It was with some trepidation, since I am not accustomed to calling up baronets out of the blue, that I slipped into a phone booth in this rural North Wales village, deposited a two-penny coin, and dialed Clawdd Newydd 271: the number of Nantclwyd Hall, the birthplace of tennis.

After what seemed like an interminable number of rings - I was about to hang up, discourage - a man answered.

"Sir Vivyan Naylor-Leyland?" I asked bravely.

"And who might this be?" came the reply - tinged, I thought, with a touch of frost.

"My name is Barry Lorge, sir. I am the tennis correspondent for The Washington Post, in America."

"Are you then?" warbled the man on the other end of the line, in the throaty, affected mumble of the very rich and titled. "I suppose then you've come to have a look at my tennis court."

I told him I had, and that my wife and I were just down the road at the phone box across the road from the petrol station in Clawdd Newydd.

"Well, we were just about to sit down to tea," said Sir Vivyan cheerily. "If you come straight away, we'll wait for you."

Ever since 1973, when the celebrations of the centennial of tennis and the research of a persistent Idaho historian named George Alexander rekindled interest in the sport's early days, I had wanted to make a pilgrimage to Nantclwyd Hall to see where it all began.

Although the roots of tennis have been traced to ancient Egypt, the modern game's said to have been "invented in 1873 by Walter Clopton Wingfield, an English cavalry officer who had been reassigned to the Montgomery Yeomanry in Wales after serving in China. The flamboyant and imaginative Wingfield is to tennis what Abner Doubleday is to baseball. While some historians champion other pioneers, Wingfield generally is recognized as "the father of the game."

It was at a pheasant-shooting party at Nantclwyd (pronounced "nant-cloo-id") Hall, the splendid country estate of his good friend Thomas Naylor-Leyland, that Major Wingfield first laid down a court and tried out his new game in December, 1873.

The next year, he patented and started marketing his version of a game that was being played in many variations by gentlemen and newly liberated ladies on the spacious lawns of estates throughout Victorian England.

Borrowing the name of an ancient Greek precursor, Wingfield called his game "sphairistike, or lawn tennis." He published a pamphlet of instructions and dedicated it to "the party assembled at Nantclwyd."

It was in search of these roots of tennis that we drove to scenic North Wales to find Nantclwyd Hall - bilssfully unaware, when we started out, that it is occupied by Sir Vivyan Naylor-Leyland, great grandson of "Young Tom," who played with Wingfield in the original tennis match.

Sir Vivyan - a tall, lanky, athletic man with slightly stooped shoulders and a shock of fine, wavy brown hair that he constantly flicks from his eyes - was waiting for us at the door. He must be in his 50s, but could easily pass for 35. Thankfully, he was dressed in a comfortable old shirt, baggy corduroy pants, and battered Hush Puppies. He couldn't have been more hospitable.

"Perhaps you'd like to see where the court was first," he said, leading us around to the side of the house, and down to a hugh expanse of rather bumpy field beyond a six-foot terrace wall. "I hope you won't be disappointed. There's not much there, except a rather heavy crop of hay."

He pointed out the spot where Wingfield had set out the original hour-glass shaped court - 30 feet wide at the baselines, 24 feet across at the net - and showed us a bronze plaque he had placed to commemorate the spot in 1973, tennis' centennial year.

"Somewhere I have some photographs of the court in use in 1874. I think we even have one of Wingfield. I'll just have a look for them. Please come in," he said, apologizing for the state of the house, which is undergoing another renovation.

He ushered us into his study, full of antique furniture and wonderful oil paintings and tapestries. Like the rest of the downstairs rooms, it bore the richly musty aroma of old wood (the 1620 paneling had been preserved), old books, and old smoke from old pipes and old fireplaces.

After rummaging in several cupboards, and pausing to get his spectacles, Sir Vivyan found an album of century-old photographs, including two remarkably clear ones of the court on which his great grandfather and Major Wingfield played in the first modern tennis match. He could not find a portrait of Wingfield, but "Young Tom" was well-represented, looking quite dapper indeed.

"Somewhere in this house, I'm certain we have a copy of Wingfield's original book on how to play tennis - volume one, number one. I remember it from my youth," said Sir Vivyan."The trouble with an estate this size is that if you put something away for safekeeping and forget where it is, you might never find it again until your grandson happens to rediscover it one day."

We went back outside to the site of the original court, and looked at it again from the same angles from which the photos had been taken. The house looked virtually unchanged in 105 years, save for the fact that the pots around its several chimneys had been removed.

"You see the bridge in the photos," Sir Vivyan said, pointing across a pond where swans and ducks swam lazily. "It used to be right over there, by those reeds, until I knocked it down....And see these copper beech trees at the side of the court.They had been removed, but I had them replanted, which is why they are rather smaller than in the photograph."

Looking over the rolling acres of farm and woodlands that make up his 4,000 acre domain, Sir Vivyan acknowledged that the estate is "quite a useful size, really." He keeps 800 rams and 3,500 breeding ewes, plus a stable of horses and assorted other livestock.

"We also have quite a bit of timber, as you can see," he said, gesturing to the forest of oak, sycamores, and other sturdy trees. "Most of it was planted at about the same time Wingfield was inventing tennis. They did quite a good job of it."

During a leisurely walk through the gardens, Sir Vivyan's wife mentioned that they had recently decided to have their clay tennis court resurfaced, at a cost of $15,000. "Right now it's a joke," she said, "all potted and overgrown with weeds."

Then we adjourned to tea.