flannels and plimsolls for a couple of sets of “country-house tennis” with his regular partner, financier James Anderson. The middle-aged money men had long since moved on from a front-line life of stress and gym sessions. Nowadays they preferred part-time directorships and peaceable exertions.

And when it came to tennis, that meant swapping a gentle assemblage of second serves, defective slices and missed lobs for a couple of sets before showering and then sharing a bottle of chilled white wine (sometimes two). It mattered not a jot to either man who won, although Sir Richard privately thought he was the better player and had, over time, probably edged ahead, while James secretly believed he was technically superior and was confident he was a couple of games to the good halfway through the current season. Both men, however, would have rather speared themselves on a croquet mallet than admit to any sporting rivalry.

It was a balmy May Day bank holiday weekend when Sir Richard’s 26-year-old daughter Lydia brought home her new boyfriend Braydon Scott – a tall, athletically built and healthily solvent American. He was a City broker with IKB Securities, a firm with which Sir Richard had dealt frequently and with whose directors he was on first-name terms. And once Sir Richard established that Braydon was an upright citizen who didn’t intend to ravish and then marry Lydia in order to get at his millions, he took the bold step of asking the New Yorker not only if he followed tennis but also if he played. Braydon said that he was a huge fan, especially of Wimbledon, and enjoyed his tennis very much but had never played on grass.

Sir Richard, while saying nothing, was looking forward to giving the foreigner a sharp lesson on how the English game should be played – especially after the fit young Yankee arrived on court in a set of designer-label tennis gear sporting a state-of-the-art racquet that he had spirited up from the boot of his BMW.

However, as the two men knocked up, it soon became clear to the heavy-legged baronet that Braydon was not unduly hampered by the green grass of England. And unlike Sir Richard (and his partner James), who as a baseline player gently lobbed the ball from one end of the court to the other, Braydon was a serve-and-volley man who would charge to the net the moment he had hit the ball. Which was with extreme force – and often directly at his opponent. Annoyingly, he would then cut and churn the perfect grass surface with his Nike trainers, a shoe designed for a hard-surface court.

By the end of the second set Sir Richard was out of puff and in a temper. “How about a glass of wine?” he suggested through gritted teeth.

“Oh, I never drink during a game,” said Braydon. “How about a Coke?”

And that was the last straw. “In this country it is good manners to lose at country-house tennis,” said the baronet pompously as he headed off to call his chums at IKB Securities.

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