28 January, 2010

The Duchess at Sport.

The game of croquet.

(Darryl Zanuck playing croquet, shot by Slim Aarons)

For centuries croquet has been the sport of choice for many the world over, though its popularity stateside has waned in recent years. The ancestral game of croquet was introduced to the British by the French during the reign of Charles II of England, then commonly known as paille maille or pall mall (deriving from the Latin for "ball and mallet"). The game of croquet involves hitting wooden balls through hoops embedded in the grass with a mallet, but do not let this simple description deceive you as to the game's complexity.

Although many are familiar with the relaxed match of croquet organized in someone's green summer backyard (in which a hoop is won by the first ball to go through each hoop, or golf croquet), association croquet (taught in Los Angeles by the renowned pro Xandra Kayden) is an advanced game, involving four balls teamed in pairs, with both balls going through every hoop for one pair to win. The game's distinguishing feature is the "croquet" shot: when certain balls hit other balls, extra shots are allowed. The six hoops (or wickets) are arranged three at each end of the court, with a center peg.

In association croquet one side takes the blue and black colors, and the other side plays the yellow and red. (In singles, one player plays both balls on a side, and in doubles, there are two players per side.) In "The Basics of Croquet" by Xandra Kayden, the object of the game is described thusly:

"The object of the game is to get your side's balls through the six wicket course twice (going clockwise the first way around, and counter-clockwise the second way round) and into the peg. Each wicket counts for one point, as does the peg, for a maximum 13 points per ball, or 26 points per side. In a timed match, the winner is the side which has scored the most number of wickets when time is called and each ball has had a last turn. The clips, which are placed on the wickets when the turn is over (on the top going the first way around and on the side for the second half of the course), signify which wicket the balls are for."

(Even Salvador Dali appreciates the sport. "The Queen's Croquet Ground," 1969)

As if that weren't enough, one has roquet shots, croquet shots, continuation shots -- one can deal in handicaps or "bisques." Croquet is the ideal college sport and there are also club teams across the United States -- even in Beverly Hills (the only two known public courts in Los Angeles are at Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills and at Pasadena, but if one has to play on a public court the cause is sort of lost, now, isn't it?).

(Best domestic spot for croquet: Meadowood Resort in Napa Valley.)

The Meadowood Resort in Napa Valley promotes croquet play, even keeping a resident profession (Jerry Stark) on staff in order to instruct in the games of golf and association croquet (the latter with its United States and international vagaries).

(Meadowood's croquet pro, Jerry Stark)

(More Meadowood)

Croquet enjoys a reputation for being a throwback to a slightly more whimsical era, and it conjures up images of Oscar Wilde and cucumber sandwiches. In keeping with the ironically self-indulgent theme, Hendricks Gin each year sponsors a Croquet for Bartenders event.

(Hendricks Gin-sponsored Croquet for Bartenders Event)

(Half a mug of tonic, half a mug of Hendrick's. Top with ice, garnish with cucumber.)

And so the Duchess recommends a few games of croquet for the body and mind. One won't burn many calories on the lawn but one does stay away from the refrigerator as the matches are interminable.

(The other sport of kings.)

(And queens.)

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