Antigua Tennis Week doesn’t quite match Wimbledon for venerability but it has been going for almost 40 years, and at Curtain Bluff, the beguiling resort on Antigua’s southern coast that has hosted the event from the start, you can’t get away with sub-standard kit any more than you can at the All England Club.
Not with Fred Stolle giving you the once-over, you can’t. As various captains of industry milled around Curtain Bluff’s four courts, the 74-year-old former world number one cast an amused glance at my footwear.
I had already clocked the shiny, top-of-the-range tennis shoes around me, and hoped that nobody would notice my trusty-if-rather-shabby trainers. But nothing gets by old Stolle, including most forehands. The plain-speaking Australian, who won the French Open and the US Open, and was a losing finalist at Wimbledon three years in a row from 1963, remains as devastating at the net as ever, and his wit is as sharp as his volleys.
“Jeez, Brian, those shoes look old enough to vote,” he said.
It was typical of the easy, affectionate banter that characterises Antigua Tennis Week, where enthusiasts of all levels get to cross racquets with some gnarled old pros, led by Stolle and also including his Aussie compatriots Owen Davidson, aged 69, and Ross Case, a mere 61.
There is much more to do at Curtain Bluff than play tennis, including scuba-diving and an array of watersports. But the success over so many years of Antigua Tennis Week, held in May, has now inspired further tennis programmes, one featuring former US Open champion Tracy Austin, and the other, to be inaugurated this November, led by British stars Andrew Castle and Annabel Croft. Even aside from these special weeks, there are always three coaches on hand.
So if Wimbledon fortnight reminds you of the inadequacies of your own game then consider coming to address them here, under the Caribbean sun. The emphasis may be firmly on fun, but Stolle and his pals would consider it a failure if their charges went home without registering any improvements to their games.
“The serve is the most important shot in tennis by far but it gets practised the least,” thundered Davidson, known to everyone – even me, within two minutes of meeting him – as Davo. With Billie Jean King, Davo won the mixed-doubles title at Wimbledon four times. His advice was worth heeding. “If you improve the serve by 20 per cent, you improve your game by 40 per cent,” he told us, before sending us to an adjacent court and the expert ministrations of an American coach called Drew Ackert.
“The serve is the only shot in tennis that you control completely,” declared Ackert, who hadn’t yet seen my random howitzer, which sets off at 45 degrees to the intended target and is roughly as controlled as a stampeding bull. But nothing fazed Ackert. “That control begins with the toss,” he added, and soon had me tossing, and serving, if not quite like Fred Stolle, then at least better than I had been.
After a day-and-a-half of tuition – “Hit the ball on the rise, otherwise you lose the kinetic energy,” counselled Stolle – we got to play a series of mini-tournaments, in which we were pitted against players of roughly equivalent standard. It was competitive but cheerful, and easy to see why Antigua Tennis Week commands a 70 per cent repeat rate. About 50 people take part, mostly couples, some of whom have chalked up 10, even 20 successive years. Yet there was no cliquishness about it, with newcomers welcomed as warmly as old-timers. That owed a lot to Stolle and his cohorts but also to Curtain Bluff itself, as relaxed a five-star resort (no room keys; all doors are left unlocked) as any I have been to, even by laid-back Caribbean standards.
That wasn’t always the case. Curtain Bluff opened in 1961, the project of a dynamic American called Howard Hulford. He was working as an executive pilot for Texaco, flying oilmen round the Antiguan coast, when he noticed a small promontory at the foot of the rainforest, with a beach on either side, one bashed by Atlantic breakers, the other gently lapped by the Caribbean.
It was a bewitching spot, and Hulford applied for permission to build a house there. The authorities declined. They needed to encourage tourism, so he built a hotel instead, and ran it for the next 48 years – until his death at the age of 86 – as a benign dictatorship.
“Howard ruled with an iron fist but he was a wonderful man,” Stolle told me over a buffet lunch (we didn’t just play tennis with the pros but were encouraged to socialise with them). “He operated a jacket-and-tie policy in the evenings, even in this weather, and God help you if you transgressed. But at the same time he had this no-key policy – there’s no danger of theft because you’re part of a big family, with 98 per cent of the staff from right outside the gateposts. The kid who works the tables might be the grandson of the gardener, the son of a chambermaid, the nephew of a cook.”
That was Hulford’s masterplan, to involve the adjacent, impoverished village of Old Road in the Curtain Bluff scheme from the beginning. And it extended far beyond finding the villagers jobs, to putting youngsters through college in the US, and generally setting them on a new road. To this day, guests who wish to leave tips are asked instead to contribute to the Old Road Fund. It is rare, in such a place, to feel quite such a direct connection with the local community.
As for the ragamuffins who used to run off with stray tennis balls, several of them are now resident teaching pros, and late each afternoon we watched them pairing up with Stolle and Davo. Between bursts of quickfire banter, they treated us to an exhilarating exhibition of men’s doubles, in which the athleticism of youth was matched by the acumen of experience.
It was inspiring stuff, and I came home determined to play more and better tennis – but before any of that, to buy a new pair of tennis shoes.
Briain Viner was a guest of Curtain Bluff (www.curtainbluff.com) and tour operator Western Oriental (www.westernoriental.com), which offers a seven-night trip to November’s “Perfect Match tennis week” with Andrew Castle and Annabel Croft, from £3,185 per person, all-inclusive and with flights from London