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Tony Stephens is one of the most popular croquet players in the world. Each year, he travels the globe to play croquet, usually in company with wife Colleen and/or other family members, all of whom play the game well. Stephens is one of a a handful of international stars who have played numerous American rules tournaments and have learned the America rules game well enough to consistently reach the final rounds. He has been very, very good at croquet for a long time, without taking himself too seriously. About half of what he says, by my estimate, is tongue-in-cheek.

--Bob Alman


INTERVIEW WITH TONY STEPHENS

WHY DO YOU PLAY CROQUET?

I like to inflict mental pain on myself....

I WANT A SERIOUS ANSWER. YOU COULDN'T HACK IT AT GOLF. SQUASH. SNOOKER. CHESS. BRIDGE.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's right. Well, fortunately I got into it when I was very young, and I was able to come back to it later in life. And I think it is one of the better games one could play.

OKAY, THAT'S GOOD. NOT VERY INTERESTING, THOUGH. COULD YOU MAKE IT A LITTLE MORE POINTED?. IS IT THE MENTAL ASPECT OF IT? IS IT THE SLOWNESS OF THE GAME, DO YOU LIKE IT BECAUSE YOU DON'T HAVE TO TRAIN BY RUNNING FIVE MILES EVERY DAY...?

But I do!

YOU DO? YOU'RE IN GOOD SHAPE...

I don't take after Wayne Rodoni and play slowly....

DO YOU HAVE AN OIL-FREE DIET, LIKE WAYNE?

An oil-free diet?

DO YOU SUBJECT YOURSELF TO ANY SORT OF DISCIPLINE WHATEVER IN ORDER TO EXCEL IN THIS SPORT?

Yes, I abstain from sex for 24 hours before a big match.

I KNOW YOU'RE PUTTING ME ON. HAVE YOU BEEN DRINKING THAT BEER? DO YOU CONSIDER THE CROQUET LAWN A GOOD PLACE TO MEET WOMEN?

Well, I haven't been all that successful.

YOU'VE NEVER BEEN SET UPON BY FEMALE CROQUET GROUPIES AT THESE BIG, GLAMOUROUS EVENTS?

No, I've never had an opportunity of that sort.

THAT'S SAD. WHAT IS YOUR ULTIMATE GOAL IN CROQUET?

Basically, it's just to meet my friends all around the world, to play well, to have a good time. And I like to help younger players come along in the game. I have a daughter at home who's 25 that's one of the best New Zealand women players, but the young one, Sonya, is potentially as good as Debbie (Cornelius). She just won the "Sixteen" at home, for the women.

IN 2020, WHAT'S THE CROQUET SCENE GOING TO BE LIKE IN YOUR COUNTRY, IN NEW ZEALAND? ANY DIFFERENT, ANY MORE, ANY BETTER....?

No, just the same. In 40 years it really hasn't changed. There's a lot more younger players, emerging younger male players, but the clubs, the local clubs are still administrated by elderly people who play for enjoyment.

YOU DON"T ENVISION ANY MAJOR INFLUX OF YOUNGER PLAYERS.

No, I can't see it, no.

WHICH PLAYER DO YOU MOST ADMIRE?

Robert Fulford is the most complete master player I've ever seen. John Prince is the most complete player in style. And Bob Jackson is the greatest winning machine.

GOOD ANSWER! WHAT'S YOUR MOST SIGNIFICANT ACCOMPLISHMENT IN CROQUET?

Oh, I won all the New Zealand titles back in the 1960's, and I've just been selected for the MacRobertson Shield after a span of 33 years. From the time I represented New Zealand at the MacRobertson back in 1963, to being selected in 1996, that's 33 years.

STILL GOOD AFTER ALL THESE YEARS. HOW OLD ARE YOU, ACTUALLY?

I'M 53. This definitely says something about the game of croquet. If I can compete....I played John Solomon here last year, and we played 33 years ago, and he's still playing the game, at top level. And this says a lot for the game. There are not many sports you can say THAT about.

IF YOU COULD CHANGE THE SPORT IN ANY WAY, WHAT WOULD YOU DO? THE GAME, THE CULTURE, ANYTHING YOU LIKE...

For rules changes, a rule that you're not allowed to make a hoop and go off the boundary and continue. It would make more of a touch game.

AFTER MAKING A HOOP, YOU CANNOT GO OUT OF BOUNDS ON THE SAME STROKE AND CONTINUE? THAT WOULD MAKE IT MORE LIKE THE AMERICAN RULES GAME.

And for the American game, I think they should improve the rules, so there's not so many ambiguous rules that need the referees...

YOU HAVEN'T LEARNED THE RULES YET....

That's bullshit....

YOU'RE REFERRING TO MY STORY ABOUT THE GAME YOU PLAYED AGAINST TAVES IN THE SAN FRANCISCO OPEN FINALS LAST YEAR. IT'S THE ONLY PLAY-BY-PLAY STORY I'VE EVERY DONE.....

Yes, but the referees have to get the book out, and it's not clear...

BUT IS THAT FAIR? YOU"VE BEEN WORKING ON YOUR RULES FOR MORE THAN A HUNDRED YEARS, AND WE'VE ONLY HAD OURS FOR TWO DECADES....

Fifty-five percent of your rules are our old rules. All you've added to it is deadness..

SO YOU'RE REALLY SPEAKING OF CLARIFICATION OF THE WAY THE AMERICAN RULES ARE PRESENTED, NOT THE SUBSTANCE OF THE RULES...

Yes. On my trips over here, when I've played in American rules tournaments, there has been a huge variance in.....

I WAS PROFOUNDLY SHOCKED WATCHING THE SAN FRANCISCO OPEN FINALS LAST YEAR WHEN IT BECAME CLEAR THAT YOU DID NOT KNOW THAT YOU COULD SHOOT THROUGH 2-BACK AND IN THE SAME STROKE KNOCK OUT OF POSITION A BALL WHICH HASN'T CLEARED WICKET #1. THAT WAS A VERY SIGNIFICANT TURNING POINT IN THAT GAME.

Yes, but the second time I went 'round, I knocked him out of position. That was quite a remarkable game...

IT WAS! THAT'S WHY I WROTE ABOUT IT. OKAY: WHO DOES THE DAMAGE IN CROQUET?

Internationally? Oh my god, that's a loaded one!

THIS IS THE LAST ONE...

Will Carling said that football in England was administrated by a lot of "silly old farts," and that's about what I'd say a lot of the croquet administration is.

WHERE?

Well, internationally.

IS THAT AS SPECIFIC AS YOU WANT TO BE?

(laughing)

WHO SHOULD RUN THE SPORT, THEN? POLITICIANS ARE GOING TO RUN THE SPORT. IT'S THE SAME IN EVERY ORGANIZED SPORT....

Yes, but one of the problems about croquet is that the players are quite individualistic people, they want to just play, they don't want to do anything with the administration.

EXACTLY!

And therefore you get...

PEOPLE LIKE ME, RUNNING THINGS...!

They want to lord it over the players, and the players come in conflict with the administration. It's a unique sport, it really is.

HOW HAVE THESE "SILLY OLD FARTS" OPPRESSED YOU, PERSONALLY, IN THIS SPORT?

Oh, it's just adminstration. Let me ask YOU: Are you happy with the way the USCA is run?

PEOPLE ARE ALWAYS UNHAPPY WITH THE ORGANIZATION, WHATEVER IT IS, WHETHER IT'S A BUSINESS, A GOVERNMENT, A CHURCH, A SPORT....

.,.and it's not unique, it's true all over the world.

BUT YOU HAVEN"T SAID ANYTHING SPECIFIC. NOBODY HAS DAMAGED YOUR CAREER, OR LIMITED YOUR PROGRESS...

Well, I was in limbo back in New Zealand for quite some time. I was threatened that I would be banned from playing.

BECAUSE YOU WERE TOO OUTSPOKEN? WERE YOU BAD?

I was just outspoken. And I felt I was justified in what I said, because it has come true....

ABOUT WHAT, EXACTLY?

Selection, administration....Look here, he's taking the lift now....



 
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