Tennis History Lives on in Newport

Everyone knows that Rhode Island is the smallest sate in the union in terms of size but in the world of tennis we have historically stood very tall indeed.  Newport, Rhode Island is the site of one of the oldest existing tennis clubs in the United States: the Newport Casino, located on Bellevue Avenue.  Designed by the firm McKim, Mead & White, this building was the very first structure completed by the firm after they hired the young creative Stanford White to become their designer in 1879.  This building was an extraordinarily accomplished work that helped the firm explode onto the national scene and would be the first of many hundreds of buildings that the first would design in the Northeast and across the country as the pre-eminent American architectural firm of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries.  The Casino building is a masterpiece of the “Shingle Style” popular during the 1880’s which is characterized by intricately cut cedar shingles, rounded towers, encircling covered porches and a loose assymmetic arrangement of masses.  The Casino complex was individually listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1987, the highest designation possible for a historic buidling, and is owned and operated by the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

The first championship of the United State National Lawn Tennis Association (USNLTA) was played at the Casino in 1881 and the national amateur championship continuted to be held in Newport until 1914, whcn the championships were moved to the Forest hills in Queens New York.  The USNLTA would eventually drop “National” and “Lawn” to become the U.S. Tennis Association and the national championships would evolve to become the U.S. Open – one of four “major” tennis tournaments played each year in the world at the professional level. 

But long before the game of Lawn Tennis existed there was a sport we now call “Real Tennis” which was invented sometime in the twelfth or thirteenth century, probably in a monastery somewhere in France.  This game was enjoyed for centuries by the kings of England and France and is played inside a large walled room that resembles a medieval courtyard where a solid felt covered ball can be played off sloping roofs and walls and over a steeply sloping net.  This sport is the ancestor of all other raquet sports and yet is alive and well today (although generally hidden from the public eye behind palace gates and the high walls of private raquet clubs).  At the back of the Newport Casino complex, behind the rows of beautifully maintained lawn tennis courts, sits the building that was constructed in 1880 as part of the original campus dedicated to the sport of Real Tennis and which is operated today by the National Tennis Club.  This is one of the very few places in the world where this ancient and royal sport can be seen live by the general public.

Although the U.S. Open has been long gone from Newport, twice each year the focus of the tennis world returns to Rhode Island.  The first instance is when the U.S. Pro Singles is played for the Schochet Cup at the National Tennis Club.  The top twenty or so professional real tennis players come from around the world to compete with one another for one of the largest purses in the game.  This year the tournament will be played from June 2 to 9 and the tournament will feature current world champion Rob Fahey and Tim Chishold, Camden Riviere and Steven Virgona, who are all of the players who have challenged him for the world #1 ranking in the last decade.  Tickets to this world-class championship can be purchased from the tournament office at 401-849-6672. 

The second time each year that the eyes of the tennis world are upon Rhode Island is during the playing of the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships, the only professional tennis tournament played in American on the grass each year.  This year the tournament is being play July 8-14 and John Isner, the #1 ranked American tennis player will try to defend his title from last year against some outstanding competition, including former world #1 ranked played Layton Hewitt, among many others.  This tournament, played on the spectacular grounds of the Newport Casino, is like going to Wimbledon – only the players are much closer, the setting more intimate and you don’t need to buy an airline ticket.  Tickets for this event are available by visiting the Hall of Fame website (www.TennisFame.com) or by calling the tournament office (401-849-6053).  On Saturday July 13th, many of the Tennis Hall of Fame Members will return to Newport to welcome another class of players and supporters into the Pantheon of players honored by the institution.  At this year’s induction ceremony former world #1 player Martina Hingis and several other notables are scheduled to join this select club and to give acceptance speeches that never fail to move the spectators to strong emotions.  It is a pleasure and a priviledge to live in Rhode Island where the history of tennis is so strong, the facilities are so beautiful and the world class action is so close at hand!

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA, is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport.  He is President Emeritus of the National Tennis Club as well as an avid lawn tennis players.  This article was initially published in ARCHI-TEXT, in Newport This Week, May 30, 2013.

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