Being a World Champion... at two sports... as an amateur!

Being a World Champion... at two sports... as an amateur!

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Howard Angus MBE, was the Rackets World Champion from 1973-1975 and the Real Tennis World Champion from 1976-1981. What makes this record even more impressive was that he combined his dedication to both sports whilst having a successful career in business. He did turn professional in the mid 90's and has long been known as one of the highest authorities in both sports. Still helping out at The Queen's Club when called upon, we fired a few questions at Howard about his career, modern sport and just how you become a World Champion in two sports.

Real Tennis at The Queens Club

Real Tennis at The Queens Club

The Sporting Blog : Howard, tell us how you managed to fit training to play elite level sport in with your work and eventually family commitments?

Howard Angus: I began working as a Manufacturer’s Agent in 1967, after coming down from Cambridge, representing one of the major component suppliers to the British Motor Industry. This company made rolled sections and pressings in steel, stainless steel and aluminium which were designed by the top British car manufacturers for supply to their assembly plants in the UK.  My particular responsibility was to look after the Ford account, and during my time as the company’s liaison with Ford the share of the company’s turnover with Ford rose from less than 20% to just over 50%, by which time we were, as well as the metal components, also supplying Ford with plastic extrusions and injection mouldings to the Ford UK plants and to Ford plants in Germany and Spain.  As the business in Europe expanded, I made over 200 business trips to the Continent to look after our sales to Ford of Europe. After 13 years as the company’s agent with Ford, I transferred to being Sales Director for the Group, eventually leaving the Motor Industry in 1993, after 26 years at the sharp end.

At Rackets, I crossed the Rubicon from the being an Amateur to being a Professional in 1996 when I was appointed as Rackets and Lawn Tennis Pro at Haileybury, and then in 2002 became a Pro at Real Tennis as well, on moving to Queen’s Club as Head Rackets Pro, retiring in 2013.

The Rackets court at Haileybury College back in the day

The Rackets court at Haileybury College back in the day

I married my wife, Judy, in 1975, having first met her at Queen’s when she was appointed Games Manager and the first female Lawn Tennis Pro at the Club in the late 1960’s. We have two Children, Stuart born in 1979 and Helen born in 1981.

Over the whole period of my Amateur career in Rackets and Real Tennis, 1963 to 1981, I played nearly every Amateur and Open Tournament on the calendar, as well as playing County Cup, Cumberland Cup, Surrey Cup, occasional Bath Club Cup etc. at squash till the mid 1970’s.  So I was fitting in a huge number of matches each year, similar to what a top modern Lawn Tennis Tour Pro would play annually.  

On top of that I would fit in practice at Queen’s and elsewhere in the evenings and at weekends, often having to book the 9.00pm or 9.30pm court at Queen’s during the week to give myself time to get back to London from our manufacturing plants in Northampton and Warwickshire, or returning from a range of Ford locations around Essex. I never trained in the gym, but I added to the speed and stamina derived from playing loads and loads of hard matches by doing sprint training on a squash court, (at the end of each practice session) front wall to back wall in multiples of 25’s, 50’s or 100’s; 25’s for ultimate speed, 100’s for ultimate stamina, and lots of 50’s for a combination of both speed and stamina. This would not have been sufficient in the big world of Lawn Tennis or Squash, but in the little worlds of Real Tennis and Rackets it was sufficient to ensure I had enough extra speed and stamina compared to my main rivals to hopefully compensate for the fact that they were mostly more gifted strikers of a real tennis or rackets ball!

Judy, as a top qualified Lawn Tennis and Squash Pro, was comfortably my sternest and most helpful coach, both technically and tactically, so I was extremely fortunate to have that expertise on hand since her knowledge from those two associated sports, combined with all her insights from watching top rackets players like Geoffrey Atkins, James Leonard and Charles Swallow, and top real tennis players like Frank Willis and Norwood Cripps, meant she could pinpoint instantly what needed to be improved and how to go about making that improvement.

TSB: Do you think this time management would have been easier in this era bearing in mind technological changes and being able to work remotely and so on?

HA: I don’t think modern technology would have helped me much, in that my job required me, day by day, to be at the company’s manufacturing plants, or at Ford locations, attending a myriad of meetings with people from Engineering, Purchase, Quality Control, Lab Services, Plant Manufacturing, and even Accounts Payable to get the Invoices paid on time!  These face-to-face meetings, often pouring over component drawings or Specifications, could not be conducted effectively by phone or email on a remote basis.

The Real Tennis court - courtesy of the IRTPA

The Real Tennis court - courtesy of the IRTPA

TSB: Both Rackets and Real Tennis require a lot of travel in order to play major tournaments. Did you sacrifice holiday's and other important social occasions in order to achieve what you did? 

HA: I went to France to play real tennis 3 times whilst at Cambridge, and Captained the Oxbridge Team for the Van Allen Trophy in America in 1966.  In 1969 I took an extended time away to play for Britain in Bathurst Cups in Australia and USA, on a  tour organized by Stefan Laszlo and including David Warburg and Richard Cooper.  In 1972 there was a 2-week Jesters tour to America which was great fun.  Then in 1973(R), 1974(RT), 1975(R), 1976(RT) and 1977(both R & RT!) I needed to fly to America for World Championship matches, so this was quite a commitment of time and money to play, but unlike many Americans who get very little holiday time compared to people in Europe, Judy and I managed to get to Greece on holiday a few times as well as these ‘sporting’ trips! What is important is to understand that I loved putting in the practice, getting as much time as possible on one court or another, juggling my daily time-table to enable me to play hard even if I had already put in a 12-hour day. That is what I most enjoyed doing, so it was no burden, but a deep pleasure!

TSB: Presumably a lot of your training required huge amounts of self motivation and sometimes training alone? Do you think professionals had an advantage over you being based at courts and having a variety of people to hit with regularly?

Claire Fahey and Sarah Vigrass in action at Seacourt 

Claire Fahey and Sarah Vigrass in action at Seacourt 

HA: No, I don’t think the Pro’s had any advantage over me as an Amateur.  Yes, it was perhaps easier for them to fit in time on court during the day, when a court was not booked by Members, but on the other hand they also had to go on court with loads of Members of all standards wanting lessons or hits, whereas every time I went on court it could be serious practice!  So it balanced out probably.  

However I think I did put in a lot more hard work, practicing on my own, or getting another Amateur or a Pro to work with me on specific shots that needed attention.  Paul Danby and Richard Cooper were both great at putting me through my paces at real tennis!  Norwood Cripps, Frank Willis, David Cull, David Johnson and Derek Barrett, as Pro contemporaries, all worked hard with me at real tennis.  Norwood was perhaps the most ruthless!  We would do a regular training where he would stand on the winning gallery line with a full basket and hit shots into my forehand and backhand corners, corner to corner without a break for a complete basket, say 60 shots, running as fast as I could from corner to corner with Norwood brilliant at giving me just, but only just, time to get there and try to make a retrieval!  Could the top real tennis players of today last a whole basket of that?  I don’t know. I don’t think any of the other top Amateurs or Pro’s in the 1970’s could!   

For me, as a one-serve guy, just lefty railroads from the start of play till the match was finished, I needed to spend prodigious amount of time practicing basket after basket of railroads!  Scores of baskets each week, a hundred or two of fast first and second serves for the last 15-20 minutes of each session on court on my own, till the consistency was built up to do loads and loads of fast nick serves. (Max in a row was 24 nicks, but of course that was only in practice, but in the course of a match I was looking to get as many unreturned serves as a big lawn tennis Pro would be able to achieve nowadays).

On the rackets court, Charles Hue Williams and I practiced hard together, but mainly it was countless hours on my own, frequently late at night, working on a range of strokes, normally ending with 15 minutes of serving and then shuttle sprints up and down a squash court or across a rackets or real tennis court to finish off.  My commitment was a complete joke compared to, say, Jonah Barrington as a fanatical fitness enthusiast as a contemporary at Squash, but so long as my commitment was greater than the other serious real tennis or rackets players, it was enough to help me win the tight matches more often than not.  I was lucky that I enjoyed the practice, though the court sprints were done because they needed to be done, and the satisfaction was having done them, not doing them!  But the more often you have pushed the boundaries in practice, the easier it is to push that crucial bit harder and longer in matches.

TSB: What was the more challenging sport to train for when building up to a World Championship.

HA: For me it was logistically more complicated to train for real tennis than rackets when building up for a World Championship because there often wasn’t anyone around in the evenings to serve at me, or to blast basket after basket of volleys at me, or to play long rallies with me, or to feed specific shots at me that needed to be worked on.  At rackets, on the other hand, the principal problem was not having top serves being fired at me – nearly every other shot that I needed to practice facing I could drill at myself, and clearly playing rallies where one was playing every shot, not alternate shots, meant the physical side of moving fast to hit the next rackets stroke was excellent training, whereas at real tennis it is not possible to play rallies against oneself!  

However I was exceptionally lucky in having for some of my real tennis World challenges a specific Pro working with me, partially funded by the Sports Aid Foundation or members of the T&RA. Norwood Cripps went with me on my Elimination Challenge in 1974 with Gene Scott in New York and then the Challenge with Jimmy that followed.  In 1976 Frank Willis came to New York for the Challenge with Gene Scott, and Derek Barrett was my trainer at Hampton Court in 1977 and 1979. They were invaluable.

TSB: Can you compare the way players train now with when you were playing? Have advances in nutrition and fitness changed the way the games are played?

HA: Nowadays very few top players are trying to compete at a high level at both rackets and real tennis.  James Stout is the exception.  The technical help from gym training has improved beyond measure since the 1970’s, as have the benefits of nutritional science. I was not a user of gym facilities, but probably playing three to four times as many long matches at a combination of rackets, real tennis and squash as any Amateur these days who is seriously involved in rackets or real tennis.

James Stout - Rackets World Champion and World Number 11 in Real Tennis.

James Stout - Rackets World Champion and World Number 11 in Real Tennis.

Both games have changed in how they are played because the top players are bigger and stronger (though not necessarily fitter!) and the equipment allows them to hit the ball harder (though not necessarily more accurately!) than forty years ago.  At real tennis, the quality of the defensive and attacking volleying from today’s top players is in a different league from anyone in the 1970’s, with the exception of Gene Scott, (a 6ft 4 ins former US Davis Cup player, semi-finalist at Forest Hills in the US Open, and ranked at one stage at No. 11 in the World), who was as ferocious on the real tennis volley as anyone today, given the change in rackets and nylon.

Frank Willis was as severe on the classic cut floor-stroke as anyone in living memory, but his serving and volleying were not at the same exalted standard.  Norwood Cripps, and the two multi-talented American Amateurs, the Bostwick brothers, Pete and Jimmy, were all stylish stroke-players with all-round games, but would very probably wilt under the pressure of modern 21st Century styles of play from such as Rob Fahey or Camden Riviere.  At Rackets, the ball is hit appreciably harder than in the 1970’s, partly because the ball has got quicker, but also because the rackets are able to be strung much tighter with modern nylon than in the latter days of natural gut in the 60’s and early 70’s.  Also in this Century the ethos is for power rather than accuracy, though James Stout can play with both power and accuracy to a remarkable standard.  How rackets players would love to see James Stout and James Male face up against each other at their respective best!  And would the third post-war super-champion, Geoffrey Atkins (World Champion 1954-71) give them a run for their money with his immaculate control and length and seemingly effortless movement around the court?  My guess is not, just as I don’t think the great Rod Laver could withstand the onslaught from any of the quartet of super-players from recent Lawn Tennis.  But we can never know the answer to those hypothetical questions!

TSB: Where do you see the future of both of these sports in terms of elite players? Will an amateur ever be World champion in Real Tennis again? How do we get more professionals into Rackets?

HA: The cost of building new real tennis and rackets courts is so high that it is hard to see how either game can expect an explosion in growth.  Real Tennis has the advantage over Rackets in that it is a game that is much more popular for ‘refugees’ from other sports to enjoy taking up as adults, whilst this is that much harder for even talented games-players at other sports to do at rackets if they have not had the grounding whilst at school in this most demanding discipline for hand-eye-foot co-ordination.  

Head Pro Dan Jones serving on the new Real Tennis court at Wellington College

Head Pro Dan Jones serving on the new Real Tennis court at Wellington College

Any reasonable centre of population should be able to produce, say, 200 players of real tennis who would enjoy a life-time of involvement in the sport, but getting together the funds to erect a Court is really hard.  However a few well-off former pupils from Schools and Universities may enable such institutions to build new real tennis facilities at their Alma Mater!  

This is probably the best potential for further growth at real tennis.  At rackets, again the most likely growth may come from individuals who would love to see their former school having a rackets court, as happened at St Paul’s around 2000.  The existing Rackets Schools need to work closely with the T&RA to find more ways of keeping more of the talented boys and girls, who have learnt the game at school, to continue to play once they leave. The School Pro’s are absolutely crucial to the future health of Rackets, even if growth in the sport is limited.  In recent years the source of new Professionals has come almost entirely from either former pupils at Rackets-playing schools who decide the life of a Rackets Pro is worth pursuing, or from former first-class cricketers who again decide that the switch to teaching rackets is a career change worth going for.  My concern is whether the School Heads and Governors understand fully the decisive role they will collectively play in ensuring the healthy future of one of the world’s most exciting sports?  

Rackets players need to make sure the Heads and Governors do appreciate this, and support their own Pro accordingly.  

Can an Amateur again win the Real Tennis World Championship?  Julian Snow was the last amateur to challenge, losing 7 sets to 4 against Rob Fahey in 1998.  I can see no reason why an Amateur should not come along who is prepared to do whatever is required to take on the top Pro’s.  

But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?!

The British Open of Real Tennis is currently being played at The Queens Club, please click here to find live streams to the matches.

The Rackets World Singles Challenge second leg is also being played at The Queens Club on the 18th November. Please click here for details.

 For more information on both Real Tennis & Rackets please click here

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