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Tennis Heats Up in Boston


4, 2003: by Dan Kneipp         

Tennis in Boston: Ron Beck On Fire Despite Being Smoked By Kneipp!!!

This is a very strange story. It involves squash fanatics
playing Royal Tennis, Boston, SquashTalk, Kneipps, five fire engines,
a shy yet gallant hero and a singed Ron Beck.

Where to begin?

Joe and I have been
eager to try Royal Tennis for ages (also known as Real Tennis). In February
at this year’s Tournament of Champions we found out that Martin Bronstein
is an influential member of a club in England and he promised us an introduction
to the game the next time we were in England. When we attended the Kellner
Cup hardball doubles tournament in New York in April we found ourselves at
the New York Racquet and Tennis Club which has a Royal Tennis court. The resident
squash pros Scott Butcher and Jeff Osbourne gave us free reign of the court
and we had a brilliant time. I have nearly finished a SquashTalk article on
our introduction to the game and how bloody brilliant it was. (If you’re
unfamiliar with the sport you can learn more at
then click on Real Tennis)

The T&R
Real Tennis Court (photo from T&R Boston)


Five months
ago I began planning for Joe and me to spend all of July training at Dartmouth
College as part of John Power’s Squash Academy, in New Hampshire.
It is about two and a half hours north of Boston.

Ron Beck is
the man responsible for SquashTalk and a very handy squash player. He
lives near Boston. There are only 44 Royal Tennis courts in the world
so when Ron found out our new-found passion for the game and that we’d
be near Boston, he pointed out that he could probably organise a game
for us at Boston’s Tennis & Racquet Club (the T & R). So
when I organised our trip I included a few days in Boston at the end with
the sole aim of playing some Royal Tennis, which finally eventuated today.
We played a game of doubles with Joe and Ron Beck against me and Lucky
Odeh the squash pro at the T & R. Nothing really bizarre or life threatening

Lucky could only play one set before having to give a
coaching lesson. So then we played two versus one. Ron and me versus Joe.
After about two and a half hours of very enjoyable play the official score
will show that Joe obliterated the Beck / Kneipp-junior combination, but
I’m not convinced he didn’t just hit 371 lucky shots in a

The T&R
locker room before the fire (photo from T&R Boston)

It was once we hit
the showers that things began heating up, literally. The design of the T &
R club is strange. To get to the club you walk into a building past a busy
café and then there is a grand set of iron gates perhaps more befitting
on the driveway to a very fancy house. Aside from the gates there is nothing
else on this level other than stairs. You go down some stairs to the reception
and the locker rooms, and up three flights of stairs to the squash courts,
racquet court and Royal Tennis court. We were below ground level in the locker
room after the match when the excitement began.

I was in the Jacuzzi,
which is right in front of the sauna that Ron was about to use. Joe was in
the adjacent room shaving before his shower. Everything happened very quickly.
We’re still not sure how it happened, but as Ron opened the door of
the sauna he was met with an immediate fire. Not the type of fire that you
see in a fireplace, but the type of fire when you put water into a scorching
frying pan that has oil in it. Ron was too busy getting out of the sauna to
see properly what was happening.

As he fumbled
with the door the flames were rolling up the sauna’s wooden roof
and across the whole left half of the room so that only the right hand
wall and where Ron was standing weren’t engulfed by flames. It looked
like the kind of fire you see in a movie, but not like anything I had
seen in real life. Ron had gotten safely out of the sauna and by this
time I was out of the jacuzzi and by his side and helping him close the
door, which seemed to dampen the flames. We were both slightly panicked
and he was contemplating opening the door to see if he could put the fire
out, which would have added more oxygen to the fire. By this time dense,
dark smoke was billowing out from around the sauna’s door.

I told Ron that the door had to stay closed and sent him
to get his gear and leave the building. The locker room was deserted aside
from a young boy who I told to leave the building. I instructed Joe to
get the nearby receptionist to call the fire brigade. He didn’t
question the direction at all. I’m not sure if he saw smoke at this
time or could tell by the way I told him, but he went straight to the
receptionist with just a towel around his waist, shaving cream on his
face and a razor in his hand. His conversation with Sonja the receptionist

Joe – “Call
the fire brigade, there’s a fire in the sauna”

Sonja – “No you’re kidding!”
Sonja – “No there’s not!”
Joe – “Call the fire brigade NOW”

I’m not sure if she thought he was joking, flirting
with her or just lying but it was a strange response.

During this
time I took the fire extinguisher off the wall and approached the sauna
again, which had a door leading to its area that made it possible to see
that it as yet didn’t seem unsafe. If you were a little fire and
wanted to become a very big fire, then the sauna is an auspicious beginning
with its wooden walls and ceiling. I didn’t know what a small fire
extinguisher was going to do against what was obviously already a dangerous
fire, but I thought I had to check.

The smoke was getting
very bad by now and I thought the sauna door opened in, not out, meaning I
couldn’t hide behind the door while opening it to check on the fire.
So trying to tackle the fire was definitely not an option. The sauna is only
five metres from the lockers. I quickly got ready to abandon the building,
but instead was met with a comical sight. Ron seemed to be dawdling around
getting his clothes and racquet bag together. I even thought he might be putting
his shoes on in the locker room… AND JOE WAS FINISHING SHAVING!!! I
was panicking and wondering if the fire could be controlled and if there wass
a possibility that a considerably proportion of the building was going to
go up in flames, and Ron was dawdling and Joe was still shaving!?

In their defense
neither of them really saw the intensity of the flames that nearly engulfed
Ron, and both could see the sauna door from their position and despite
the smoke building up, there were no visible flames or extremely obvious
immediate danger. I screamed at both of them to leave and grabbed my squash
bag and moved to the reception area. As I had just left the jacuzzi I
was only clad in a towel and saw getting properly dressed as a pretty
insignificant priority.

The receptionist
obviously hadn’t seen any of these events as they were in the men’s
locker room. She hadn’t registered the severity of the situation
including us currently being below ground and a fire erupting in a nearby
room made of wood. She didn’t look like she was ready to leave the
building or like she had made it clear to anyone else that they should.
I asked her how many people were in the building – there were only
four. I went upstairs to evacuate them, but the young boy from the locker
room had already done it as his dad and younger brother made up three
quarters of the club’s population at that time. Apparently while I was
doing this Joe, after getting dressed, had moved from the locker room
to the reception, but had realised that he had left his squash shoes in
the change area.

We are sponsored
by Asics. The reason that we are sponsored by Asics is that
we begged them to sponsor us because we think they make the best shoes. If
the guys at Asics every doubted our commitment to the product, hopefully Joe’s
willingness to re-enter a burning area for his shoes will emphasise their
importance. I’m going to have to sit Joe down and explain that being
sponsored means we get lots of shoes and it’s really not worth walking
through fire for them.

I went back downstairs to make sure everyone was leaving
the building. The only other staff member in the building was a maintenance
worker who obviously has a flimsy grasp of English. As we were ascending
the stairs with words like ‘fire’, ‘evacuate’
and ‘burning death’ being bandied around, he simply turned
around to go back to work. Much screaming from all of us quickly got the
message to him and he joined us exiting the building.

The T &
R club is right next to a fire station, which helped explain how fireman
were entering the building before we had even reached the club’s
gates. I gave someone my squash bag, and still clad in only a towel showed
them where the sauna and fire was (obviously quite a bit flustered, taking
a wrong turn at one point). I went back upstairs to the gates where our
small group had gathered. We were then faced with the ridiculous view
of firemen rushing into the building dragging hoses through the shared
foyer and down the T & R stairs, and waitresses from the café
walking out of the building serving drinks to patrons on the balcony who
were being steadily besieged by sirens, fire trucks, hoses and burly men
in protective clothing. Joe and Sonja both ordered me to get some clothes
on, so I moved to a small area near the T & R’s gates that would
allow me to get dressed so I could move outside without having only a
towel to wear. As I was beginning to get dressed the fire officers screamed
for everyone to go out on the street immediately. I don’t know if
I was panicking unnecessarily, or the tone of the fireman’s voice
portrayed a certain sense of immediate urgency and seriousness, or the
sight of Ron nearly being engulfed by these flames made me just leave
the building immediately. I had hardly begun getting dressed, still being
shirtless and holding my pants up at the front with one hand and my squash
bag with the other. Apparently my arse was hanging out as I moved onto
the street, much to the amusement of everyone else who were considerably
more relaxed.

By this time five fire trucks had the building surrounded
and hoses and ladders were being stationed everywhere. The area was being
evacuated and cordoned off. We decided to go to a nearby café for
some food and wait to see how the event unfolded. Ron was moving the car
before it got sandwiched in by fire trucks while Joe, Sonja and I waited
at the cafe. I was explaining to them just how thick the sauna was with
flames, how close it went to engulfing Ron and how it wouldn’t surprise
me if he had singed hairs on his back. Sure enough the back of his head
and neck was covered in singed hair.

Reflecting on
the afternoon’s events it is quite scary to realise how serious
the situation was and how many things could have gone wrong. It was very
difficult to portray to people the seriousness of the event. Three things
stand out vividly in my mind. Firstly: how close the wall of flames were
to Ron. It was a small sauna and three quarters of the room was billowing
flames that looked alive and were rolling along the roof and towards the
door and Ron. Secondly: the number of things that could have gone wrong
when I went back to the sauna door with the fire extinguisher, especially
glass exploding from the door towards me. And thirdly: not convincing
Joe of the seriousness of the situation so that he didn’t waste
evacuation time by doing pointless things like shaving and worrying about

We returned
to the scene the following day. The club had fire notices posted and fire
restoration vans were parked outside. The club was closed to members.
One of the men in charge of the club let us look at the damage. It was
surprising how little there was. The fire had been contained to just the
sauna and the locker room had virtually no damage. We were thanked for
stopping a fire that could have easily burnt the building down. I was
hoping to get a picture of the scene, but considering how well the fire
was contained and the job done by the clean up crew left a very anti-climatic
scene. The club manager, Tom Dobbins, who was relieved we weren’t hurt,
said, "It’s a good thing you guys were there. If you hadn’t been
in the locker room just then the whole club might have burned."

After the ordeal
I feel like we should get some medal of honour, or life time membership
to the club. But I’ll settle for another game of Royal Tennis when
we’re in Boston for the US Open in September.

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