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Sunday, Aug. 29, 2010

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Set pieces: Doubles players celebrate during this year's Karuizawa International Tennis Tournament EDAN CORKILL PHOTO

Anyone for tennis?

Genteel but gladiatorial too, the annual Karuizawa International Tennis Tournament dates back to the dawn of the game in Japan


Staff writer

If you've ever had a tennis lesson, your coach likely told you to block, rather than swing at your volleys. That knowledge makes it all the more thrilling to watch someone like the athletic 16-year-old Sanae Ota rush in from the back of the court, leap up to a high, floating ball — before it bounces — and smack it back over the net with a full-strength forehand swing.

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The Karuizawa tennis tourney of a bygone era. TSUCHIYA SHASHINKAN PHOTO

The stunning, if unconventional, winning shot (which almost knocks the racket from her opponent's hand) prompts the crowd to jump to its feet and roar — and Ota and her doubles partner, Miyuki Hatsukawa, to high-five each other mid-court. Passersby pause outside the court to see what is going on. For a moment, the din of celebration (even though this is still the second set of three, and Ota and Hatsukawa are actually in trouble after losing the first) drowns out all other sounds — including the guitar-playing Christian missionaries across the road. Then the crowd quietens, and all that can be heard is the wind blowing through the giant cedar trees nearby — and those Christians' strummings. Next comes the bounce of the tennis ball, as Ota prepares to serve again.

Welcome to finals day at the 2010 Karuizawa International Tennis Tournament, held each August in the mountain resort of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture. Reclining on an old wooden stand and taking in all the action in this restful setting, it's easy to understand how this annual event has become one of Japan's longest-running tennis tournaments. Relax a little more and it even becomes easy to imagine what it must have been like when the tournament began in 1917 and tennis was a flower still coming into bloom in Japan.

Early in the 20th century, tennis was at the center of Karuizawa's social life. "You can't go anywhere without passing the tennis courts," reported a correspondent in The Japan Times in August 1920. "And really," he continued, "you don't want to."

The Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and other missionaries who adopted this village in the foothills of the Japan Alps as their favored summer retreat in the 1880s brought with them three innovations: simple two-story houses clad with cedar-bark cladding; an all- denomination church, aptly named Union Church; and tennis courts.

Tetsunosuke Adachi, whose father's work with the Nippon Railway company took him to Karuizawa in the 1890s, recalled in a 1930 article for the magazine Ron Tenisu (Lawn Tennis) how the missionaries "believe that paying attention to health is a means of attaining happiness, and so from the beginning there were two courts near the church." (Lawn tennis had first arrived in Japan with Western visitors in the late 1870s, just a few years after it was invented in England by one Maj. Walter Clopton Wingfield.)

By 1917, when the Tokyo-based English-language newspaper The Japan Advertiser donated a cup to the Karuizawa tennis competition — and thus kicked off what is now known as the Karuizawa International Tennis Tournament — the number of courts next to Union Church had rocketed from two to around 10, as the village continued to attract growing numbers of summer holidaymakers, including not only well-to-do Japanese but also Western businessmen and their families, as well as tourists from Shanghai, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

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Line call: Coverage provided by The Japan Times, like this article from Aug. 11, 1921, now offers an important record of Karuizawa's venerable tennis tourney.

Back in those more leisured times for the privileged few, most visitors who braved the six-hour train ride from Tokyo would stay in Karuizawa for six or eight weeks to avoid the capital's stifling — and in those days un-air-conditioned — summer.

"Coming from the sweltering heat of the cities, the purity and cool deliciousness of the air makes Karuizawa a veritable Earthly Paradise in the summer," wrote another Japan Times scribe in August 1920.

And it was on Karuizawa's tennis courts, it seems, that the men of god, commerce and leisure came together.

Edwin O. Reischauer, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Japan in the 1960s, and who was born to missionary parents in Japan in 1910, spent many summers at Karuizawa. "The chief focus of our childhood activities was the tennis courts," he wrote in his 1986 autobiography, "My Life Between Japan and America."

Historian Goro Hani recalled, in 1978, that around 1920, Reischauer's older brother, Robert, worked at the tennis courts as a ball boy — along with other missionaries' children, including the young Canadian Herbert Norman, who later became an influential historian and diplomat. "The balls were too expensive to buy yourself," Hani explained, "so the players borrowed two from the club before each game — it was the ball boys' job to look after them."

Other articles from The Japan Times in the 1920s describe how, at 3 p.m. each afternoon, whole families would gather courtside as the mothers took turns serving tea and biscuits. The latter, one article explained, would often have you "longing to know the recipe."

Tennis was also popular with the growing ranks of Japanese vacationers. Kaoru Tanaka, who had been going to Karuizawa since 1919, wrote in Ron Tenisu in 1925 that "the thing that sets Karuizawa tennis apart (is that) the people who are just watching from the sidelines this year always end up coming back next year, tennis racket in hand."

Though the missionaries surely enjoyed a game of tennis, its heathy entertainment had to compete for their attention with the numerous committees and conferences they were wont to organize. Indeed, during the summer of 1920 — as notices in The Japan Times testify — regular meetings were held of, for example, the Foreign Auxiliary of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Conference of Federated Missions, the Inter-Church World Conference, the Japanese Federation of Churches and the Faith and Order Conference.

A Japan Times correspondent from that same year describes — with just a hint of exaggeration, perhaps — the conundrum facing the (male) faithful on Karuizawa's courts: "Four men line up to play. One serves a ball. But the receiver has just discovered a member of his committee on sign-board evangelism and is at the backstop eagerly discussing possible hours for the next meeting. The other three wait, but, just as the receiver gets back, the server has to dash off the court to deliver and explain to his chairman on printing the corrections he has found necessary, for the sake of inter-denominational harmony, to make in the report on kindergarten homoletics entrusted to his care."

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KKA Chairman Yasuo Matsuki

Whereas today's predominantly American missionaries who gather in Karuizawa each summer rarely get closer to the tennis courts than playing their live music across the road, come mid-August in the late 1910s and their predecessors would channel their fervor into the Karuizawa International Tennis Tournament.

Gents such as Daniel Norman (the father of young ball boy Herbert), August Karl Reischauer (the father of Edwin) and B.F. Shively, who ran a church in Kobe, were all serious and apparently competent players. Newspaper articles from The Japan Advertiser and The Japan Times, which also sponsored the event, indicate that the singles championship was won by a Mr. Fulton in 1919 and Shively in 1920. Fulton demonstrated "some of the best playing of the season," noted The Japan Advertiser in 1919.

Of course, the "best playing" from that era would have looked quite different from today's. For one thing, rackets then were smaller and made of wood, and were much less powerful than the modern versions made of graphite and other strong but lightweight composites. Also, Japan — like most other countries — had adopted the English style of the game, which Bill Tilden, a star U.S. player from that era, later said consisted of "well-executed drives, hit leisurely and gracefully from the baseline."

Come the early 1920s, however, and a more aggressive style had emerged even on Karuizawa's genteel clay courts. Tetsunosuke Adachi, the son of the railwayman, recalled that "the Westerners' serves were hard and they went straight to the net to try to volley, and they were fast. It was considered advantageous to hit the ball back as quickly as possible."

News of the dynamic tennis being played at Karuizawa soon spread through the ranks of young Japanese players who had started taking up the game. Consequently, more and more of them started to turn up to test their skills at the summer tourney that was open to anyone on payment of a fee of 50 sen — the same price as 10 eggs at the local Karuizawa store, according to a note in The Japan Advertiser in 1918.

The uptake of tennis by the local population in Japan was complicated by the fact that very early in its history the game was split for reasons of cost into two styles: one using the imported felt-covered balls common overseas and the other using much cheaper, locally made soft rubber balls. The latter were also more suitable for school tennis, which was played indoors in wooden-floored gymnasiums where covered balls would skid uncontrollably.

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