A PLAYER who hasn't donned rain gear over his all-white outfit leans casually on his mallet, his other hand perched on his waist. Is he bored? Daydreaming?
Actually, he's strategizing - thinking five or six moves ahead. His concentration becomes visible when his turn comes up. He holds the mallet between his feet. Then he makes a barely perceptible swing ... cluck.
Laughter and applause erupt from the sparse audience, indicating how amazing his stroke was: His ball jumped over the one he was ``dead on'' (croquet lingo for ``you hit it already and can't again until you've gone through the next hoop''); it then went through the hoop (or wicket which only gives the ball 1/32nd of an inch clearance); and, as if that weren't fancy enough, it ``roqueted'' another ball (made contact with it and earned him two more shots).
To novices, it can look and sound complicated. But the players at the United States Croquet Association (USCA) National Championships expect no less from one another - even when they have played all day outdoors in a rain storm, as they did for the quarterfinal rounds last Friday. This year's week-long tournament was held at the Newport (R.I.) Casino, home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Vying for a trophy but no cash, these men and women (who do not compete in separate categories) appear to value the camaraderie of the tournament most. ``You get to know the players like family,'' says Genevieve Lanyon, this year's amateur-division doubles champion. As if to demonstrate, Johnny Osborn (a singles and doubles finalist, one point shy of each title) comes by to chat and give her an affectionate squeeze.
One way to make sense of what one fan admitted can look like ``aimless meandering'' is to find a player like Christophe Bergen. With a hush of reverence for this ``mental'' sport, he gives a play-by-play explanation of the doubles game in progress to a visiting reporter.
You learn to keep track of the order of play: first the player whose ball is blue, then red, black (blue's partner), and yellow (red's partner). If you lose track, check the color rings that follow the same order from top to bottom on the peg in the middle of the grass court. To win, a player must maneuver his or her ball through six hoops, first in a clockwise pattern and then back, finally striking the peg.
``Playing breaks is the essence of croquet,'' Mr. Bergen emphasizes. In other words, to move around the court effectively, you must take advantage of the two strokes earned when you strike another ball.
Anyone can learn to play croquet. Even top players have fond memories of starting out in someone's backyard.
At 12 years old, Jacques Fournier is the youngest player in the history of the championships. A semifinalist in singles and doubles, he only started playing about 2 1/2 years ago. He sometimes swings his mallet over his shoulder like a baseball bat, but he doesn't sport a stereotypically short attention span. ``You have to concentrate a lot,'' Jacques says. The part that looks boring ``is probably the most important part of the game.'' Strategizing between your turns is ``how you get your balls in the right place,'' he explains. As in billiards, a player (whose ball acts like the cue ball) can affect the positions of all the balls on the court.
One thing that has made croquet less accessible is the rarity of good courts. The eastern US has more lawn tennis and lawn bowling greens, which lend themselves to croquet. But golf courses, sod farms, and even flat patches of sand have also served creative novices nationwide.
Mary Ann Rosenberry, one of the few noncompeting spectators who braved the rain, plans to build a synthetic court with her husband in their backyard in State College, Pa. It's an expensive undertaking motivated by ``a love for the sport'' rather than any ``rational sense,'' she says. Although she and her husband just started playing a few years ago, when they saw championships here while on vacation, they now aspire to ``jump into the fracas'' of competitive play.
``Most people think that we're weenies,'' Ms. Rosenberry admits. ``It's not aerobic, but we do get physically tired'' as well as mentally tired, she says. She finds that croquet players want to keep their minds working and tend to pursue other sports and interests.
This description fits doubles champion Ms. Lanyon well. In addition to croquet, which she has been playing in Westhampton on Long Island, N.Y., for about 20 years, her sports have included horseback riding, swimming, and tennis. She's also written a genealogical book about her ancestors, who came from England to Newport in 1640.
Lanyon, who likes competition, has been known to play in golf and croquet championships simultaneously. But many of the USCA's 5,000 members prefer to play for pure enjoyment, she says.
At the collegiate level, team play with referees helps students learn as well as enjoy competition. Michael Charrier, head coach at Yale, organizes a schedule each year for games among the 19 college teams (ranging from club-sport to sub-varsity status).
The season culminates in an April championship at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., whose team has one of the country's finest courts and receives some college funding. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst offers a one-credit croquet class.
College croquet ``has gone further than I expected,'' Mr. Charrier says. It's beginning is marked by a 1980 Harvard-Yale competition. The college game ``is a lot louder'' than the USCA championships, he says. ``Students cheer and do the wave.''
A new generation may bring frivolity to croquet, but championship players are still very ``picky about the grass,'' insists Elizabeth Thyssen, the coach for Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges. She and Charrier are two of about nine college coaches who competed at these USCA nationals.
``This may look like perfect grass to you,'' she says, ``but to us it's like mountains. It's got to be as flat and as perfect as a billiard table, but I don't think there is such a thing.''
* For more information about the game, write or call the United States Croquet Association, 500 Avenue of Champions, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. 33418. (407) 627-3999.