Tucked in an inlet two minutes away from Brussels’ Place Stephanie / Stefanieplein, Gilbert Elseneer and his wife have, for 33 years now, cherished an unsuspected 1950s architectural wonder dedicated to the game of tennis.
Writer and photographer Jaques Moyersoen
Ever since its inauguration back in 1955, the Royal Tennis Club of Belgium has lovingly been kept in the same pristine condition. The three indoor tennis courts’ surface is still covered with the same sheets of special Swedish vinyl made by a company which went bankrupt dozen years ago. “That shows how indestructible their product is! The longevity and smoothness are amazing. The surface is almost 60 years and is still impeccable! And best of all it’s easy on the body as well. This surface is unique in Belgium”, the visibly proud owner extols.
Almost all tennis legends have exchanged forehands under the mythical central court.
Equally as unique are the beautiful giant curved wooden arcades that carry the thirteen meter high roof. “This club was the first large indoor tennis venue in Belgium. It is also the only indoor club in Belgium whose size is up to standard with the international official measures”. With the central court enjoying a capacity of 1,000 spectators, this little club has, rather astonishingly, been the theatre of major tennis events, such as the Davis Cup and the Belgian indoor championship for over twenty years now. The dedicated press area is still there to remind us of the club’s hey-days. “Almost every tennis legends have exchanged forehands under the mythical central court: McEnroe, Edberg, Agassi, Lendl,… and the list goes on. And to witness these glorious talents from the comfort of the presidential lodge, you could spot illustrious tennis fans such as King Leopold III, Baudouin I, and prestigious families such as the Solvay. The only two legends which haven’t played here are Sampras and Borg,” Elseneer concedes.
All members’ tennis clothing must be at least 80% white.
The Royal Tennis Club of Belgium was built in 1954 – along five storey’s of parking spaces below it – by “La Compagnie Immobilière du Congrès”, which belonged to “La Banque de Bruxelles” (later known as BBL and now taken over by ING), under the impulse of the count Jean-Pierre de Launoit and the expertise of Philippe Washer, one of Belgium’s best tennis players at the time. The later wanted a classy winter club which had the same feeling as if you were at Wimbledon. To that end, much of the English venerable club’s style and philosophy were replicated. The courts’ only colour is green, and there is no advertising to be seen, except for the logo of the club’s now obsolete sponsor, “Donnay”. The superb lacquered wood and copper tennis poles were brought in directly from Wimbledon’s dead stock. The dressing room’s lockers are inch-exact replicas of those found in the vicinity of the All England Lawn Tennis Club. And as an ultimate tribute to the sports tradition, all members’ tennis clothing must be at least 80% white.
The sense of being in a “club” in its most traditional of English meaning is emphasized not only by the home-like feel of the bar, lounge, and hand-painted dining room – which all have birds-eye views on the courts – but most importantly by the warmth and kindness of the ever-present Elseneer family. “When we took over the club in 1978 it was basically loosing money. There were three secretaries, two locker rooms concierges, several cooks, a butler, a barman, and two waiters. The fixed costs were astronomical.” Today, apart from an external cook, they run the club entirely by themselves and live in a flat right above it. Gilbert’s many jobs go from handling the managerial aspect of the club and dispensing tennis lessons to his life-long clients to cording rackets in his little in-house shop with utmost attention. His wife on the other hand manages the administration and catering. “It is the only way to make the club financially viable. We don’t get paid for our managerial and administrative activities, our salary comes exclusively from my tennis lessons and my wife’s employee status. The benefits from the club are directly invested in maintaining it in its pristine vintage state. We’re not rich, but we’re not loosing money either”, he concludes.
There are some things that money cannot buy.
Indeed, there is little doubt that money is only secondary to Elseneer’s passion for the game of tennis and his club, considering he is virtually sitting on golden eggs that are only waiting to be latched. Every year he receives mind-boggling offers from investors and promoters to buy-out the highly coveted acres the club is sitting on. And every year the offers climb. He is well aware that instead of renting three huge tennis court’s for 10€/hour a piece, they could easily be replaced by hundreds of parking space that would rack up the cash pile. But for Gilbert, it is a different story. The club is his life and he loves it dearly. He sees the place as a high-quality working tool in the center of Brussels. A place where he can live to its fullest his unwavering passion for tennis and lead a happy life. There are some things that money cannot buy. And Gilbert, even though he could be a millionaire, is as happy as a man can be.
There is however, a hint of nostalgia when Gilbert speaks of the club’s glory days. It is true that not many champions can be spotted running on the courts anymore, nor are any important tournaments hosted here. But these let-downs are the inevitable side effects of the incredible level of professionalization tennis has underwent in the last 30 years. The Royal Tennis Club of Belgium was built at a time when the country’s best players were in fact amateurs, the tournaments prize-money small and sponsorships a barely heard-of concept. While it also used to be the winter club of choice for many members of the very select Royal Leopold Club and many other outdoor tennis clubs, the invention and popularization of the pressurized bubble also rendered obsolete the need for an indoor-only club. That is, the era, when most clients were regulars and the club part of their social life, has given way to a more motley fauna composed of locals and expats which don’t hang around too long after their three sets.
There’s this atmosphere kneaded with tradition and elegance that today can only be found in classy golf clubs.
But the relative decay of the club compared to its prestigious past does not curb its owner enthusiasm for it by an inch. Even in the most extreme weather, the pristine courts stay dry and the air pure and healthy. And there’s also this atmosphere kneaded with tradition and elegance that today can only be found in classy golf clubs. And when he’ll retire, Gilbert (who is now 74 years-old), knows he can count on his son, Gilles, a former tennis world champion turned professional trainer, to maintain the club’s magic and unique soul.