Travel review: Divine Providence on Rhode Island

Newport is built around a harbour that brought not only fortune to the area but also a touch of glamour.
Newport is built around a harbour that brought not only fortune to the area but also a touch of glamour.
  • Richard Sutcliffe fulfils a sporting dream in the beautiful playground of the American aristocracy.
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Richard Sutcliffe fulfils a sporting dream in the beautiful playground of the American aristocracy.

DREAMS of another Wimbledon triumph may have been dashed on Centre Court last month as Andy Murray lost once again to Roger Federer. But, for this keen, if frankly very amateur tennis enthusiast, this summer has brought to life a long-held ambition that I had long ago dismissed as being barely possible.

Namely, the chance to experience what playing tennis on grass at one of the game’s iconic settings is really like.

Alas, it wasn’t in SW19. Obtaining a ticket to sit in the stands at the All England Club is tough enough. Instead, my chance to finally play on grass came almost 3,500 miles away at what is considered to be the cradle of US tennis.

Newport Casino, Rhode Island, staged the first ever US Open in 1881 and remained the tournament’s home for the next 34 years. Today, it is the first post-Wimbledon stop-off for the ATP Tour in July and among those competing in the 2015 Hall of Fame Tennis Championships were Dustin Brown, fresh from beating Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, and Ivo Karlovic, whose own hopes had been ended by Murray in the quarter-finals. As ever, the standard of play at the historic venue was high as Rajeev Ram defeated Karlovic in the final to succeed 2014 men’s champion Lleyton Hewitt and lift the trophy.

What the American, however, will definitely not have realised on receiving his winner’s cheque to great acclaim on July 19 is that almost exactly a month earlier, the main court at Newport had been not so graced as pounded by yours truly.

A visit to the Hall of Fame in the spacious grounds of the casino provided an opportunity I was not going to pass up despite sporting trainers with no grips and having no racket.

It meant I must have looked an unlikely “star” attraction to those enjoying lunch in the restaurant that can be found down one side of the court which hosted that historic first championship in 1881.

I’d like to say I did justice to such a beautiful setting, the court being ringed on all four sides by viewing areas that wouldn’t look out of place at Eton or Harrow. But, alas, a first serve that – much to the concern of those dining just 20 yards or so to my left – almost cleared the baseline suggests otherwise.

Thankfully, my second serve landed in but, as I struggled to cope with how the ball skids through on grass compared with the concrete courts of my youth at Riddlesden Tennis Club, it was hard to believe the club’s founders – motto: “A shrine to the ideals of the game” – were staring down approvingly at my efforts.

Still, I enjoyed myself tremendously. As I also did afterwards when chatting to John Austin, who together with sister Tracy won the Wimbledon Mixed Doubles in 1980, about his role as the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s new director of tennis.

He may not have been overly impressed with my racket skills. “Er, you hit very, erm, enthusiastically…” was his opinion. But he proved fascinating company, especially on the skills required to play on grass compared with other surfaces.

Austin was also clearly a big fan of the Hall of Fame that counts him and the other 200-plus luminaries from the game as inductees. It was easy to see why on a subsequent stroll round the galleries.

The same can be said about Newport itself. Built around a harbour that brought not only fortune to the area but glamour courtesy of the awe-inspiring houses that sit high on the cliffs overlooking the water, this town is a delight to explore.

It also has no shortage of celebrity connections, most notably as the stage for future President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s nuptials to local girl Jacqueline Bouvier at St Mary’s Catholic Church in 1953. The Bouviers’ old home, Hammersmith Farm, became known as the “Summer White House” after JFK was elected President, having earlier been where the couple held their reception.

A boat trip round the harbour provides not only a fine view of the sprawling estate but also the countless other grand buildings and famous yachts that make Newport the playground of America’s aristocracy.

Thirty miles to the north is Providence, the capital and first stop-off on a tour of Rhode Island that provided sufficient glimpses of New England’s beauty that I am determined to make a return visit.

Home to Brown University, an Ivy League institution whose recent alumni includes Harry Potter actress Emma Watson, Providence has carved out a reputation as a leader in education.

But, as I discovered, the town has so much more to offer than that. From the quaint and beautifully-preserved buildings of Benefit Street through to the town’s signature WaterFire event that sees scores of braziers along the river lit 12 times a year, the most populated city in Rhode Island has plenty to offer.

Its residents were also the first to take military action against the English at the start of the American Revolution, something a surprisingly high number of locals took great delight in mentioning.

Providence is best explored on foot and a short 15-minute stroll from the centre is Federal Hill, a neighbourhood with a distinct Italian feel.

Here, I met acclaimed chef Walter Potenza. Not only did “Chef Walter”, as he is known, provide me with what has since proved to be a most useful lesson in creating my own Italian dishes at his Cooking School on Atwells Avenue.

But Italian-born Walter also proved a fascinating storyteller. He arrived in the US in the Seventies with just a few lira and went on to play football alongside George Best before setting up a successful restaurant chain. The very epitome of the American Dream.

GETTING THERE

• Richard flew to Boston with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow, with return flights priced at £555 including all taxes and charges. www.virgin-atlantic.com. He hired a vehicle with Affordable Car Hire (www.affordablecarhire.com) from Boston Logan Airport, with prices from around £150 per week. For further information on all the attractions he visited in Rhode Island, visit www.discovernewengland.co.uk www.DiscoverNewport.org and www.discoveramerica.com