Robert Cooper is a kindergarten teacher and a member of the local tennis club in Edgbaston,Birmingham. A signboard at the club desperately needs a paint job,and Cooper has volunteered his hand.
Draped in a raincoat to protect himself for the slanting,west Midlands drizzle,Cooper wipes his foggy spectacles with one hand and dips a bristly brush into a tub of white paint. With care,he flicks his wrists over a green board,re-marking a set of words that make remarkable sense once hes finished the job.
Edgbaston Archery & Lawn Tennis Club The Oldest Lawn Tennis Club In The World says the shiny new panel. Neat,isnt it? exclaims Cooper,arms folded across his chest. This is what brings the customers in. The game of tennis,as we know it,was born right here,below our feet. For players and fans alike,this club is nothing short of a shrine.
If Britain is the motherland of most international sports that have survived to see the light of this century,then the county of Warwickshire,and more specifically its capital of city of Birmingham,is the very womb. It was here in Birmingham,in the outskirts of Leamington where two doctors,Harry Gem and Augurio Perera,invented the most famous racquet sport in the world back in 1859.
And it was here,some 30 miles to the east of where we stand,that the game of rugby came into being in Rugby,Warwickshire. And just a cab ride away from Edgbaston is Aston,where William McGregor,the director of a club now known as Aston Villa (one of the oldest clubs,founded in 1874),came up with a novel concept. We should arrange home and away fixtures with the most prominent football clubs in England, McGregor is quoted as saying. The Football League was born.
But why Birmingham? Victor Lyttle,the former chairman of EALTS and presently waiting for the rain to stop for a set of tennis,explains. Birmingham was once the society of the rich and elite. Men and women who had plenty of gold and plenty of time. They invented these games as way to pass some of the idle hours they had at their disposal.
Once the rain stops,the view of the club itself is exquisite. Eight neatly trimmed grass courts sit here,divided into two rows of four by two courts of red shale and green wooden benches. One of the courts is occupied by Lyttle,a man in his mid-70s donning a pair of sideburns from the 70s,who moves with great agility for his age. His touch play is crisp,the backhand is one-handed and his racquet is wooden.
Does it remind you of Ramanathans game? shouts Lyttle. He was my favourite,father Krishnan was. What a game and what a gentleman. I always wished that he would just drop by some day and indulge in a round of touch tennis in the oldest existing tennis court in the world. The Krishnans never did visit,but plenty of others did.
One Saturday morning a few decades back,a week before Wimbledon was to begin,I entered the premises to see three visitors who needed absolutely no introduction. Arthur Ashe,John Newcome and Rod Laver, Lyttle says,smiling. They were all so interested in this clubs history and the history of the game. We were happy to give them a tour. I think one of them,Ashe possibly,even pocketed a few blades of grass as a memento.
Theres a picture of the three of them in the members area,arms wrapped around a much younger Lyttle. But Cooper seems more interested in pointing out the other memorabilia inside. There are photographs of the courts from 1911,a picture of Billie Jean King lying with her eyes closed on the soft Edgbaston grass and one of a 17-year old Maria Sharapova posing with her only Wimbledon title,with a handwritten note scribbled on it. Thank you for all your kindness,Maria.
We got a call from her in 2004 just before Wimbledon,telling us that it would be a privilege for her to practice here. A fortnight later,she had become a household name, says Lyttle,before Cooper cuts in. And do you know what attracted her here? Her manager,on a holiday a year prior,had seen the signboard I just repainted outside.