2011-02-03 / News

Jamestowner has a passion for court tennis

By Geoff Campbell

Jamestowner and 31-year court tennis devotee, Jim Wharton, explains that the first reaction one has to court tennis might be akin to one he had with curling: “It’s a great little game, but…”

First introduced to court tennis in 1980, Wharton’s initial experience shadowed him for a couple of months until he returned to see more of the game. Soon after, he was hooked.

Court tennis is an 800-yearold game whose indoor courts have roots to medieval church architecture. To the uninformed, the game appears to require a manual, specific both to the game’s methods and rules and, perhaps more importantly, its vocabulary.

Using a felt-covered solidcore ball, the ball is always served from the same side of the court, called the service end. The opposite side is known as the hazard end. The ball is struck from the service end of the court and must hit the penthouse – the sloping roof that extends around three sides of the court – before landing in the service box. Points are lost when shots fail to clear the net or when the ball goes off the court. Points can also be lost when the ball bounces a second time outside of the service box, and a “chase” is recorded.

According to the United States Court Tennis Association, “To win a chase, the player must hit the ball over the net and force an error from his opponent, or achieve a second bounce better than that created by his opponent, between the chase mark previously established and the back wall.”

The predecessor to modern tennis, the game employs a sloped net and a flat stroke. Topspin is almost never used, Wharton said. One strategy includes causing the ball to die after striking the required sections of the court.

Newport’s now active court laid dormant for nearly 35 years following a fire in 1945. In 1979, the court was restored to serve a new club, the National Tennis Club of Newport. The club is on the grounds of the International Tennis Hall of Fame on Bellevue Avenue in Newport.

Only one of two public courts in the country, the club welcomes anyone to experience the game. There are eight other court locations in the United States and 47 worldwide.

Wharton, who is the longest continuous member of the club, said that he tends to be the “voice of institutional memory,” regarding a game whose formative years date back to the 12th century.

Wharton said that he resists deviation, acknowledging that the equipment, specifically the racquet, has seen the greatest change. He added that he is simply respectful of the history of a game that is relatively unchanged since its inception.

The Jamestown connection to the sport is both deep and wide. Wharton, a 20-year board member, was the first Jamestowner to serve as president of the National Tennis Club.

His brother George was the club’s second head professional, and served 15 years in that position. “[George was also] the first president of the North American Association of Court Tennis and Racquets Professionals,” Jim said.

Islanders Jane Lippincott, Bill Burgin, and John A. Murphy have also served as presidents of the club. “Their contributions were significant to the growth of the club,” Wharton said.

Wharton’s involvement extends to the national level as well. He recently stepped down following a term as USCTA president and he remains on its board of directors.

Lippincott and fellow Jamestowner Katherine Wooley hold multiple USCTA National Championships in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. Jane’s daughter Caroline is also an accomplished player at the club and beyond.

The cultural roots of the game are tied to the geopolitics of feudal Europe. First played in the courtyards of castles and palaces in France and England, Wharton said that following the French Revolution the game evolved, moved outside, and eventually became lawn tennis.

Court tennis was left behind, falling out of cultural favor for a time, and centuries later is now witnessing a modest resurgence. The game is played on courts in Australia, France, England and the United States.

There are currently 125 members of the National Tennis Club and its single court sees 90 hours of play in a typical week from the dozens of members who play regularly and sometimes multiple times per week.

Wharton explained that the club’s mission is unique in two ways: It’s a public court, and it seeks to promote the game through junior programs and new member clinics. Ultimately the club wants to see the number of court tennis players grow.

For an introduction to the club and the sport, it offers a Taste of Tennis program, which provides loaner racquets, court time and instruction.

To further their aim of expanding the game, the club has an endowed juniors’ program – for individuals 25 years old and younger – that produces remarkably successful amateurs. Currently the amateur with the third highest ranking in the country is a product of Newport’s club.

Wharton said that his involvement in the game has been a kind of concurrent career to his professional work as a publisher of art prints and his work as a prep school lacrosse coach.

A lacrosse player in the 1970s at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, Wharton coached prep school hockey, soccer and lacrosse. Several of the players that Wharton coached at New Jersey’s Peddie School – and locally at St. Michaels and St. Georges – have begun to try on the coach’s hat themselves. He continues his involvement in lacrosse by scouting college recruits.

Thirty-one years after being introduced to the game, Wharton, an accomplished player in his own right, continues to play at least twice a week. He said that the game has introduced him to great people, and provided a strong sense of sustained friendship. He added that he intends to play it until he can’t.

Currently Jim is preparing to compete in the U.S. 60’s – for players over 60 years old – which will begin on Feb. 24 in New York. Beyond that, Wharton has his sights set on the international events in Melbourne, Australia, planned for January 2012.

Wharton said that court tennis isn’t a game that people grow tired of. “Few leave from boredom,” he said. “They die or they move away.”

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