This word – “croquet” – has long shimmered with this long title of this club which breaks from its routine every mid-year to lead the most coveted tennis major in the world. The word remains present in the signage amid the ivy and hydrangeas.
In fact, “croquet” dates back to the beginning.
In fact, “croquet” precedes “tennis”.
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“The All England Croquet Club” was hatched on July 23, 1868, when six men met in a magazine office in London, and the one who became honorary treasurer (a Samuel Horace Clarke Maddock) had no idea of the how this treasure was going to grow. It moved to add tennis – “The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club” – in 1877. Croquet declined. Tennis has surged. Croquet made a rally, and although the place became “The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club” in 1899, “croquet” stuck.
Until 2007, it hung right on these grounds, the croquet lawns persevering in a corner, until the mid-size stadium of Court No. 2 rose (with human help) and trudges to cover this area. That’s when the lawns were moved off-site just across the street, there for croquet from April to September, except mid-June to mid-July when they have been converted into tennis training grounds.
Today, croquet persists in glorious glory because it is a routine pursuit of about 5-10% of club members, and an occasional pursuit for many others, but also by respect for origins or, as club manager Ross Matheson puts it, “connecting with our past, the journey we’ve been on, what we’ve learned.
So now that the tennis players have dispersed, it’s time again for the path from the six additional tennis practice courts to the three main croquet courts – for scarifying, for base renovations, for overstitching, fertilization, regrowth, sprouting leaves, remeasurement, return of croquet baskets. It’s time to “vacuum” it, as Stubley said, get out the “Billy Goat, which is like a big gas-powered vacuum cleaner,” and suck up the trash.
It’s time to cut the millimeters of grass from eight to six.
“So a traditional croquet lawn should be the same as a traditional USGA golf green,” he said. “It’s a sandy profile. It is normally a curved fescue sword. Because in croquet, as in golf, on the greens, it’s all about accuracy and softness. On a tennis court, it’s all about bounce and ball height.
By Monday, July 18, croquet will reappear.
There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent of, say, Wimbledon in croquet season. There is no most coveted trophy or highest trinket. The club’s croquet players rival those of other clubs such as Hurlingham or Roehampton. They fly on croquet trips to places such as the Greek island of Corfu and Montenegro. A legend who balked at the name for himself, Bernard Neal of Cheltenham, professor of structural engineering at Imperial College London, won the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club club championship 38 times, proving that in some cases, the will to win doesn’t wear off at, say, 30 titles.
“It’s not a very big achievement,” he told the BBC aged 89 in 2011, five years before his death. “These were club championships for members only, and few members of the All England Club play croquet.”
Sometimes the life of croquet can succeed a life of tennis in the same life.
“It’s a game that grabs you,” Jonathan Smith said.
Smith played world-class tennis in the Grand Slams of the 1970s. He reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open in doubles. He reached the third round of Wimbledon in singles in 1977, losing to Vitas Gerulaitis. He had never expected that he would hold a position such as “member in charge of croquet.” Then, about 15 years ago, a friend took him to the lawns around the corner, and so on, and so on.
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He calls croquet “a great game for anyone who’s a little tired” after the strains on the joints and so on of a pursuit like tennis or rugby. He says he is at a similar level to a beginner golfer, while he would be “thrilled” if he was also a beginner golfer. He knows his stylish new hobby has generous levels of excellence, and he says, “If I tried to hit a croquet ball from the boundary and hit the peg in the center of the lawn, that’s 14 meters. And if I did that three times out of 10, I would be a very happy bunny.
Then he mentioned Reg Bamford, a croquet marvel who was honored at Wimbledon this fortnight.
“He actually hit the ankle 65 times in a row,” Smith said, “and then he stopped for lunch.”
Even after walking through doors “hundreds and hundreds of times” in life, and even though he only comes in for lunch, Smith still considers the club “a sacred and reverent place to me”, and ” a sacred place”, and “the place of my childhood dreams. And as an adventurer in his fields of both tennis and croquet, he says: “If you go to a croquet club, the people are passionate about croquet, and if you go to a tennis club, people are passionate about tennis. We happen to have both. We love croquet, but we are passionate about tennis.
He is also a member of a more intensive croquet club, Surbiton, but regards the All England croquet subdivision as uniformly “thrilled” to be part of the tennis realm.
He sees no desire for tennis.
“So every year in September,” Matheson said, “we sit down and we look at the croquet plan for the next year, and they ratify it and fund it. And also remember, it’s a huge investment. Our grounds and horticulture team, the time they have to spend on the lawns themselves, to continue to prepare them – and then those lawns are again, like every [tennis] runs here, completely destroyed at the end of the season, and renovated, and reseeded, leveled, and rebuilt from scratch for the following year. But all the upkeep, preparation, and ongoing daily upkeep of these croquet lawns,” a six to 10-person field crew “constantly takes care of these lawns, which we don’t necessarily have to do if we did” not prioritize croquet as part of what we do.
Croquet will continue to breathe, perhaps even for another 154 years, with slightly easier horticulture to come. Once Wimbledon develops as expected, expansive practice grounds will appear and croquet lawns will remain in place year-round.
In that vein, Matheson pointed to ‘incredibly established croquet clubs’ such as Hurlingham and Roehampton and said: ‘You take a croquet ball there and move it half a turn, it’s gone. I mean, it’s lightning fast. Ours aren’t that fast, but they’re still great lawns. … So in a perfect world for croquet players, you want to redo the lawns at some point and absolutely do them with the right grass. Because croquet is cut much lower down to three mil [millimeters], grass for tennis is about eight mil. You can’t cut three millet rye because it dies.
He spoke like a man who, like Smith, played in the main draws of Wimbledon tennis – in the 1990s, in his case, won two doubles matches – but a man who can talk about his fescue, his rye and its croquet.