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Original Issue

Court tennis, anyone? It won't be easy, but try to get hold of 'Pierre's Book'


Pierre's Book, The Game of Court Tennis (Barre Publishers, Barre, Mass., $15) was printed in a limited edition of 1,500. It may even now be too late to get your hands on a copy, which is a pity: the book has done my sense of wonder a world of good. I had only an inkling that there was such a sport as court tennis, much less that Benvenuto Cellini played it, that a 19th-century pro named Louis won a match carrying a donkey on his back, that the floor the game is played on is marked with 34 horizontal lines or that these lines have names like "One and Two," "Half a Yard Worse Than Last Gallery" and "The Door."

I would be content to enjoy all this on the level of fantasy, but one doesn't have to. In an appendix to this book Bill Talbert says that neither Ruth nor Grange nor Dempsey "ruled his sport with the greatness or the dominance of Pierre Etchebaster." That is Pierre, the book's author, who seems to have been world court tennis champion for 26 years, retiring undefeated in 1954 at the age of 61. He still plays and teaches, and his way of commending a student's shot, we are told, is to drop his own racket, throw up both hands and exclaim, "This is what I am! This is what I am!"

Pierre is said to retain a strong Basque accent after 42 years in this country as the New York Racquet and Tennis Club's court tennis pro. He certainly writes with a flair for the curious expression—for example, "Do not abuse for the dedans." ("In attacking a chase of a yard or better," he notes earlier, however, "it is preferable to abuse for the dedans.") And yet this book not only convinces the reader that there is such a game as court tennis, it even gives him a good solid glimmer of how it is played. Suffice it here to say that the racket is warped-looking, the ball is made of cloth and the court has sloping roofs, or "penthouses," jutting out on three sides, and an abutment, the "tambour," obtruding obliquely into one corner. The dedans is one of three openings in the walls which you can win a point by hitting the ball into.

Questions do remain: How would Pierre have fared against the earlier masters Allison Danzig mentions: "Gould, with his killing length of 'better than a half and deadly railroad service, or...Latham with his...terrible boasted forces"? How did Louis ever get a donkey to stay on his back? Would this be called abusing for the donkey? How do you tell the dancer from dedans?

There are only a few hundred court tennis players now active, I gather, and they all belong to clubs I don't belong to. But I am going to keep Pierre's Book by me anyway, to look into when life grows stale.