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Mystery And Death On The French Riviera: The Origin Of Clay Court Tennis14:28
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Poet and writer Rowan Ricardo Phillips uncovered a dark tale behind the origin of clay court tennis. (Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images)
Poet and writer Rowan Ricardo Phillips uncovered a dark tale behind the origin of clay court tennis. (Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images)

This week, a limited number of tickets for the 2020 French Open went on sale.

The tournament at Roland Garros, originally scheduled for this May and June, is set to begin in late September.

The French Open is famously the only of tennis’s four Grand Slams played on clay.

"There's kind of, like, no reason for it," poet and writer Rowan Ricardo Phillips says,  "until you ask yourself: 'Wait, why am I playing on sand? We don't play basketball on sand.' "

"Like, you know why you play on grass, more or less," Phillips continues. "Tennis became lawn tennis because there were croquet courts all over the place and nobody was playing croquet anymore. So they put up some nets and said, 'Let's play.'

"And you know why you play on hard court. Hard courts are easy to maintain. It's the natural evolution. But with clay, why throw some sand down and say, 'Let's play,' and start slipping and sliding all over the place?"

Phillips wrote a book called “The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey,” which he calls a “love song” to the 2017 men’s tennis season.

But in his research for that love song, Phillips uncovered a dark tale behind the origin of clay court tennis.

A Mysterious End

On a winter morning in 1903, Georges Henri Gougoltz was fatally wounded.

For decades, Gougoltz had been the proprietor of a luxury hotel in Cannes. It was called the Beau-Site, and it boasted of its “large beautiful gardens” and its “unequaled view” of the Mediterranean Sea.

But it was in Cannes, along the French Riviera, that Gougoltz met a grisly end.

"As the Courrier, the local paper in Cannes, noted: he was found dead by suicide, having shot himself in the head three times," Phillips says. "You should pause and wonder how one shoots oneself in the head three times."

"He was found dead by suicide, having shot himself in the head three times. You should pause and wonder how one shoots oneself in the head three times."

Rowan Ricardo Phillips

“He survived his horrible injuries for two hours in great agony before breathing his last breath," the Courrier stated.

Georges Henri Gougoltz — this man who met a mysterious end — may also be the uncredited inventor of the clay court.

"The story of clay court tennis, what we’re told, wasn’t really what happened," Phillips says.

Clay: Helping Spread The Game

Rowan Ricardo Phillips will tell you that the introduction of the clay court is the greatest innovation in tennis history.

"It’s really oxygenated where tennis can be and how tennis can be played," Phillips says. "The next time you happen to glance at a clay court, just also keep in mind where you are."

The clay court isn’t just some rust-colored novelty. It changes the game. As Phillips describes it, shots “sponge off” the “granular” surface, slowing balls down and “trampolining” them back into the air.

Especially compared to grass courts, which keep balls faster and lower, clay favors a different style of player.

Rafael Nadal, winner of 12 French Opens, famously thrives on clay. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal, winner of 12 French Opens, famously thrives on clay. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

But perhaps most importantly, the clay court helped tennis take hold and flourish in climates not well-suited for maintaining grass, as evidenced by the locales of today’s most famous clay tournaments beyond Paris:

"You know, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, Madrid," Phillips says, "but, also, you find yourself in South America: Buenos Aires. Rio."

The only ATP tournament in Africa — the Grand Prix Hassan II in Marrakech, Morocco — is also on clay.

"It’s made it an even more global sport," Phillips says.

The Rio Open in Brazil is played on clay. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
The Rio Open in Brazil is played on clay. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

The Myth

There’s a commonly understood version of how clay came to be a part of tennis, and it goes something like this:

"There were in the late 19th century twin brothers — Ernest and William Renshaw — from England," Phillips says.

"The more I dug, the more that I found that there was another story going on — and one that it would kind of make sense to keep on the back burner."

Rowan Ricardo Phillips

The Renshaw brothers, Phillips says, were the first superstars of tennis.

"I mean, so famous that they had a lawn shoe named after them," Phillips says. "An oxford loafer, basically, with a rubber sole."

Phillips says we can think of the Renshaw brothers as the Williams sisters before the Williams sisters.

"The idea is that the Renshaws came, like many English in the late 19th century, to the Côte d’Azur — the French Riviera — to winter," Phillips says.

By that point, lawn tennis had become, Phillips says, "le jeu du jour" in France and England, especially for the leisure class. And the Renshaw brothers, like other tennis players, could make money giving lessons to guests wintering at the resorts along the French Riviera, like the Hôtel Beau-Site.

"Now, if you have a hotel and you have grass courts and you’re putting them to good use, the good thing is that there’s activity and there’s notice around tennis," Phillips says. "The bad thing is — as you see come two days into Wimbledon — the grass starts to suffer, which isn't the most aesthetically, then, pleasing way to present your hotel."

Even at Wimbledon, it's impossible to keep grass courts perfectly green. (Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Even at Wimbledon, it's impossible to keep grass courts perfectly green. (Ian Walton/Getty Images)

And so, the myth continues, there was this problem that needed solving ...

"But never fear, because the great Renshaw brothers had a wonderful idea," Phillips says. "They knew that they can go to the nearby town of Vallauris — a small French town with a wonderful and long tradition of pottery, clay making — and they can take all of the shards and unused ceramics and pulverize them."

Then, the story goes, the Renshaw brothers returned to the Hôtel Beau-Site.

"And spread out these powdered ceramics — these pulverized jars — onto the court," Phillips says, "which would protect the surface — add, also, a layer of style and aesthetic, a new color. And everybody would be happy."

But there are some major holes in that story.

"We can start with the simple fact that there is no record of the Renshaws arriving at the Hôtel Beau-Site in Cannes until many, many years after there had already been the clay courts laid at the Hôtel Beau-Site," Phillips says.

Phillips found photos and advertisements showing the clay courts at the Beau-Site in the early 1880s. And yet the local papers don’t put the Renshaw brothers at the hotel before 1885.

"Keep in mind, this is the era of Belle Époque — this is the rise of celebrity," Phillips says. "This is when the local papers would mention if someone slightly famous scratched their ankle while having tea in the afternoon."

And when the Renshaw brothers did finally show up in the local papers, Phillips says there were descriptions of them playing on the Beau-Site’s clay courts — but no mention of their great innovation of just a few years earlier.

In fact, while William Renshaw went on to win a total of seven Wimbledon singles titles, Phillips says there was never a mention in contemporary newspaper accounts of his role in inventing the clay court.

"It would seems strange — it would be kind of like if this were to happen with the Williams sisters, and ... nobody ever talks about it at all," Phillips says. "The more I dug, the more that I found that there was another story going on — and one that it would kind of make sense to keep on the back burner."

Georges Henri Gougoltz: Hotelier And 'Huckster'

This is where we return to Georges Henri Gougoltz, the hotelier who supposedly shot himself in the head three times.

In 1867, he purchased a château on a hill in Cannes and turned it into the Hôtel Beau-Site.

"And he began to immediately undergo renovations," Phillips says. "He wanted his hotels to be bigger, better and also to be in the news. He had noticed that some of the hotels in the area were attracting a more, shall we say, upper level of clientele: some royals, some celebrities.

"And if you check the travel advertisements of the time, they were announcing wonderful innovative things such as tennis courts. This is something that Georges Henri Gougoltz didn't have."

But Gougoltz wasn’t afraid to spend money — especially money he didn’t have — to improve his hotel.

"The Circuit" by Rowan Ricardo Phillips.
"The Circuit" by Rowan Ricardo Phillips.

"He was getting heavily into debt with investors," Phillips says. "I checked the Swiss and French court statements from around these times — the1860s, 1870s, 1880s — and this man was basically a huckster. He was filing false reports. And he was basically trying to find a way to get in and get on top of the hotel game. Tennis was, of course, a part of that."

So Gougoltz added grass courts to the Hôtel Beau-Site.

"It's so wonderfully, like, from central casting: the hotel sat on top of a hill with palm trees that were ... imported and planted there," Phillips says. "And then down at the bottom of the hill were the courts. But if you don't have a lot of money and you notice that once you have grass courts that your courts are getting incredibly — how would I put it in French? — 'F’d up.' That's then also hurting your goal, which is to bring people to your attractive hotel."

So instead of keeping those grass courts, which would’ve been expensive to maintain, the Beau-Site suddenly became the first hotel to cover its courts with clay. This would remove the need for constant watering and allow guests to play all day without damaging the surface.

This switch to clay, Phillips suggests, would be a wise move for a hotel owner like George Henri Gougoltz who was constantly in debt.

"If you check the records, you'll find that there's no mention of the invention of these courts as a nouvelle thing. But there was this quick and sudden transformation from Gougoltz’s courts going from grass to clay," Phillips says.

Gougoltz got what he wanted: the Hôtel Beau-Site became a destination for the middle and upper class, for Americans on holiday — and for tennis players.

"The courts were renowned," Phillips says. "There were none other like them. You can play all day. People were writing about them."

And about five years after the clay courts were laid, those noteworthy guests arrived.

"You can have a really good sense of what the Beau-Site meant to tennis with the fact that William and Ernest Renshaw, at the peak of their fame, were there playing, giving lessons," Phillips says.

The Beau-Site was the epicenter of tennis on the continent for about a decade, Phillips says.

But Gougoltz’s financial troubles continued. And the Beau-Site’s run came to an end.

The Tennis Elite Go Elsewhere

"Eventually he saw his idea go into other people's hands at other more established facilities," Phillips says. "Other hotels in nearby areas, Nice, for instance, and later, of course, Monaco became much hotter destinations for people looking to play a good game of tennis. Even William Renshaw picked up his rackets and moved over to another hotel in another town."

Monte Carlo eventually became the region's top tennis destination. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Monte Carlo eventually became the region's top tennis destination. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Gougoltz was still deep in debt, which is a big reason Phillips has an interesting theory about who may have originated that myth that it was the famous Renshaw Brothers who came up with the idea of the clay court.

Phillips thinks it may have been George Henri Gougoltz himself.

"Given what we know about George Henri Gougoltz and his tendency towards scams, speculation, and money grabs ... it would be quite convenient that you have a story about these wonderful clay courts being devised by the Renshaw brothers," Phillips says. "And that myth, I think, was a bit of a desperate stab — an elegantly desperate stab — by a very desperate man who was trying to keep his hotel afloat — in part for his own ego and ambition, but also because, by that point, he was so indebted."

Gougoltz, in fact, had lost ownership of his hotel.

"He had become a figurehead," Phillips says. "It was basically in the hands of the monied men of Cannes who kept him around as proprietor in name."

Phillips says that, for years, many of Gougoltz’s legal and financial troubles were kept relatively quiet — they didn’t appear in the local newspapers.

But by 1902 — more than a decade after the Beau-Site had lost its prime standing in tennis — Phillips says Gougoltz’s debts had caught up to him.

That year he declared bankruptcy.

"Very publicly, in the paper," Phillips says. "I think that was a sign of people losing patience with Gougoltz."

Months later George Henri Gougoltz was dead.

"With a quote-unquote 'self-inflicted' series of gunshot wounds — three times — in the head," Phillips says.

Lost Courts

Rowan Ricardo Phillips says the Hôtel Beau-Site eventually became condos.

As for George Henri Gougoltz’s original clay courts, Phillips doesn’t know what happened to them. He suspects they were razed during a renovation.

Today there are no tennis tournaments of note held in Cannes.

But when the French Open begins this September (or next May) the best players in the world will dig into the clay — and very few will know who they have to thank for it.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of “The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey.” 

This segment aired on July 11, 2020.

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Martin Kessler Twitter Producer, Only A Game
Martin Kessler is a producer at Only A Game.

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