Anyone for tennis?

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

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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.

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.

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.”

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.

But, as Japan modernized and began to project itself on the world stage — militarily, through its victory in 1905’s Russo-Japanese War, but also politically, culturally and, increasingly, on the sporting field — it became clear that the international form of tennis would have to be adopted. So it was that the private and prestigious Keio University in Tokyo was the first to shift from “soft” to “hard” tennis in 1913, with most other major universities soon following suit.

For a young generation of Japanese players just adapting to the “hard” game, Karuizawa offered one of the only venues where they could test their skills — and against foreigners as well. It turned out that those skills were surprisingly advanced.

One symbolic match occurred in 1921, when Pastor Shively — the previous year’s champion — was beaten in straight sets by a Keio University student named Takeichi Harada.

“Champion of 1920 eliminated by young Keio University star,” proclaimed a Japan Times headline on Aug. 9, 1921. “Mr. Harada appeared to be equally at ease whether playing in the back-court or at the net,” marveled the unnamed reporter of the third-round match.

When Harada won through to the finals that year, his opponent was Masanosuke Fukuda, a recent graduate of Tokyo’s top-ranking Waseda University. Reading the reports today, it appears there was little hyperbole in a Japan Times description of that encounter as being “one of the most spectacular of tennis ever seen in Japan.” Harada came from behind to defeat Fukuda in five sets: 2-6, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5, 6-2. “Fukuda played brilliant, steady tennis but his more youthful opponent succeeded in wearing him down at the end,” the report stated.

An indication of the caliber of the players attracted to the Karuizawa tournament at that time is the fact that just one year later Fukuda won Japan’s first national championship, which was organized by the brand-new Japan Tennis Association.

In the mid-1920s, Fukuda went on to represent Japan in the Davis Cup and he also reached the third round at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. His biographer, Kuniko Okada, explained that the player had only made the switch to “hard” tennis in 1920, and that he would have gone to Karuizawa “to test himself against foreign players there. I think he would have gained a lot of confidence, there,” she said.

The presence of the same group of players on the rostrum was just one connection that existed between Karuizawa and the then-fledgling JTA. The other was a businessman named Tsunekichi Asabuki, who founded the JTA and became its inaugural chairman.

Having traveled to Karuizawa in 1920, Asabuki became smitten by the entire scene — the Western houses and way of life, including the sports. In 1921, when he bought a holiday home there, he chose one with its own tennis court.

The Asabuki tennis court quickly became one of the most exclusive salons in town. Members of the Imperial family, who had started going to the holiday retreat, played there, as did all the best players of the day. Asabuki’s daughter, Tomiko, explained in her 1985 book, “Watashi no Karuizawa Monogatari” (“My Karuizawa Tale”), that the 1921 champion, Harada, “often played tennis with my mother and he had a very strong forehand, and I can still remember the beauty of his backhand.”

One of Asabuki’s reasons for establishing the JTA was that he had been told, during a trip to the United States in 1920, that if Japan wanted to enter a team in the Davis Cup, then it would have to first establish a national association. Asabuki wasted no time, managing to complete the task before the 1921 Davis Cup, to which he sent a team of two players: Keio University graduate Ichiya Kumagae, who had moved to the U.S. in the mid-1910s, and Zenzo Shimizu, who had practiced tennis while working in India for a Japanese company.

Amazingly, the team achieved what remains Japan’s best result in the tournament — beating the Philippines, Belgium, India and powerhouse Australia to win the right to challenge the reigning champions, the United States. Their ultimate defeat in the final did nothing to quell the rush of national pride, about which The Japan Times editorialized under the headline “Tennis court diplomacy.” That piece observed that “the Japanese tennis marvels . . . are doing as much to put Japan right before the world as all the diplomats put together.”

A few years after this excitement, another young Japanese player turned up in Karuizawa: a man named Yoshiro Ota. After competing at Wimbledon and representing Japan at the Davis Cup between 1927 and 1930, he won the Karuizawa singles championship in 1932. Having been to school in Tokyo, he bought a holiday home in Karuizawa, raised his own son, Kazuhiko, as a tennis player — and very narrowly missed out on meeting his granddaughter, who was born in 1994, a year after he died. Her name is Sanae, and she is the prodigious player with the big forehand volley who we left earlier as she and her partner were trailing one set to love in the final of the 2010 women’s doubles championship.

Sanae Ota (whose name is sometimes rendered Ohta) was far and away the most successful “local” player at Karuizawa this year — where “local” means that her family is a member of the Karuizawa-Kai Association (KKA), which owns the tennis courts and operates the competition. By the time she appeared in the women’s doubles final, she had already secured the under-18 women’s singles championship and partnered with a young man named Michael Mentzer to win the mixed doubles.

In some ways, her success was to be expected. Ota has not only played at the KKA’s courts since she was a child, but she is currently playing full-time on the International Tennis Federation junior circuit. She has recently relocated with her Taiwanese coach from Florida to China.

Ota was a delight to watch on the tennis court. Her slim body bowed gracefully as she reached up to meet the ball when she served, and stretched effortlessly to the left and the right at the back of the court. Her ground strokes, in particular (those made after the ball has bounced once), were impressive. Shortly after swinging into that big forehand volley, she attracted more cheers when she managed to hit a backhand drive into the gap between the volleyer opposite her and the sideline — a near-impssibility considering that she is right-handed and was standing in the forehand side of the court.

The young player also seemed to have no problems dealing with the “Karuizawa out” — an expression that describes a ball that “would have gone in if you’d been playing in Tokyo, but goes out in Karuizawa because of the ball’s tendency to fly longer at that higher attitude.” That explanation came courtesy of 67-year-old Yoshiaki Kaneko, head of the KKA tennis department, who has been playing on these courts since he was 13.

And by how much does the ball go out in those cases? “About this much,” Kaneko said, spreading his thumb and forefinger about 10 cm apart — and smiling.

Clearly the Karuizawa out is no old wives’ tale. Go Yamazaki, the 33-year-old who won the men’s singles title this year in a two-set base-line slugging match with Tokyo-based Indian national Krishnan Sankaran, explained that he tightens the tension of his racket strings to reduce their spring and thus compensate for the thinner air. “This year, it didn’t cause me too much trouble,” Yamazaki said of the Karuizawa out.

One of Ota’s strongest weapons during her doubles match was a deep, looping forehand drive (the kind of shot most vulnerable to the Karuizawa out). After clearing the net by about 2 meters, the ball — which Ota lathered with topspin — dived down into the court, invariably within centimeters of the base line. Her opponents practically had to climb the back fence to tap the ball back into play.

With Ota’s unfailing arsenal, and some handily reliable play from her partner, Hatsukawa, the pair steamed through the second set, winning it 6-2 to level the match. The scene was set for a third-set decider and, once again, the sound of the missionaries’ singing was lost in the roar of the crowd.

By the early 1900s, the community of vacationers at Karuizawa established what they named the Public Utilities Committee to work toward the improvement of local services: health, police, post, telegraph, entertainment, and so on. Then, as the summer population continued to rise, that group was reorganized in 1913 into the Karuizawa Summer Residents’ Association.

Some of the group’s more prominent members, including the aforementioned pastor, Daniel Norman, donated the land on which the tennis courts stood to the association, which, in 1916, was officially registered with the Internal Affairs Ministry. The following summer, The Japan Advertiser donated the first cup and the Karuizawa International Tennis Tournament — which for a time was known as the Open Tournament to distinguish it from one for KSRA members only — was born.

In 1942, as the Pacific War began, the KSRA was merged with a predominantly Japanese group called the Karuizawa Hall Association (formed when a group of holiday-home owners together funded the construction of Karuizawa Hall, which still stands today near the tennis courts). The merged entity was named the Karuizawa- Kai Association and it is this group that continues to own the tennis courts and run the tennis tournament today.

“It is our duty to try to protect the traditions of the town that have been going for 100 years,” explained Yasuo Matsuki, the KKA’s current chairman, who is also a prominent Tokyo doctor.

“Ours is an open tennis tournament, the oldest of its kind in Japan, and it has been going even since before the JTA started, so it is an historically important event,” he said — adding that this year the tournament attracted over 800 entrants.

Matsuki took over the KKA chairmanship two years ago from the now 89-year-old Reijiro Hattori, a former president, and the current honorary chairman, of electronics giant Seiko Holdings. The association’s current group of directors are mostly members of old, established families, and most are at or near the top of major corporations.

A look at the list of the prizes in each division of the tennis tournament — in which no cash awards are made — provides a clue as to the web of relations between KKA members and corporate Japan, with prominent sponsors including sports-goods maker Globeride (which imports Prince rackets into Japan from the U.S.), Kirin Beer, beverage-maker Calpis, cosmetics firm Kao and sweets-maker Toraya.

The Japan Times also has a long affiliation with the KKA. Not only did it — and The Japan Advertiser, which it acquired in 1940 — sponsor the tennis tournament in its early stages, but it also operated a summertime office in Karuizawa between 1919 and 1940 and then again from 1949 until the 1960s.

Ichita Iijima, 77, who served in that office in the early 1960s, explained that “the real boom for The Japan Times at Karuizawa was immediately after the war, when the Occupation forces used the entire town as a leisure resort.” It was an advertising man named Yoichiro Amakata who established the first postwar office there, selecting for its site a corner of the Tsuchiya Shashinkan, a photo shop that still exists today.

Amakata’s tenure at The Japan Times’ summer branch office in Karuizawa coincided with a tennis-playing boom in Japan in the 1950s and ’60s — a boom that was partly sparked by one of the most famous episodes linking Karuizawa and tennis.

In the members-only tournament held on the KKA courts in 1957, the then Crown Prince Akihito and his doubles partner came up against a young lady named Michiko Shoda and her partner. Akihito had not met Shoda before, but he was so taken by her — and perhaps by the way she and her partner defeated him and his partner — that two years later he married her. It is now part of Imperial folklore that the romance between the present Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko first blossomed on the tennis courts of Karuizawa.

The affiliation of The Japan Advertiser and The Japan Times with the Karuizawa International Tennis Tournament meant that it was given significant play in their respective pages — a fact of great importance to tennis historians today.

Japan’s oldest tennis tournament didn’t appear in the pages of the major Japanese-language daily, the Asahi Shimbun, until 1925, and for years it has been unclear exactly who won the Karuizawa singles championship between 1917 and 1920. Research for this article not only revealed the identity of those champions — Bunai Hata, a student at the Imperial University of Kyoto (who later became the president of a subsidiary of Nihon Brewery Co.), in 1917; Mr. Mikami (probably Hachishiro Mikami, a Waseda University graduate who had played in the U.S. with Ichiya Kumagae) in 1918; Mr. Fulton in 1919; and Mr. B.F. Shively in 1920 — but also confirmed a suspicion held by some that the winners of the singles finals for 1921 and 1922 as recorded by the Kanto Tennis Association should be reversed: In 1921 it was Harada who won, while in 1922 it was Fukuda who came out tops.

Today, The Japan Times continues to support the KKA, though it has been a few years since coverage of the tennis tournament featured in these pages. This is despite the fact that the cup awarded to the men’s doubles competition still bears the inscription “The Japan Times Cup.” Photos of the same trophy appear in editions of this newspaper from as early as 1960, although it is unlikely the cup dates from any earlier than the postwar period, as such items were generally requisitioned to be melted down during the war, when metals were at a premium.

The recipients of The Japan Times Cup this year were the doubles team of Yohei Ishida and Yukimichi Kakimoto, who also won last year. Both are now full-time company workers, though for a few years Ishida tried his luck on the international “Futures” tour, for players hoping to enter the professional ranks. The pair often play in other local competitions, such as the Den-en Tennis Tournament held in Tokyo’s Ota Ward; though, as Ishida explained, “the Karuizawa tournament is a big, historical, high-standard tournament, so to be able to play here with our friends and put our training to the test is special.”

Although there are only a handful of non-Japanese entering the Karuizawa tournament these days, it still retains an international flavor. Not only was Sankaran, the Indian national, runner-up in this year’s men’s singles, but the winners of the over-45 men’s doubles competition were Dan Videtto and Masao Inouye, who are based at the Tokyo Lawn Tennis Club.

Videtto, an American, said he played at Karuizawa regularly between 1988 and 2000 before returning to the U.S. for eight years, and is thrilled to be back. “We love this place. Karuizawa is magic: the atmosphere, the tennis. We have many friends here — we know half the people in the stands,” he said, before adding that he and his wife are thinking of buying a holiday home there.

If Videtto knew half the crowd, then it seemed Sanae Ota knew all of them. By the time the third set of her and Hatsukawa’s doubles match came around, the spectators were hanging on every point.

Their opponents, Ms. Watanabe and Ms. Nagano, played some wonderful, aggressive tennis, belting their ground strokes and directing volleys at every corner of the court. But then, as the sweltering heat began to take its toll, it was Ota and Hatsukawa who remained the more consistent, eventually winning 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.

“After losing the first set, I was a bit worried — but it’s tennis, so if you lose the first set it’s OK,” Ota said in English made fluent by her time training in Florida. Laden with prizes for the three championships she’d won — the under-18 women’s singles, the mixed doubles and the women’s doubles — she added, “This is my most favorite place. All my friends are here. The tournament is always a lot of fun.”

But isn’t she too busy on the junior circuit to make time for a tournament that isn’t a part of the official tour?

“Usually I don’t have any time,” she said. “But this is special. Just for the summer, I always make time to come back and play at Karuizawa.”

And it seems such sentiments are not Ota’s alone. There is a large and international group of men and women who, even today, more than a century since the first tennis court was built here, keep on coming back to Karuizawa each summer, rackets in hand.