What you can experience here in the Ocean State, you can’t experience anywhere else in New England—nor in all the world. Here, at the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum in Newport, Rhode Island, you may venture where no weed dares to tread, and where legendary tennis greats have volleyed for well over a century. These are the only competition grass courts in the world that you, the public, are welcome to reserve for play. But know this: You don’t have to play the game to enjoy a day at the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum.
The property is a National Historic Landmark set on six acres of beautiful grounds. Take in its architectural and aesthetic appeal, and its history. It was 1879 when the New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett first decided to build a social club to serve the recreational needs of the summer folks. It was the beginning of the Gilded Age, the era synonymous with this town and its mansions along Bellevue Avenue. So a place to unwind after a day of watching the staff polish the silver was certainly in order. Then known as The Newport Casino, it delivered as a source of entertainment. It offered shops, a restaurant, archery, billiards, concerts, dancing, dining, horse shows, lawn bowling and tennis, tea parties, croquet, court tennis, and more.
Today, it still has an air of refinement and lovely shops (Angela Moore, The Linen Shop…) adjacent to the entrance. However, the rather unimposing entry gives no hint of how much lies beyond its doors.
Original to the property is also an indoor facility offering “court tennis,” a game that originated in the 12th century which writer Jay Jennings humorously described in Yankee’s March 2000 issue as, “…a combination of tennis, squash, and pinball. The court is asymmetrical, with all manner of possibilities for knocking the ball at strange angles…the rules are arcane, the scoring is complex, and mastering the game (for some) is agonizing.” If that description has not discouraged you, lessons are offered for those who reserve well in advance. If you’d rather not exert yourself, simply have lunch overlooking the grounds at the La Forge Casino Restaurant.
During the week I visited, the annual Hall of Fame Tennis Championships were in full swing, and the place was bustling. A trio of musicians greeted visitors with a snappy tune, as two dapper couples demonstrated lawn tennis as it would’ve been played back in the day—so charming. Vendors lined the bricked walkways offering memorabilia, clothing, food, and drinks.
Then there was the Hall of Fame & Museum itself to investigate. It occupies the section of the building that formerly housed The Newport Casino. A multimedia experience, it’s more expansive than one would expect. Relive Billie Jean King’s humbling of Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” and other memorable moments in time connected to the sport. Discover how the game was invented. In fact, just seeing the progressive changes to the sporting equipment and tennis fashions is amusing. Here’s just a sampling:
At this year’s Championship tournament, tennis headliner John Isner was competing to reclaim his title. Personally, I’d say the real stars of these matches were the ball boys and girls. They know their job and they hustle. Isner and his competitor Ivo Karlovic were hurling impressive 130+ mph serves at each other in the quarterfinals, but a big part of the enjoyment to seeing this live match was the intensity and attentiveness of those ball boys and girls.
Never having properly learned the game myself, I leave these grounds with renewed inspiration. If you’re in town, it would be a shame to miss seeing this unique local landmark. The International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum is open daily (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas) and the annual Hall of Fame Tennis Championships take place each July. 401-849-3990; tennisfame.com