I am sitting in the gallery of the racquets court at the Racquet and Tennis Club in New York. It is enormous and starkly beautiful, the floor and walls lined with thick slate that is a deep heavy gray, almost but not quite black. The service boxes and cut lines are painted a gleaming red. In fact, squint your eyes, and you could be inside a Josef Albers painting.
But it’s the space inside the court and the air rising all the way to the massive steel and glass skylight above that is most impressive. At this moment on a Sunday morning, the light filtering through the glass above and drifting down to the dark court, it feels like a chapel. A chapel for men.
Racquet and Tennis does not allow women to join, nor do they let them play on its courts. I didn’t realize how rigid this rule was until I expressed interest in hitting a few balls on the doubles squash court. A friend shook his head vigorously. “Oh, no, you can’t do that,” he said, “you’d never be let in again.” His eyes grew wide. “And neither would whoever let you on the court.” I decided not to tell him that it would only be me who let myself in… (dear reader, I did not.)
I was at Racquet and Tennis to watch a doubles match, part of the U.S. Century Doubles Championships. It had been an incredibly fun weekend—my first doubles tournament ever and, uh, my first real doubles match ever. (I wouldn’t have had the gall to sign up with so little experience, but I was begged to . . . well, strongly persuaded.) After winning my first match with a partner whom I met five minutes before we went on court, we lost gracefully—or maybe graciously?—the next day in the second round. While it would’ve been fun to get some more games in, I focused on my next goal for the weekend, visiting some of the other clubs in the tournament.
Walking into the University Club is like walking back in time—perhaps into 1920’s New York City, when everyone dressed to go out to their club (if you had one). You’ve probably walked by the UClub—as it is sometimes called—as it’s on 5th Avenue and shares a cross-street with the Museum of Modern Art. The first floor windows facing Fifth Ave. are about as big as the floor of my entire apartment—probably bigger. And walking in, you might feel like Cinderella on the way to the ball—a little out of place, but excited to be there. There’s quite a bit of marble, plenty of dark varnished wood, and a lot of space. I may not have the money to walk in here everyday, but am I happy that places like this exist for me to gawp at? Definitely.
As sometimes happens in clubs like this, the squash courts are not nearly as impressive as the rest of the club. Up on the tenth floor, the ceilings are lower, the halls narrower, the light dimmer. I had initially been disappointed to play my first tournament match at CityView in Long Island City since I’m there a few times a week, but its doubles court puts UClub’s to shame. The yellow-lit box at UClub feels like it’s in a basement, in contrast to the airy loftiness of CityView’s court which really does have a city view. I had no idea that I was so spoiled. But I hear that the library rocks at UClub; whereas CityView only has a few magazines lying around….
The courts are in a different league altogether, however, at Racquet and Tennis. It’s as if they are built for the squash gods—or in honor of them. Watching from the hardwood benches in the gallery high above the back wall of the doubles court, I feel both elated to be there and a little pissed that I am not allowed to step on court and hit the ball under that lovely natural light. Below me, I watch guys I know play; like me, they aren’t members, but they can put on their squash whites and win or lose a match and I cannot do either.
Here’s the thing. I’m not really angry about this, but I am conflicted. I went to an all women’s college. Men aren’t accepted as matriculating students. They can’t graduate with an undergrad degree. But, they can take classes there. They can use the library, the gym, the cafeteria, even sleep in a dorm room…if invited. Ah, and they can even play on the squash courts!
I know about private clubs. I know they’re allowed to accept and deny whomever they want if they play by the rules of city law. And I even kind of get the appeal of a boys club. It’s probably not unlike how I felt with my college friends when we ran around our dorm in our underwear, not caring who the hell saw us. Not that I think that mature men are running around the halls of Racquet and Tennis in their tighty whiteys, but the point is that they could. Heck, they could play squash in their birthday suits—though I think that would be a mite uncomfortable. More likely, they’re doing what guys do in clubs that do allow women, workout and talk about business, sports, and, well, women, of course.
If this were fifty years ago and co-ed clubs where women could play squash were few and far between, I might truly and rightly be upset about Racquet and Tennis (and, back then, Union League Club, University Club, NYAC, etc., etc.). But I guess I feel about Racquet and Tennis in a similar way as I do about UClub. I can’t belong to UClub for financial reasons and I can’t belong to Racquet and Tennis for gender ones. But I still have lots of choices and I belong to a club I love . . . and sometimes feeling a little conflicted can be an interesting thing.
For another entry on R&T and other NYC clubs, see Doubles for Mere Mortals.