The Ghost in the Dirt


Arts & Culture

John Lavery, Tennis under the Orange Trees, Cannes, 1929, oil on canvas.

The clay season is a ghost story. It always has been. There’s a ghost in the red dirt. He ran hotels for a living, and oddly enough, given how things have turned out in tennis, he was Swiss. You have never heard of him. And no judgments, but he was a bit of a hustler. His tremendous ambition coupled with his creative bookkeeping forced him into bankruptcy twice. His name was Georges Henri Gougoltz. He spent the last decades of his life as a hotel proprietor by name but in reality owing important men a considerable amount of money. After they took his hotel from him, he was obliged to run that gold mine he had developed from the private castle it once was as though nothing had changed—a figurehead to smile at and arrange things for the ever-rising number of foreign elites who wintered there seeking out the sun, their social peers, and the increasingly famous red clay courts of the Hôtel Beau-Site in Cannes, France.

When I tell you that he killed himself on a January morning in 1903 by shooting himself in the head not once and not twice but three times—you probably won’t believe that he killed himself. And you probably shouldn’t.

We’ll never know exactly what happened to him, but when, in 2017, Rafael Nadal lifted La Coupe des Mousquetaires ebulliently over his head for a tenth year, standing proudly on a makeshift podium at the center of that rectangle of brick red in the middle of Roland-Garros’s show court, Gougoltz’s crushed-ceramic sand courts—the ones that once graced the foot of the hill of the Beau-Site just past the lush and sloped sculptured courtyard, like a mirage of politely placed tonnage of light-red dust at the edge of a politely placed jungle of imported greenery—were with him there, inhuman and yet veritably part of him, a hundred-fifty-year-old first idea. 

Myth, legend, and truth: they work on their own time and make their own order—they’re brilliant and terrible. This story has never been and will always be about a man’s suicide in the face of crushing financial debt. We’ll get to that. And this story both never was and will always be about Rafael Nadal’s run as the master of clay-court tennis. The two collided, unwittingly, on a warm Sunday afternoon in early June in Paris, 2017, when Nadal once again won the French Open in front of a crowd packed into Court Philippe Chatrier. It was his tenth title there, his tenth time turning
the orange dust into a celebratory scene for the rarest of synergies between player and surface, a gift that at times has seemed as sacred as a covenant, a strange bond between him and the ground. To celebrate the achievement, the powers that be at the French Open had ready a montage of Nadal playing a point in which, stroke by stroke, he aged a year and the tournament advanced a year, so that the final point was match point of the 2017 men’s final: the past catching up with the present, present alive in the past.

Sports strain to stress to us that we are watching history, and the Fédération Française de Tennis didn’t want to let slip the opportunity to make that literal. And yet the spectacle of Nadal’s achievement began a hundred fifty years before that moment. In the age of history and myth, sometime before the first orangish grains of sand were pulverized into life and in turn gave life to the game of tennis on clay. Before Nadal or Kuerten or Muster or Noah or Evert or Borg, in the beginning there was myth, with all its typical daydreams of heroes and genius. And before that, in the beginning of that beginning, there was the empty Château Court, looking down on a grass field from its slight hill on the west end of Cannes, and looking up at it, with dreams of grandeur in his eyes, was a hotelier from Switzerland who would live and then die, tragically and horrifically, with the clay. Rafa Nadal’s tenth French Open title began a hundred fifty years ago on that day when, in 1867, Bruno Court sold his château to Gougoltz.

It turns out that everything Gougoltz had done in Cannes was synchronized with the birth and rise of tennis. He just hadn’t known it. He was timed to tennis. But France had yet to catch the sporting fever that the English were already fully in the grip of. Despite tennis being a selling point for hotels and villas advertising in the travel books flying off the presses in England in the late 1870s, Le Courrier de Cannes et de la Provence wouldn’t even mention tennis until November 1883. It would already be a staple of the vie mondaine of the winter residents by then, and as though catching up on lost time, the Courrier inserted the activity into its Society Life section of the front page: “Mornings are filled with horseback riding and lawn tennis is at the same time the most fashionable sport around and a solitary exercise.” But before then, as 1880 quickly approached, Gougoltz could take solace in the fact that he was at the cusp of something, just as he had been barely a decade earlier, when he arrived in Cannes and bought Bruno Court’s château on the hill. And look at how well that had gone for him. It was fate. Besides, hadn’t the Englishman Walter Clopton Wingfield cobbled together lawn tennis the same year, not very long after he expanded the Beau-Site? Wasn’t it a sign? All that land, the sumptuous gardens, the hill from which guests descended to the pageantry of the lawn. It had always felt somewhat incomplete, its potential slightly unrealized. The Hôtel Gray d’Albion had taken to advertising both that the Prince and Princess of Wales had visited and that the ground contained lawn-tennis courts—“Every modern comfort,” the advertisement beamed at the end. How do you top a hotel with both tennis courts and a royal pedigree? First, he would have to start with the tennis courts. A few months later, in May 1880, the following appeared in Bradshaw’s Continental Railway, Steam Transit, and General Guide, for Travellers through Europe:


Situated on the West end of Cannes, adjoining Lord Brougham’s property, the finest part of the town. Newly enlarged 200 rooms: 20 private Sitting-rooms: Reading, Smoking, and English Billiard rooms. Bath Rooms. Lift. Sheltered situation commanding an unequalled view of the Sea, the St. Marguerite Islands, and the Esterel Mountains. Large beautiful gardens and promenades belonging to the estate, with extensive Croquet Ground and Lawn Tennis. Arrangements made for the season for families. Charges moderate. Omnibuses at the Station. Opened 1st October.


By 1880, Gougoltz knew that tennis was what he had been missing. He also knew then that he had to make up for lost time. And so this is when the story began.

The year was 1880, and the biggest stars of the tennis world, the Renshaw brothers, Englishmen born into comfort, were frequenters of the Beau-Site during the winter months. They would train there and also give lessons to other guests in what one local paper referred to as le jeu à la mode, the fashionable game. Tennis on the lawn of the Beau-Site played out like theater, given the pavilion at the base of the hotel that looked down onto the courts and the shaded sitting areas in the spectacular gardens surrounding them. Unlike Monaco, it wasn’t the rush of gambling, though the spectacle and excitement were similar and more earnest. But the heavy use of the turf along with the rather un-English climate put a strain on the surface that threatened to leave it not only unplayable but also unsightly.

The Renshaw brothers, as the story goes, then came up with an ingenious plan: they ordered as much clay ceramics and brick as they could from nearby Vallauris, a small town with a rich tradition in pottery; after having the material pulverized, they had the fine sand—with its peculiar hints of burnt sienna, orange, and cinnamon—cover the turf; and voilà, the surface proved a success. It took hold throughout the region. To add to the legend, the Renshaws returned home to England stronger than ever. Both had lost at Wimbledon in 1880, but in 1881, Ernest won Dublin (back then a highly prestigious tournament), and William won Wimbledon for the first time in his career and for the following five years after. Overall, he’d win seven Wimbledon titles over nine years, those seven titles being a record he’d hold (eventually along with Pete Sampras) until Federer won his eighth title in 2017. He faced Ernest in the final three of those years. Ernest won Wimbledon in 1888 and the Irish Championship in singles on four separate occasions. Together they won five Wimbledon doubles titles.

At some point, the story settled on the brothers, the Beau-Site, and the date of either 1880 or 1881, when the Renshaws persuaded the owner of the Beau-Site to let them redesign the court in order to protect the lawn from the wear and tear that came with their constant play. Grass courts suffer from play in a way that croquet lawns never did, and upkeep so that they remain both playable and pleasant on the eyes is costly and time intensive. As well as the money and style that tennis potentially brought into a hotel, it brought with it substantial and constant expense for upkeep. The owner of the Beau-Site at this point was, of course, none other than Gougoltz. But aside from a brief mention in the second edition of Heiner Gillmeister’s Tennis: A Cultural History, Gougoltz practically doesn’t exist—this despite the fact that he was the owner, developer, and manager of the hotel where the clay game as we know it now began. He would have been at this time up to his neck in his third major renovation of the hotel, the grand dining room, and a year removed from the addition of the western pavilion. Up until this moment he had managed to stay ahead of financial disputes and threats of litigation. But more charges of financial impropriety and failure to repay debts began to circle around him.

Imagine, then, his great luck when the two biggest stars in England’s most popular game not only happened to be wintering at the Beau-Site but also felt an unprecedented, never-duplicated, and never-spoken-of inspiration to design tennis courts and approached the beleaguered Swiss entrepreneur with an offer not only to make innovative and eye-catching tennis courts but also to do so out of their own pocket.

Yet the Renshaws were such a known commodity in their day that they had a tennis shoe named after them: the “Renshaw lawn-tennis shoe” (essentially an oxford with a rubber sole) made by Hickson and Sons and advertised in the mid-1880s in magazines such as Pastime. Images of the Renshaw twins were iconic. They were the first superstars of tennis. And yet there doesn’t exist a single record anywhere of the Renshaws’ involvement with the Beau-Site courts. The local papers would run a story of someone sneezing on someone else if they were the right people. Reports of cockfighting and gardeners’ affairs made the papers. And yet they have nothing about the Renshaws’ invention, much less a sighting of them at the Beau-Site at any time before 1885. Although Ernest died young, William spent his retired life around tennis players and enthusiasts during the legendary years of the Beau-Site tennis courts, and yet William Renshaw said nothing of them. It appears, rather surprisingly, that no one asked him.

So where are we now? A famous clay court (the first of its quality and kind), famous twin tennis players during the rise of print media, and the idea of modern celebrity as we know it today. And yet there’s absolutely nothing on record about the Renshaws’ doing anything but playing on these courts years after they were made. The courts were so famous for their clay that a historical record was being kept as early as 1900, when Georges Gougoltz was still alive. A tennis enthusiast from London named John Simpson wintered at Beau-Site from 1879 on. He remembered William Renshaw first coming to Cannes in 1886 and beating everyone he played with ease.

Everyone, in this case, included Dr. James Dwight, one of the pioneers of lawn tennis in America—he is widely considered to have played the first game of tennis in America, with Dick Sears—and, in 1881, was one of the founders of the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Association. Renshaw demolished Dwight. Nevertheless, the social imprint of the two players had come to be such that although the match itself didn’t make the news, their departure did: “Messrs. Dwight and Renshaw, the famous champions of ‘Lawn-Tennis’ have just left Cannes where they lived at the Beau-Site,” the Courrier dutifully reported. By this point, Georges Gougoltz was still listed as the proprietor of the Beau-Site, but he was utterly, and rather publicly, bankrupt. He owed the important men of town an unfathomable amount of money. He tried to use his bankruptcy to clear himself of having to pay back his debts, just as the hotel was experiencing its boom. An angry lender took him, once again, to court. His partners were so pleased now with the great draw the Beau-Site had become that they tried to pay him off and let Gougoltz continue doing what he did best. The clientele came from all parts now, because the Cannes of fishermen had become the Cannes of the fashionable, and tennis had them crazed—word spread of a court like none other among the old money, new money, social climbers, schemers, and romantic tennis lovers: the magnificent Hôtel Beau-Site.

The sportswriter Arthur Wallis Meyers spent thirty years covering tennis for the Daily Telegraph and The Field. (He also competed in the French Open, U.S. Open, and Wimbledon in his forties—those were other times.) In his book The Complete Lawn Tennis Player, he recollected that the courts of the Beau-Site were “a surface second to none in France” and that they were “made of a particularly fine and adiactinic sand, indigenous to the district, which rolls out to perfection, especially after a light shower. They receive, as all good courts should, careful and minute attention at the hands of experienced gardeners who, with their brooms, hose and rollers, are always to be found in early attendance.” Who would hire these gardeners? Who would train them in the nuances of tending for a clay court? Who would set their schedules to coincide with court times? Meyers wouldn’t ask these things. No one seemed to. The general attitude to luxury was, and in many ways still is, that what went into it should remain invisible, and this was perhaps best coined by an early editorial in the Courrier on Gougoltz and the Beau-Site: “We do not wish, of course, to enter into a description of luxury, which would make it less lovely. Suffice it to say that the thing could not be more perfect.”

There came an era when Gougoltz’s three clay courts were the epicenter of tennis on the Continent, providing the bedrock for the connection with the clay game that it enjoys to this day. Gougoltz’s son and his nephew Jean, who would go on to become a world-famous cyclist, were often ball boys for matches where the players ranged from King Gustav V of Sweden to France’s Suzanne Lenglen, in those days already a living legend of the game. Gougoltz, however, reaped little in the way of benefit from this: he had been forced to declare bankruptcy in 1884 and again in 1902.

Meanwhile, the tennis there continued to occupy the public imagination. The courts would be the site for the greatest tennis painting of them all, John Lavery’s 1929 oil-on-canvas Tennis under the Orange Trees, Cannes. It depicts a doubles match on the Beau-Site. The server is in a flowing and sporty white dress, midmotion, at the height of her toss, racket back, her feet in the platform stance, somewhat like the trophy position. In the purple-shadowed foreground, a canopy of orange trees in repoussoir, leading the viewer’s eye from the trees to the court and pushing the court forward into the trees so that they are two spaces at once; so much so that the ball is unsighted because of the trees and it looks like the server is about to strike one of the oranges off its branch. The returner, like the server, is in white. Their partners, both at the net, are in collaborating orange and red sweaters. Behind them, the vagueness of the background suggests maybe more garden, perhaps the sea, an uncertain sky, an undefined world.

And yet by the time of Lavery’s painting, the hotel’s courts had settled into their late fate as more of a curiosity of the first phase of the French Riviera. The Beau-Site courts were on borrowed time. World War I had changed the landscape. And there was the tennis club at the Cannes Carlton that left the casual affairs of Beau-Site in its large shadow. Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills would play their historic match there.

Cannes wasn’t destined to be the center of tennis forever. Places like the Beau-Site were for idle play, small niche tournaments, handicapping, and casual bets between friends. Tennis and Cannes both continued to grow, but they grew apart. As early as 1887, Renshaw and Dwight took their act from Cannes to Nice, where it was more permissible to let your competitive juices flow and truly strike a ball with anger. Tennis there was, in Meyers’s words, “naturally of a more serious character than it is in Cannes … Competitors feel, as it were, that they have the eyes of the outside world upon them, whereas at the Beau Site the warriors are occasionally crying a halt to tension.” And then later, the greatest competition in the region settled in where it was always destined to be and remains to this day, with the high rollers in Monaco, a complex of pristine red-clay courts caressed by a mountainside and the sea—the first of three Masters 1000 tournaments on the clay swing of the circuit.

Monaco has long since moved on from and eclipsed Cannes. It has its own tennis history and its stories now. Like how in 2014, two Swiss men faced each other in the final there, making it the first time a Swiss would lift the trophy. Wawrinka emerged from the brink of death in the second set and strolled in the third to take the title from Federer. It was the fourth time Federer had lost the Monaco final—earlier in his career, he lost three years in a row to Nadal. The Swiss legacy on clay has been one of many more losses than wins, and some of them quite brutal. Still, for my money, Federer is the second-best player I’ve ever seen on the surface. But he doesn’t have much to show for his performance there aside from the art of it and a few cherished titles—though even without them, we’d speak of him on the clay. Because of both him and Wawrinka, with one French Open title each, we could say we owe the Swiss their due. Today there are no tournaments in nearby Cannes to speak of. Certainly not in this way. And no one speaks of the Swiss who started it all, Georges Henri Gougoltz: the ghost in the dirt.


Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of Heaven (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)—an NPR Best Book of 2015 and a Washington Post Best Poetry Collection of 2015—and The Ground (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). He is the recipient of a Whiting Award, the PEN/Osterweil Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in New York City and Barcelona.

Excerpted from The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey, by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on November 20, 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. All rights reserved.