“A toast to Bill Stephens” – commonly overheard during the tour.
To visit every rackets playing club in North America over one’s lifetime would be considered an achievement. To visit them all in the space of two weeks is gluttony. If you are lucky enough to receive the magic email from Bill Stephens inviting you on the Knott Stephens tour, you must go. The tour takes place every two years and alternates between North American players visiting the UK and Brits visiting North America. The eight members of the team are usually in their mid to late twenties. Those of you who have had the opportunity to go on a Knott Stephens tour will already know what a rewarding and inebriating experience it is.
The team was overwhelmed by the generosity at every club and the effort made to ensure our blood alcohol concentration remained dangerously high at all times. We left North America with a stronger appetite for rackets than when we arrived and an appreciation of the Knott Stephens Tour as tool for bonding young players to the game for life. The two weeks generated such fondness for the rackets community amongst the team that we were unsurprised to hear just how many former KS tourists have become tournament regulars and custodians of the game – sitting on the boards of their respective governing bodies and encouraging the next generation of players to continue their involvement in the sport beyond their twenties. Many thanks must go to Bill Stephens and the late Jimmy Knott for their foresight. Long may the tour continue to thrive.
“You may as well put my name on the Salver now” – Rory Sutton, the Queen’s Club locker room, pre-tour, August 2017.
On every tour, one member of the team is awarded the Knott Stephens Salver. The criteria for winning are decided by the current captain and are therefore liable to change each time.
Following an afternoon of real tennis and rackets, whistle-blower Lucas Walsh leaked confidential reports on the playing standards of the touring party at the club bar. Team members had been tiered into three categories with the lowest tier allegedly consisting of Bruce Mason and Rory Sutton. Mason was outraged that the standard of his play had been mentioned in the same sentence as Sutton’s. As a result, the captain decided that a two-leg World Championship-esque duel would be appropriate to determine not only if the reports were true, but also to resolve the winner of the Salver. Sutton had been desperate to win the prize months before the tour had started so this put him in the reckoning, even if the odds were heavily against him. The first ‘two out of three’ leg would take place in New York and the second at our final stop, Montreal.
Day two brought wild weather from the edge of Hurricane Jose, which dashed plans of lawn tennis at the Longwood Cricket Club followed by beers-on-a-boat. More than compromising,the team found themselves wandering around Harvard in the drizzle. As H. Faber sought directions from a student rushing between classes, his line of enquiry changed, and before most of us knew what was going on we were in crescent formation as the star student turned into a tour guide and recounted the full history of the famous Widener Library situated behind her. Five minutes later, she rushed off and a sudden downpour had the team seeking shelter under the columns of the Widener Library itself. Within moments, Sutton, looking reliably suspect in his maroon puffer jacket, farmer’s tweed flat cap and blue ‘penguin’ plimsolls, could be overheard inflicting his new-found knowledge on a reticent Spanish tourist who had been simply trying to get out of the wet weather.
Bartley’s burgers for lunch gained good reviews from many of the team but PJ Clarke’s in New York would later dispatch them into the grill of mediocrity. Another afternoon of play ended with yet more burgers for dinner and a night on the town. Dollar bill arcade basketball proved a popular bar pursuit amongst team members, a game rarely (if ever?) seen in London bars. Beating high scores was deemed favourable to socialising with the locals. It was fitting, perhaps, that the tour would end in a Montreal bar where a faulty version of the arcade game was found, which supplied the team with a limitless number of games for the price of one. If Old Radleians Buckley and Sutton decide to become business partners in the future, an arcade basketball and bar venture in London could prove profitable – both have a passion for the game that would likely result in business success. Mason, at the opposite end of the spectrum, was thoroughly uninterested in the game, particularly in Montreal.
Thanks must go to Lucas Walsh for organising our stay in Boston, booking out both the real tennis and rackets court and making sure the drinks flowed throughout.
The four-hour train journey from Boston to New York passed without incident – wearing shirt, tie, Knott Stephens sweater and a cream blazer, vice-captain Maltby spent most of the journey snoozing in style. The team arrived at Penn Station stirring-up the new rivalry between Mason and Sutton ahead of their Salver first leg. Before that match could be played, we would face our toughest on court challenge of the tour. In the same way that England’s best cricketers are occasionally South African, America’s best rackets players are often British. World doubles champion Jonathan Larken and Guy Devereux each lead the top two pairs. Guy, who partnered with the equally capable Peter Cipriano in the second pair, made very light work of H. Faber and Rozier-Pamplin. After two swift games, referee Neil Smith decided to mix the players up and give the Knott Stephens men a chance to experience some rallies in excess of three shots. Jonathan Larken and Zach Sachs were the slow starters in the first pairs’ match and quickly found themselves 1-0 down to a solid looking Stevens and Buckley. Larken gradually tightened the vice and a 2-1 loss was recorded for Knott Stephens team. Sutton and Mason, Salver nemeses, combined to grab the only victory of the four matches. Clearly neither player wanted to show the other any areas of weakness before their singles clash.
In the evening, a steak that looked like it had been cut from a Stegosaurus was served for dinner in the club library. After profuse amounts of food and wine, the team was given an introduction to the game of billiards before being led to Dorian’s by pacemakers Devereux and Sachs, who graciously left the team to chase the remainder of the night when the bar closed.
Friday morning was one of consolidation and reflection following a poor on-court team performance and a heavy night out. The club’s bathing facilities proved indispensable during this testing period. We regrouped in the afternoon and headed for the rooftop bar at the Standard Hotel in an effort to make the most of the autumn heatwave that would follow us the remainder of the tour. Sutton’s poor taste in clothing was confirmed to be a conscious style choice rather than a one-off cricket bag-cum-suitcase malfunction in Boston; even on a terrace full of loungers and against the back-drop of a balmy New York sunset, his Hawaiian shirt looked out of place.
After a brilliant weekend in Tuxedo, we returned to New York and were honoured to have the reigning Knott Stephens Salver winner, McCabe Walsh, and current world rackets singles and doubles champion, James Stout, join us on court. It was a fortuitous moment savoured by the team and an on-court combination likely never to be seen again.
In the dampest of squibs, Mason beat Sutton 2-0 in the first leg of the Salver. Unfortunately, the hype surrounding the event was unwarranted and the most entertaining period came in the in the second game when Mason, who was cruising, choked an 11-0 lead. From 11-10 onwards, Sutton’s play was strangled by the thought that he might win a game and he failed to serve above line on almost every occasion the ball was thrown back to him.
Thanks to Jonathan Larken and Guy Devereux for their help in organising our stay, and to Zach Sachs, David Emil and Walter Deane for being such generous hosts.
The team woke early on Saturday morning to meet at the New York Racquet Club. From there we hailed Ubers out to the beautiful gated community with Tuxedo Lake at its centre. Although the leaves were beginning to turn brown, temperatures surpassed thirty degrees on both Saturday and Sunday. After a hectic start to the tour and the man-made jungle of New York, we found the club and its surroundings wonderfully peaceful, well-kept and brilliantly welcoming.
By 10am several of members of the team were on court for a series of matches with Tuxedo members. There was even room for some friendly lawn tennis in the sunshine. In the late afternoon, Guy Devereux took us out on his electric boat as the sun set over the lake and provided a selection of beers, rosés and snacks for us to enjoy as we took in the scenery. After mooring, it was back to the Devereux’s for a dinner party. Sara Devereux came up with the pick of the jokes – Sutton’s failed to induce anything other than pitying whimpers from his teammates.
Sunday morning saw unofficial play and time spent by the lake. After watching the Eagles vs. Giants NFL game that went down to the last kick, we took a bus back to the city where we met McCabe Walsh and Zach Sachs at P.J. Clarke’s for dinner.
The team felt lucky to have experienced the club during its September peak rather than in the February chill of the Tuxedo Gold Racquets tournaments. We were extremely grateful to Sara and Guy Devereux for hosting all eight players during our one night stay. Guy had spent four days in a row with the team by this point and must have been relieved to see us move on to Philadelphia!
We thought New York had broken us; and so it was perhaps a blessing (not to be admitted) that we were greeted with a relatively quiet evening in Philadelphia. The club’s rackets champion and former Knott Stephens tourist John Crowell, and his wife, Sydney, put on a delightful dinner. Sutton, Buckley and Mason were first to leave as they headed to Jeff Yager’s in the suburbs. On the face of it, being out of town was a disadvantage, but when Jeff agreed to take them for an early session at the local batting cages the next morning, it was clear that the accommodation lottery had worked favourably for this trio. Reports suggested Buckley and Mason were able to deal confidently with the fast-ball, though Sutton was mindful of the machine’s energy consumption and benevolently turned it down a notch or two.
Despite the relative rest of the previous night, the KS team continued to show off a fairly forgettable brand of rackets on a beautiful court and were swiftly ushered into the RCOP restaurant. The rest of the evening was spent ploughing through yet more red meat and squeezing what little juice we could out of a Tuesday night in Philly. None of the bars were busy, but as Gary Swantner emphasised, ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’.
We are immensely grateful to those members who hosted the team and to Lou ‘the fork’ Habina, for putting on a wonderful dinner for us, which culminated in everyone ordering a beer and a shot – closer to an English sized beer than an English sized shot.
If you are not aware, Buckley has two ex- world rackets champion uncles. This was a familiar topic at each club so far and Chicago was no different.
Our fifth stop on the tour took us to the Windy City – a return trip for three Chicago fellows; Buckley, Maltby and Rozier-Pamplin. After hearing copious promotion of the club’s corn beef hash and the unrivalled hospitality of John Cashman, we were eagerly anticipating our time at the RCOC. Despite arriving as a rather broken squad, the team was still standing. However, not long after meeting the club pros, the tour took its first victim – Bruce Mason. Hidden away for the next twenty-four hours, he left the squad short-handed and we had to play through as seven. That evening we were chaperoned by Chicago’s Englishman, Conor Medlow, and ended up at a duelling piano bar called Howl at the Moon.
A few took early dips in Lake Michigan the next morning and most had a corn beef hash breakfast in the locker room. We felt in good spirits as we entered a packed schedule of rackets and court tennis matches against the army of Chicago members. With some rather unconvincing performances from the Knott Stephens tourists, the afternoon’s matches culminated in a close game that saw Ben Stevens and Henry Faber take on Chicago’s Marty Kinsella and Conor Medlow. With a 2-1 victory for the KS pair, our dignity remained intact.
That evening, the team experienced the eminent hospitality of the Chicago Racquet Club as more than thirty members dined with us, exchanged memories of previous tours and became victims of another Sutton ‘joke’. The team really appreciated so many of the members coming out on the town afterwards, especially as it was a mid-week night! Amazingly, all KS team members made the flight to Detroit the next day.
We are grateful to the legend and top man John Cashman for enabling the team to stay in the club’s hotel rooms, and all the other members of staff, including the much-adorned locker room attendants Raul and Uncle Elmer, for making our stay so memorable and welcoming.
All eight players landed in Detroit a little tired following the busy travelling and playing schedule. There was a nervous anticipation on what was to come – those tourists who hadn’t been before were aware that Detroit was ‘nothing like’ other American clubs. However, it soon became clear that we would be looked after well when we were cheerily greeted at the airport by Jamie Shea, Bruce Nichols Jr. and Ward Detweiler.
Ashamedly, the team spent the first afternoon rotating between playing and sleeping, before being treated to dinner at the club, where members regaled some of the local traditions, and jokes were told. The night continued at a few different bars. Thanks to club professional Steve Toseland’s local knowledge of where one could still find a drink during the prohibition hours between 2am and 6am, we were able to prolong the fun.
The next day, T. Faber’s ability caught the eye of Toseland, who decided to challenge the Old Harrovian to a game of singles. The young Brit, who had been spotted smoking a cigar the night before, managed to edge out a win.
After experiencing Detroit’s speciality takeaway ‘square pizza’, an early night was in store (for some of the team). We were hugely appreciative to Steve and his girlfriend for hosting all of us in their wonderfully whacky home and making certain we had a great time in the city. We’re not sure if Steve slept between us arriving and leaving, so resolute was his commitment to ensure we had a great time!
By Sunday lunchtime we had made it to the final stop on the tour – Montreal. Ever since Boston, the weather had been glorious and Montreal was no exception. T-shirts on, and with the sun beating down, we were led to a restaurant where everyone took on a smoked beef sandwich.
Lunch sitting heavy, the team played some friendly doubles matches with the members. Up until this point, Buckley, a doubles specialist, had proved himself to be one of the team’s top players on court. But as Mason pointed out, the American diet had grown on Buckley – most noticeably below the chin – and his gait around the court now resembled that of an adult rhinoceros. Fortunately, he had only one more day of play to lumber through.
That evening, Bart and Sue Sambrook hosted the team for what would be the healthiest meal of the tour. This was probably a blessing, given the lack of fruit and veg consumed thus far. There was plenty of beer and wine on offer, which quenched the daily drinking habit we had all acquired over the preceding two weeks. Afterwards, the team went out on the town but were greeted by empty bars – unsurprising given it was a Sunday. This did not deter Charles Vennat who did everything he could to help us seek out what life there was.
On Monday, the much-awaited Salver second leg between Mason and Sutton had to be amended when Sutton pulled out due to an on-going hamstring injury which no masseuse could cure in time. The tier three player was replaced by George Maltby of tier two. Relentless carpentry saw Maltby extend an early lead in the first game, before completing it 15/11. In the second, Mason fired-up and was ahead 13-1 before spluttering at every opportunity, losing it 16/15, and saying goodbye to any hopes of winning the Salver. The club games were close fought and the Montreal members gave a very strong account of themselves. Late in the evening, the two Fabers played in the first pair match and came up against seasoned opposition in Bart Sambrook and Karel Nemec. They lost 3-1 and the rubbers ended tied at 2-2.
The club hosted a superb dinner in the evening for the final night of the tour. We ate well, recounted some amusing stories from the previous two weeks and Sutton managed to deliver an entertaining recitation having conceded that his jokes weren’t working.
Before taking our flight home, the final day came with a treat for the touring party – an early round of golf at Mount Bruno Country Club. Mike McLernon, Steven Chamandy and Charles Vennat were instrumental in making this happen and we left Montreal extremely grateful for being looked after so well.
To the rest of the team it appeared that George Maltby had been assigned the Salver after winning the match in Montreal, although no official presentation had taken place. However, the captain and vice-captain were in cahoots and agreed that another member of the team deserved the accolade. The rest of the team, excluding the winner, were then notified of the change and agreed unanimously that the correct decision had been made. A re-union dinner at the Queen’s Club a month after the tour provided the perfect opportunity to present the Salver to its unsuspecting winner, engraved with name ‘R. D. Sutton’.
Hot-headed at times but good natured at heart, Sutton provided much amusement for the team throughout the tour, particularly when telling dinner ‘jokes’. Credit must be given to his skill in delivery, which drew members in at every club, although weak punch lines found him wanting. It was agreed amongst the squad that if someone could furnish him with a higher calibre of material, he might become a master – perhaps one day competing with the great joke tellers to have graced the game. He also maintains that he did not lose a single rackets match. Credit here must be given to his Knott Stevens playing partners, each of whom carried him to victory.
The captain would like to thank the team for their camaraderie during the tour and for making it such an enjoyable experience. All eight players bonded over a special two weeks and continue to play rackets with each other on a regular basis. On behalf of the team, the captain would also like to Bill Stephens, aided by his wife Pauline, for his tireless organisational work, and all the clubs and their members for the VIP treatment we received.