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Fronton is 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 of Houston.
Centuries ago 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.
Once the 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 hearts.
Dr. Edward 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.
A passionate 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 sewing.
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.