neither a Chinese soup nor an exotic palm. It is instead the generic name of a
sport, a follow-the-bouncing-ball-kind of sport, a stylish, whizzing, often
mean and exhausting sport that steams the passions of millions of Latins who
pursue it. In the United States perhaps only two dozen people play the game,
but, significantly, among them are several of the noted physicians and surgeons
fronton was born, its exact roots buried in the romance of the Basque country,
that mountainous region between France and Spain famed for smugglers and for
such liberal use of garlic in stews that to eat one is to be noticed for at
least seven days. It is said that a medieval Basque priest invented fronton by
throwing a ball against the cobblestoned wall of his church and when it bounced
back at him he picked up a stick to intercept it and kept the volley going.
Out of that grew
the elements of the game: a ball, a racket and a court—which is called a
fronton—to replace the church wall. Walls tower 30 feet fore and aft and down
one side of the fronton. The other side is left open, giving the court the look
of an elongated prison yard that was not finished because of lack of funds.
Over the years
numerous variations on the theme of ball and stick appeared, all played within
the cloisters of the fronton. These include jai alai, paleta, memo (a cruel,
gloveless and frankly masochistic form of handball that hurts so much a player
can attempt it only once each week), and frontenis.
leisurely recreation of the aristocracy, frontenis dramatically changed when
the common folk took it up in Mexico after World War II, making it as different
as jumping in the pool is from plunging off the cliffs of Acapulco. A new ball
was developed of hard, hollow rubber that is about midway in size between a
tennis ball and a handball and is possessed of more tricks than a bagful of
jumping beans. A regulation tennis racket, loosely strung, is used to whack the
devilish object against the front wall, followed by attempts to pick it up and
fire it back as it ricochets against the side and rear walls.
The Mexicans are
the sport's definitive players, traditionally its world champions. There are
4,000 frontons in Mexico City alone, and the country has at least a million and
a half competitors.
In the U.S. there
is only one frontenis court and only one avid, regular player—the fellow who
owns the only court. The fact that the first, possibly annual, North American
Fronton Sports Championships were held recently on American soil, on three warm
and pleasant days in Houston, is attributable to the zest of this court owner,
a man who makes his considerable living poking around inside people's
Diethrich is 35 according to his Texas driver's license, but he sometimes has
to show it in a bar when he speaks one of the few Spanish words he knows,
"Margarita." The kids in his neighborhood come around now and then and
ask his wife if he can come out and play. Nonetheless, he is one of the
nation's best heart surgeons, a man who has done successful heart transplants
and a junior associate of the esteemed Dr. Michael DeBakey.
sportsman, Diethrich seizes each day and squeezes it tighter than a blood
pressure cuff. He drives his Porsche on Houston's freeways as if they were the
flats of Le Mans, plunges down the runs at Aspen as if the lifts were always
about to close, and often has the score of whatever game is on the radio
brought into his operating room at night during emergency cutting and
In 1965 Diethrich
went to Mexico for a post-operative check of a prominent patient who had been
to Houston for vascular surgery. Diethrich discovered that the patient, a
former minister of finance, was not only well but playing frontenis. The
surgeon was invited to try the game. "I decided on the spot that I had to
build a fronton," he remembers. He returned to Houston and began looking
for a house to buy, neglecting to tell his wife Gloria that the reason he
required a spacious sideyard was to build this three-sided play box.