SOUTHWEST HARBOR, Maine — Despite the sea breeze and bright sunshine that dappled the croquet court Saturday afternoon at the Claremont Hotel, the suspense at the very end of the Claremont Croquet Classic was downright palpable.
The click of the mallets against the balls seemed to be the only sound sanctioned during the hushed final game to determine the 2010 singles champion, which pitted longtime croquet aficionados David Nelson of Southwest Harbor against Paul Madeira of Los Angeles.
Then, Nelson used his mallet to deftly split two balls, sending one of them through the last two wickets, and the genteel crowd erupted in hoots, cheers and applause.
Minutes later, the white-clad Nelson smiled and shook hands with his well-wishers after winning the game 32 points to 20 points. He has been playing in the Claremont’s summer tournament for 26 years, he said, and loves the game.
“I work too much,” he said. “To me, the game takes me completely away from everything else I do.”
Croquet has a long history in Southwest Harbor. It was a favorite Victorian pastime, and one of the few ways that men and women could compete with each other, according to croquet enthusiast Alan Madeira of Southwest Harbor, who won the doubles championship with partner Eileen Holberg of Southwest Harbor and Palm Springs, Fla. The Madeiras are brothers.
The weeklong tournament included players from 9 years old all the way to 84. About 50 people participated in the event on the manicured court that overlooks the ocean.
“Croquet originated in France,” Alan Madeira said after the classic was over. “The Irish were responsible for making it popular, and the British perfected it.”
Although the game has a reputation for being a favorite pastime of the elite and wealthy — “the aristocrats did take hold of it,” he said — croquet was popular across social strata. He showed an old photo of young boys in Brooklyn playing croquet on a small patch of grass and another picture of recuperating Canadian World War I soldiers who played in wheelchairs.
Croquet seems to be one game where the elderly can compete against much younger people — and win.
“I love it, I love it,” said Till Harkins, 84, of Southwest Harbor after the tournament. “It’s croquet, and it’s competitive. It’s just fun hitting balls, because the balls won’t talk back at you.”
Harkins has been playing at the Claremont for years, he said.
The hotel was built in 1884, during the Victorian era, and croquet was offered as a recreation as long as “anyone can remember,” according to a nine-wicket croquet rule book created by the hotel’s owners in 1985.
The Claremont Croquet Classic was started in 1977 and has been an August fixture on Mount Desert Island ever since.
“That’s hard to beat in this country,” Madeira said.
It’s a draw for some out-of-state visitors, including Judy and Bruce Shaw from Moorestown, N.J., who said they happened to be visiting friends at the hotel 20 years ago and “got hooked” on the game.
“This is one of the special events in our lives,” Bruce Shaw said.
According to Madeira, who also makes wooden croquet mallets, the game has had a few “golden ages” — including from the 1860s to the 1880s, the 1910s and 1920s and after World War II.
Another golden age is due, he said.
“I think it can’t help but come back,” he said. “All the baby boomers are getting too old to play tennis.”