Court Tennis: One Man's Vision Is a Court Like Few Others

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 6, 2009

Over and over again, Haven Pell confronted the same question, from others and from himself: Why? Why would a sane, successful businessman spend a decade of his life drawing eye rolls, pushing through doors and slamming down phones all to indulge a fantasy?

To build what exactly? A tennis court?

And not just any tennis court but rather something called a court tennis court, upon which the kind of tennis to be played is of a 16th-century variety, set inside the replica of a medieval courtyard with soaring walls and players clad in white, hitting handmade balls off the sides of the structure with strange wooden rackets. It is best known, perhaps, as the game of Henry VIII, who according to legend enjoyed a few sets on Hampton Court at precisely the time his second wife, Anne Boleyn, was being detached from her head at Tower Green. It is the kind of tennis of interest to such an infinitesimal percentage of the population that there are less than 50 of its courts in the world.

For this Pell spent 10 years?

He is silent for a moment.

"You probably could say that I didn't think of how hard it would be," he says. "I was probably too dumb to realize how long it was going to take."

He is the kind of person Washington has in abundance: driven and accomplished, a 63-year-old investment manager with a serious glare, firm handshake and an office near the White House. He likely would have blended right into the hustle of D.C. life with his wife and three children in their Observatory Circle house were it not for this compulsion, which began in 1987.

"I suppose it's a little like 'Field of Dreams,' " he says. "If you build it they will come."

Pell was already a court tennis player, a member of New York's prestigious Racquet and Tennis Club on Park Avenue. Some of his warmest childhood memories are of playing the game with his father, Clarry, at the home of John Hay Whitney, the former New York Herald-Tribune publisher and ambassador to England, who had a private court tennis court at his estate on the north shore of Long Island. Pell once wrote in an essay for his prep school alumni magazine that while other kids were off playing Little League, his field was Whitney's home: "a large house decorated with significant Impressionist paintings, many of which were donated to the National Gallery."

Somewhere in the mid-1980s, not long after moving here, Pell and a small group of friends -- most notably a school teacher and a fellow court tennis player named Temple Grassi -- began to talk of building a court in the Washington area. The notion wasn't preposterous; there were at the time just eight other courts in the country, located in places such as New York, Philadelphia and Newport, R.I. It seemed plausible that enough people in Washington would welcome an opportunity to have one here. In fact the idea became so appealing they decided to build it themselves.

Little did they know how few would share their zeal.

They approached country clubs. They spoke to private schools. They looked for warehouses. Twice they thought they found their place, hiring architects to draw up plans, only to have their hopes dashed when the agreements fell through. Years went by. The enthusiasm of some of the original dreamers waned.

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