Croquet Players Hoop It Up at National Championships in Newport, R.I., Players Match Wits and Strategize on Lush Courts

Article excerpt

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. …