The rocklike ball rifles through the air at well over 140 miles per hour. The walls and floor are made of grim, gray concrete.
The game is called racquets — a cousin of squash, first played in the debtors prisons of 18th-century England — and the risk of injury is substantial.
Just ask Tom Billings. One of the top-ranked players in the world, Billings was in Philadelphia last month for the U.S. Open of the sport — little known on these shores, but more popular in his native England. The 24-year-old was on his way to victory in the semifinal match when suddenly — POW! Billings was smacked in the mouth by an errant swing of his opponent’s wooden racquet.
Blood gushed forth. Billings collapsed. Spectators rose in alarm.
Let us now pause to stipulate the obvious: there is no such thing as a good place to have one’s front teeth knocked out, and that is the gruesome fate that befell our man Billings. But because the match took place in the sumptuous confines of the Racquet Club of Philadelphia, where the membership rolls boast a healthy supply of medical professionals, expert assistance was near at hand.
Someone remembered that club member Kenny Soffer, a dentist with 28 years of experience, was playing squash on an adjacent court, and he was immediately summoned. Another member, maxillofacial surgeon Joseph Spera, happened to be watching a live stream of the fateful match and rushed to the scene from his home in Old City.
“If such a thing can ever be lucky,” Billings now says, “I’m extremely lucky.”
Of course, he did not feel that way at first.
Oak panels in the locker room
Historians of racquets have traced the sport’s origin to London in the mid-1700s, when gentlemen who could not pay their debts were sent to prison. Some brought tennis rackets with them to pass the time, knocking a ball off prison walls, as Charles Dickens wrote in The Pickwick Papers.
By the mid-1800s, the game had migrated to tonier surroundings, with courts at Oxford, Cambridge, and private clubs, but injury remained part of the game.
One early member of Philadelphia’s club, Walter Rogers Furness, lost an eye while playing, according to a 1903 treatise titled Racquets, Tennis, and Squash.
“But, lest young players should be frightened from taking up or continuing the game, he still plays with one eye, and plays keenly and successfully,” author Eustace Miles wrote. “It is partly owing to his plucky persistence that Philadelphia has the most flourishing Racquet-Club in America.”
The club, then in a “modest” structure at 923 Walnut St., was replaced in 1907 with the current five-story palace on 16th Street between Walnut and Locust, designed by Horace Trumbauer. There are now seven courts for squash, one for another game called court tennis, and one for racquets — coated in fast-paced, charcoal-hued concrete.
One of just a few dozen courts in the world, it is considered a championship-caliber facility, and was selected to host the U.S. Open from March 7 to 11. Ten of the world’s 12 top-ranked players were on hand.
We now rejoin the prostrate Billings, holding a hand to his bloody mouth as opponent Alex Duncliffe-Vines watched in horror. Club pro Robert Whitehouse worried that Billings had lost an eye, as did the athlete’s family and friends, watching a live stream of the event in England.
“The blood was coming out like out of a quart of milk,” Whitehouse said.
Up strode Soffer, the dentist. He took one look at the teeth, which had been knocked back against the roof of Billings’ mouth, and announced they had to be pushed back into place immediately. The longer he waited, the less chance they could be saved. Any delay could mean blood clots and other complications, preventing a good fit.
“It was a little nerve-wracking,” Billings said. “I thought it was just some random guy.”
Soffer spoke to the ailing athlete calmly and helped him downstairs to the locker room. No time for gloves. The dentist washed his hands and placed the teeth back in their sockets.
“We were in a nice, clean locker room,” Soffer said. (Clean it certainly is, and well appointed — with a plush, burgundy carpet and oak-paneled dressing stalls.)
Back on the court
By then Spera, the maxillofacial surgeon, was on the scene, and the two helped Billings walk a block to Soffer’s Center City office, in the Medical Arts Building.
“My kit was nicely stained with a lot of blood,” Billings said. “It was quite amusing walking through the streets of Philadelphia in my whites, or not-so-whites.”
Spera, whose practice is in Wilmington, gently repaired the lacerations layer by layer, suturing first the lip muscle and then the outer layers of skin. Soffer, who also practices in Clementon, then adhered the front teeth to the adjacent teeth on either side, using a gluelike dental composite to support them until the ligaments could heal and secure the teeth to the jawbone.
And then came the stunner: Billings said he wanted to get back on the court and finish his match. Stiff upper lip, and all that.
The dentist and the surgeon felt his condition was stable, but still they asked: Are you sure?
He was, and the match resumed less than two hours after the injury. Already up one set to none, Billings went on to win the second set and the third, beating Duncliffe-Vines to claim a spot in Sunday’s finals. What’s more, he stayed on the court Saturday for another semifinal match in doubles. (On Sunday, his sutures still holding up nicely, Billings lost the singles final to top-ranked James Stout but won the doubles championship with partner Richard Owen.)
Later, back home in England, Billings’ dentist said it was the best reinsertion of teeth he had ever seen. Since then, Billings has undergone one root canal procedure to make sure the teeth are secure, with another scheduled for next week. His teeth have started to darken, as the nerves were severed by the racquet’s blow, but that can be covered with veneers.
“It was one of those times when you feel really good about being a dentist,” Soffer said. (He added a helpful tip for anyone who should lose a tooth: carry the tooth in your mouth or in a cup of milk until you can get to a dentist. Don’t put it in tap water, as that can damage the root surface.)
The dental misadventure remains the talk of Soffer’s fellow club members, newly reminded that they play a risky sport. In addition to steering clear of an opponent’s racquet, a player must be wary of the ball, made of tightly wound filament like the core of a golf ball.
“It’s insane,” club president Jonathan Auerbach said.
But the game continues, with members dressing in the required white apparel even for pickup games. If they spill blood on those regulation whites, help is probably not far away.