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
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
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. …