"Pardon me, Lord Fauntleroy," says Don Fournier. "Gramps is
here, and your croquet court is set up."
Lord Fauntleroy is in fact Fournier's 13-year-old son, Jacques.
Gramps is Don's 69-year-old father-in-law, Ray Hamm. And the
court is the meticulously manicured greensward in Phoenix that
doubles as the Fourniers' front lawn. Hefting a mallet on his
shoulder, Jacques slowly, coolly walks onto the green. "Gramps
may run a couple of hoops, but he won't beat me," he says
flatly. "He doesn't look at the big picture."
Gramps runs a couple of hoops with his red ball. Then Jacques
runs a couple with his black one. Gramps runs a couple more.
Jacques measures the lie of the balls with his pale blue eyes.
"I'm going to roquet his out of bounds," he says. Concentrating
intensely, he bends double and swings his mallet in a wide arc.
The sharp, hollow click of mallet against ball punctuates the
air. The ball--which probably isn't influenced by Jacques'
shouts of "Come on! Go! Go! Go!"--rolls 20 feet and misses
Gramps's ball by half an inch. "Unfortunately," Jacques says
with a small shrug, "when a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer is
watching you, you tend not to be as accurate."
SI is watching because Jacques is one of the country's premier
croquet players. He turned more than a few tony heads at last
year's U.S. Nationals in Newport, R.I., where he finished fourth
in the singles and fifth in the doubles. "There's no trophy for
fourth place," says Jacques, the youngest qualifier in the
event's 18-year history. "But I was so happy about my results
that my parents had a special glass one made just for me."
The championship croquet Jacques plays is not to be confused
with your backyard variety, in which most of the balls wind up
in the azaleas. The rules are similar, but as players work their
way through unyielding, diabolically skinny wickets, it becomes
clear that their gamesmanship is on another level. Called the
Sport of Stings, croquet is a game of passion, intellect and
naked aggression. Jacques plays with great skill and mallets
aforethought. "My opponents are sometimes psyched out before
they begin," he says gleefully.
Jacques picked up the game from his father, a dentist who began
playing during time off from a meeting in California. "You
probably think I don't have many fillings," says Jacques. "The
truth is I've got lots and lots. I forget to brush."
But not to practice. "If I spent more time on homework and less
on croquet," says the eighth-grader, "I'd probably get straight
A's." Jacques hones his game in his front yard. To build a
regulation court, his father had to uproot four giant palm trees
and add 450 tons of dirt. "I try to keep my pets off the grass,"
"How many do you have?" he is asked.
"Two dogs and a macaw. And two cats, Young Man and Princessa.
I'd prefer you didn't put the cats' names in the article, though."
"'Young Man' and 'Princessa'? I mean, give me a break!"
The Arizona Croquet Club nearly didn't. When Jacques was new to
croquet, Don asked his fellow members if his son could clunk and
thwock around the club court. "One guy was against it," Jacques
recalls. "He said he wouldn't be able to sit around and drink
beer and tell dirty jokes. But now the guy has turned around.
Now he's one of my biggest fans."
Since Jacques' success at the nationals, his fans have been
getting bigger and bigger. The problem has been little people.
"Hardly any kid my age wants to play with me," he says. "I do
have one friend who will, but I have to beg him." To get an
interesting game, Jacques has to ask his half-brother Don Jr.,
who's 35. "Don beats me in knock-up games," says Jacques. "I
beat him at the nationals." Beat is putting it mildly. Don got
creamed, 26-7. "He was probably a little surprised," Jacques
says. "I think he doubted my capabilities and thought my
strategy was unusual. Unlike a lot of the older guys, I try
spectacular shots out of my critical distance." And more often
than not, he makes them.
Jacques plots his future as carefully as a four-ball break.
"I've always been good at talking my way out of trouble, so I
had planned to become a lawyer," he says. "But after watching
the O.J. trial, I've lost respect for attorneys."
In croquet, Jacques' greatest disappointment has been the color
barrier. His black Nikes were blackballed at last year's
nationals, and they will be banned again at this year's
championships, which will take place in Thousand Oaks, Calif.,
Sept. 17-23. "I'm still hoping Nike will sponsor me one day," he
says wistfully. "Who wouldn't want to wear Air Fourniers?"