by Victor Dial



I started playing tennis when I was 10 (circa 1948), and quickly became addicted. My summers were spent hanging out in or around the courts of a small but prominent tennis club in Darien (CT) called Tokeneke where the legendary George Cummings was the tennis pro. (In the winter George was the squash pro at the University Club in New York.) George’s reputation, personality, and coaching skills attracted many fine players (including my occasional tutor Don McNeil, winner of the French in 1938 and the US in 1940 besting Bobby Riggs). I was fortunate that George took a paternal interest in me, and I gladly reciprocated by helping out in the tennis shop when he was giving lessons, or otherwise busy.

One day George asked me to fill in as a fourth with an older blimp-shaped player people called “The General.” I was maybe 13 or 14 at the time and tried to hide my displeasure – I had my eye on a girl I was trying (unsuccessfully) to attract, and playing doubles with a 50-something Fatso wasn’t what I had in mind. On the court, I did my best to be a good partner. The General hit the ball well – when he reached it. When our match was (finally!) over The General thanked me generously, saying something about playing with me again. To my surprise “again” turned out to be the following week, and the week after that.

The General died in 1970, and it was only in reading his obituary that I found out more about him. I had easily remembered his first name – Leslie – because it had struck me as an odd name for a boy. His last name was Groves. I learned that he was a West Point-educated engineer, graduating fourth in his class in 1918. He first came to notice in 1941 when he built the Pentagon, then (as now) the world’s largest office building in 18 months, a record. But his real claim to fame came in September of 1942 when he was given overall command of the Manhattan Project, a post he held until 1947. After the war he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal with this citation:

“Major General Leslie Richard Groves, as Commanding General, Manhattan Engineer District, Army Service Forces, from June 1942 to August 1945 coordinated, administered and controlled a project of unprecedented, world-wide significance – the development of the Atomic Bomb. His was the responsibility for procuring materiel and personnel, marshalling the forces of government and industry, erecting huge plants, blending the scientific efforts of the United States and foreign countries, and maintaining completely secret the search for a key to release atomic energy. He accomplished his task with such outstanding success that in an amazingly short time the Manhattan Engineer District solved this problem of staggering complexity in the race to produce an instrument whose peacetime potentialities are no less marvelous than its wartime application is awesome. The achievement of General Groves is of unfathomable importance to the future of the nation and the world.”  [italics added]

Some Fatso.

If you ask someone who invented the atomic bomb, the answers may include scientists such as Oppenheimer, Teller, Fermi, and even Einstein, but many will admit they don’t know: indeed, it was very much a collective effort. The physicists recruited for the Manhattan Project were the very best that could be found: they had to be knowledgeable, but also able to keep secrets. By all accounts they were geniuses, but as sometimes happens – I gather – quirky if not unstable. Managing these over-achievers required great skill and patience. Groves kept this most complex and vital project moving forward to conclusion at breakneck speed.

There was no obstacle too great to overcome, no problem too difficult to solve.

The GeneralIn the beginning the Project pursued four different methods of splitting the atom. Each of the four was accorded its own separate fully-staffed and equipped facilities scattered all across the country built from scratch and overseen by Groves. As time went by work on the two least promising methodologies was abandoned, and all available resources were concentrated on the two deemed most likely to succeed. In the end, both teams produced a useable but different weapon: the bomb called “Fat Man” was detonated over Nagasaki; the other, “Little Boy” exploded over Hiroshima.

Historians agree that the atom bomb shortened the war by at least a year, avoiding millions of casualties among the allied military – already well along with preparations for what would have been a bloody invasion of mainland Japan: The General deserves much of the credit.

He retired from the Army in 1947 with the rank of Lieutenant General.

Even though I didn’t think it then, I hope it’s not too late to say it to you now: it was an honor to have been your partner.


In 1986 I was invited to Acapulco, or more exactly Las Brisas, an elegant community located on the side of quite a steep coastal incline overlooking the bay and the town of Acapulco. One of my host’s neighbors was an extravagant Texan couple, Sandra and Ricky di P. They built a large and outlandish house they filled with glamorous house guests, and gave many lavish and memorable parties. Among the many amenities at their house was a luxurious padel tenis court (no, it’s not a typo: it’s Spanish).

You may not have heard of padel tenis. Well, in my humble opinion it’s the best of all the racquet games: better than lawn tennis, better than real tennis, racquets, squash, platform tennis (often referred to as paddle), table tennis, etc. Are you wondering how padel is played, and who invented it? Perhaps not, but I’m going to tell you anyway — it’s a nice story. In 1969 Enrique Corcuera, an elderly Mexican gentleman and his young wife Viviana, Miss Argentina of 19XX, beautiful and vivacious, were living in the outskirts of Acapulco in a large house with extensive gardens, including a tennis court. Viviana retained a tennis coach to train with her several times a week while her husband was enjoying a siesta, or away on business. All went well until one day Enrique announced that he’d bought a nice piece of land in tony Las Brisas where he intended to build a house. When he showed her the drawings of their new residence Viviana noticed at once there was no tennis court — impossible because of the steep slope on which most of the properties in Las Brisas were built. There followed, so goes the story, an emotional exchange which can be summarized as “no tennis, no Viviana”. To calm the situation, Sr. Corcuera ordered his architect to find a solution.

The architect proposed a miniature court built partly into the side of the hill, using a retaining wall on the uphill side, and “stilts” to support the platform on the downhill side. The floor area of this “court” would be much smaller than a tennis court, and there would have to be walls and strong wire fencing all around for safety. It would be expensive, but in Enrique’s eyes, well worth it.

The couple developed specific rules for their game: a tennis-like net in the middle, with service boxes marked on the surface. They’d use tennis balls and wooden paddles (à la platform tennis) to slow the ball down, with the option to play off the walls, as in squash. The server had to bounce the ball once and hit it no higher than his waist. Lawn tennis scoring would be used. Thus was padel tenis born, and first played fifty years ago. Enrique usually gets the credit for inventing padel, but I believe Viviana deserves the lion’s share: without her intransigence, the court and the game would never have seen the light of day.

It rapidly became apparent that playing doubles was more fun than singles, so Viviana touted her new game to her entourage and guests. In 1973 Prince Alfonso Hohenlohe, a charming Spaniard came to visit, and Viviana proudly showed him their creation. Alfonso, always enthusiastic, enjoyed it so much that he decided to build a replica at his Marbella Club Hotel in the south of Spain, carefully noting the measurements before he left. I know all this because Alfonso and Viviana both told me.

Prince Alfonso built the first court at the Marbella Club in the spring of 1974, but it took a while to convince hard-core tennis players to grasp the fun of it. I admit I was slow to adopt it, in spite of the urging of Alfonso and others. It was probably two summers later that I was finally bitten by the padel bug, and became an addict. From then on, when in Marbella or any other place where there was a court and three other players, all I wanted to do was to play padel (idem my sons Minter and William, both excellent players).

But enough already with the history of the game! Back to 1986, and my vacation in Acapulco:

Ricky and Sandra’s padel court itself was pretty much like any other, except that it was lighted with Hollywood-like klieg lights for nighttime play when it was cooler (except for the lights). Alongside the court there was an open, but covered and air-conditioned gallery fitted with plush leather sofas. White-gloved waiters served refreshments to the guests (and desperate players). My partner on the first of the many games I played there was Dr. Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State, vacationing nearby. He seemed to enjoy playing with me, and to my surprise called me regularly to ask me to be his partner: “Viktor, do you vant to play today?” I was flattered by his interest in me (there were surely other choices) and asked him why: “Because I vant to vin.” I enjoyed his wit: on one occasion while I was (as usual) running all over the court retrieving balls, he was (as usual) trying mostly to stay out of the way. In spite of my best efforts a ball got by me, and hit him full on in the stomach. “Zat’s di best shot I’ve made all day!” he said, triggering gales of laughter from the elegantly dressed, bejeweled, and neatly coiffed spectators, mostly admiring and fawning females. (Sandra, our hostess, is on the right.) Following our match, I would usually collapse in a heap of sweat and fatigue – completely ignored except for one of the waiters. Kissinger however, was immediately surrounded by the ladies, who fawned over him, listening breathlessly to every word he said. Power and fame are strong turn-ons, I observed.

Kissinger et al

Over the ensuing years I ran into Dr. Kissinger in New York and Paris, but wearing a suit and tie, not a padel tenis outfit. He would look at me intently, trying to place me, and I’d say “padel in Acapulco” and he’d smile and say, yes, of course, I remember. The last time I met him was at Yale during our 50th reunion in 2009 when he was elected an honorary member of our class.

Prince Alfonso’s padel court was the first one in Spain. Now there are thousands. It’s said to be the second most popular sport in Spain after football/soccer – more popular even than lawn tennis! The game itself has advanced beyond recognition. When we first started playing there were no pros to teach us — we just picked it up the best we could. Now technique specific to the game has been perfected and there are many outstanding teachers and players; it’s exciting to watch – there’s a professional tour with tournaments played all over Spain, and more recently, in several European countries. (To see how the pros play, I urge you go to YouTube and type “padel.”)

Thank you, Enrique and Viviana for inventing the game; thank you, Prince Alfonso for bringing it to Spain; and special thanks you to you, Mr. Secretary, for being my most famous partner.


Imagine it’s mid-morning on an overcast Sunday in Gstaad. You’re relaxing in the cozy bedroom of your charming chalet nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains full of undecorated Christmas trees.  Your companion of many years is curled up beside you in bed leafing through the pages of her favorite magazine; and you’ve almost finished the Sunday Times crossword. It’s a day with nothing on the schedule — it’s just the two of you. You’re starting to think of something else that could make the morning even better, yum yum…

Just then, the phone rings. I hesitate to answer, but curiosity always gets the better of me. It’s Patrick Zurcher, a teacher at Le Rosey, a nearby boarding school. I’m one of Patrick’s admirers, even if he is a generation younger than me.

“Victor, I’m sorry to bother you at home on a Sunday morning, but I need your help!” (What can it be? I wonder.) “As you know I’m captain of the over-35 men’s tennis team.” (Yes, of course I know that.) “We’re playing an inter-club match this morning against a strong team from Bern. It’s an important match: if we win, we’ll be promoted to a higher league next season.” (Why is he telling me this? I ask myself.) “The score in matches is 4-all, with only one match – a doubles – left to play. The winner of the last match wins promotion, the loser goes nowhere.” (I thought I saw where he might be going, but kept quiet.) Patrick continued: “I was scheduled to play the final doubles with Michel Bacher (the club pro and a fine player), but he injured himself while winning his singles, and can’t play.” (Oh my god, he’s going to ask me to fill in — my heartbeat was already speeding up!) “I know this is an imposition, but would you be willing to step in for Michel and be my partner?”

This call took place some ten years ago when I was “only” 70-something. For several years I’d been playing for the over-45 team, so I knew how it worked and what was involved. Patrick added “I’m sorry to press you, but I need a yes or no right away — all the other matches have finished, and if you can’t play, we’ll have to default.” In the few seconds he’d given me to decide I thought of several reasons to say “no”, but quickly said yes: I enjoy a challenge, and I was — let’s admit it – flattered to be asked to come to the aid of youngsters half my age. But would I be up to it?

I arrived at the indoor tennis hall 15 minutes later where I met our two adversaries, waiting impatiently. They looked lean and hungry. And young. I learned they were the number one pair of their team, ranked way above both of us in singles. What they didn’t know about me – apart from my white hair and advanced age, impossible to hide — was that I love to play doubles, and over the years have won a lot of doubles tournaments. On the over 45 inter-club team I usually played number one or two in singles, winning some and losing some, but I rarely – if ever – lost a doubles match. While our adversaries today were young and fast, Patrick and I could beat them using superior tactics — angles, variety, and above all, control of the net.

As we walked onto the court — I truly don’t know what came over me, I hadn’t planned it at all – I motioned to our two muscular opponents to meet me at the net. With a huge smile on my face I said that I wanted to “explain the rules.” They looked at me dumb-founded: “Rules? What rules? We know the rules!” I pointed to my white hair and said “you must hit drop shots and lobs only to Patrick, not to me.” [I’ve noticed that some of my Germanic friends – some, not all, mind you — occasionally take things a bit too literally, thereby missing the joke. This looked to be the case of our opponents, and my new “rules” may have destabilized them.] As we warmed up, I could see they hit the ball well, but the question was, how well would they play together as a team?

I need to recognize my partner. Patrick is a very good player and even if it was the first time we’d ever played an important match together, we meshed instinctively. Our adversaries hit as many balls as they could to me – including dropshots and lobs in defiance of my playful pre-game admonition – but I was in good form that day, and Patrick was a star, as usual! In the first set we broke their serve early on. Leading at 5-4 with my serve to come, I managed to control my nerves and serve out the set: 6-4 for us. Their spirit broken, Patrick and I ran away with the second set, crushing them 6-1. Victory was ours — how sweet it was.

The Gstaad over-35 team won the match 5-4 and was duly promoted to a higher league the following season. The whereabouts of the team from Bern is unknown… it must have been a long ride home.

Winning team

The winning team! Patrick is front row, left. Can you spot me?

Note from Patrick Zurcher:
“This is hilarious, I love it! And the funny thing is that you could have exaggerated in many points, but
fact is that it happened exactly like that!
Thank you for this moment of laughter.”

Victor Dial
February 2020

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