TENNIS flashback; A string quartet played while they lobbed

The first two weeks of September will see the centennial playing of the American tennis championships at the starkly modern National Tennis Center in the bustling New York City borough of Queens.

The sound effects will include jet aircraft, subway trains, freeway traffic, and boisterous fans.

"Everyone knows it is hard to hit what you cannot see," says the great Bjorn Borg. "But it also is hard to hit what you cannot hear."

Meanwhile, only 200 or so miles to the northeast, the restrained atmosphere of the very first national tournament has been preserved in startling contrast; it might have been heermetically sealed for all these years.

Through a shaded portal in a row of English-looking shops on old Bellevue Avenue reposes the Newport Casino, the ivy-covered home of tennis in this country.

An enchanted Herbert Warren Wind, after his first pilgrimage, called it "a strange vanished world that suggests such pre-World War I stars as R. Norris Williams and Maurice McLoughlin less than it does that eminent mixed doubles team of Edith Wharton and William Dean Howells."

Here, with a string quartet playing softly in the background, the social elite of the day lounged in lawn chairs and watched a 19-year-old Harvard student named Richard Sears capture the inaugural national championship in 1881 without losing a set.

Twenty-five competitors turned out, all from clubs in the Northeast. Sears represented the Longwood Cricket Club, wearing its januty uniform of bold-striped jacket, cap and tie, plus long white slacks. This was the preppie look before its time. Chasing after a shot, Sears must have resembled a barber pole in flight.

The slender, mustachioed Sears wore pince-nez glasses to play, and appeared a mild sort of chap. He was aggressive for his era, however.

He is credited with being the first American to rush the net with any regularity, a tactic that had much to do with his victory.

Wrote Sears subsequently, "The entrants knew about the various styles of play of their clubmates, but nothing whatever of the others. The Ayers ball [a British ball standard at the time] was used and the nets were four feet at the posts and three feet at the center. [Today they are 3 1/2 feet and three feet, respectively.]

"This had led to a scheme of attack by playing whenever possible across court to avoid lifting the drives over the highest part of the net along the sidelines. This method just suited me, as I had taken up a mild form of volleying in practice, and all I had to do was top the balls as they came over, first to one side and then to the other, running my opponent all over the court."

Sears crushed W. E. Glyn 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 in the finals and was awarded a medal.

He won the next six singles titles before retiring from the nationals undefeated, dropping but three sets in all.

Only William Larned and Big Bill Tilden have matched Sears' record of seven championships, and neither did it in consecutive years.

Sears used his head as much as his body to extend his streak. When opponents caught on to his net-rushing approach, he devised the lob to counter them.

His canniness made him a leading doubles player as well.

In the early nationals, the contestants would play singles in the morning, break for tea, then play doubles in the afternoon.

Sears teamed the first year with fellow Bostonian Dr. James Dwight, the founder of the US Lawn Tennis Association and his mentor. Sears lost that year but shared in the next six doubles titles, five times with Dwight and the other time with J. S. Clark.

One day the resourceful Sears retrieved a shot that had been angled sharply over the backstop fence by racing through a gate in the fence and sending the ball back over and into the opponent's court.

The nationals were played in Newport until 1915, when they moved to New York City for greater accessibility and exposure. (The women's nationals commenced in 1887 at the Philadelphia Cricket Club.)

The casino suffered a period of decline, but in recent years has been restored as part of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

The venerable grass courts have been meticulously maintained -- yet another sharp contrast to the hard surface at the new National Tennis Center -- and the public is permitted to play on them through October. The rates are $16 a person during the week and $20 on weekends and holidays, for 90 memorable minutes.

I was there not long ago, and it was like turning back the calendar 100 years.

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