The IRTA was delighted to be invited to visit the Pays basque (Euskal Herria) for an international fixture over the weekend of 22–24 March 2013 at the trinquet [trinquets: historically abandoned tennis courts that came to be used for the practice of various versions of pelote basque] in La Bastide Clairence, a village half an hour’s drive inland from Biarritz. The Irish contingent that travelled to play was Roland Budd, Rupert Derham, Mark Heffernan, David Lowry, and Jack Woods.
Two members of the team travelled from London and three from Dublin, the latter group having some time to explore Biarritz and in particular some of the various pelota courts and frontons of the town. The group gathered on the Friday evening in La Bastide Clairence and was welcomed to La Table Gourmande restaurant by the president of La Bastide Clairence RTC, Ghislaine Potentier, who laid on a fantastic dinner. With appetites sated and stomachs replete, we headed to the trinquet and watched a few minutes of the Basque game, pala. The pala match completed, the ‘trinquet’ was quickly converted to a ‘jeu de paume’ by the installation of a net, and the IRTA group joined some local tennis players for some practice in anticipation of a difficult match the following day.
The court in La Bastide Clairence is the oldest that is currently in use for real tennis, having been built in 1512, although it does not conform to the now conventional court design. As with other trinquets, it has no grille penthouse, and the tambour is set in the corner beside the grille rather than closer to the net in the main wall. The court is also much smaller than any other hitherto encountered by the IRTA. We felt that these factors would confer a significant home advantage, so the excuse for any poor performance was firmly set!
On the Saturday morning we returned to the court in La Bastide Clairence with hopes of a strong showing in our matches and of an Irish victory. Before play started, we were honoured to have the chance to meet the President of the French RTA, Paul Mirat, with whom we discussed the courts and the game in France and in Ireland, and compared notes on common problems and experiences. He was very supportive of our efforts with the court on Earlsfort Terrace, and of our project to bring real tennis back to Ireland, and encouraged the development of the relationship between the real tennis communities of Ireland and France.
The matches got underway at midday, with Roland Budd vs Johnny Borrell first on court. All matches were played level, and consisted of one set to 10. Roland raced to a 6–0 lead before Johnny fought back strongly. The match finished 10–4 and Irish hopes were ignited with the early success. Unfortunately, that was to be as good as it got for Ireland. Mark Heffernan was next to play, and faced M. Sourgens who, despite being a relative newcomer to the game, has magnificent hand-eye coordination and racquet skills developed from playing various forms of pelota, as well as lawn tennis. Rupert Derham encountered a very strong opponent in Alexandre Foix, who had recently been crowned the under-16 and under-18 French champion in Fontainebleau, and who demonstrated his skill with some fantastically intuitive shots and great energy around the court. David ‘le requin’ Lowry took on Mathias Bonneval, another impressive young Basque player who eventually put paid to a spirited performance by the current Irish Open champion with a 10–7 victory. Jack Woods also had a loss in the dead rubber against Michel d’Arcangues, which concluded the fixture and completed the Irish woes.
The splendid trophy (although rather reminiscent of The Ashes’ urn in size) was presented to the deserving Basque victors and will remain in La Bastide Clairence until the return match, which we hope to hold in Dublin once the Earlsfort Terrace court is returned to action.
Following our defeat and after experimenting with the game of pala, we drove the few kilometres to Arcangues and played some friendly doubles matches on its impressive and more modern trinquet (built in the 1980s). After the tennis we enjoyed a marvellous dinner of local fare in the attached restaurant — from which one has fine views down over the trinquet.
It was a great privilege to be welcomed to play in the Pays basque and we extend our thanks to Johnny Borrell for proposing and organising the fixture, to Ghislaine Potentier and the La Bastide Clairence RTC for being such wonderful hosts, to our opponents for a fantastic match, and to Michel d’Arcangues for his generous hospitality.
— Jack Woods (text) / Rupert Derham (photos)