Every man has his Holy Grail. Mine was a racquet held in the hand of a truculent priest some four centuries ago. I had heard about the ball player of Yagul in southern Mexico from colleagues in archaeology, but it was only after several trips south of the border that I decided to flush him out. No one else seems to have bothered to do so.

As a racquet-sport enthusiast, I had familiarized myself with what might be called Mayan pelota at sites like Chichen Itza and Mitia (with its fine Zapotec courts and unique Mixtec friezes). It made for some pretty fast serve-and-volley stuff in its day: This was a game apparently played with hand and hip off short steps which most tourists mistake for ancient bleachers (the legend that a human skull was used for a ball is apocryphal). While one ball court soon gets to look like another, even after a few hundred years, Yagul boasts the largest court yet unearthed. Plus it has a racquet. The racquet.

So, after renting the Burtons’ rather tatty house back of Puerto Vallarta for a while, my wife and I slid off south down the achingly endless Pan-Am highway to Oaxaca, leaving the pretty hummingbird that took breakfast with us to its daily ration of Chivers marmalade. Even including jaw-cracking Tlacochahuaya, with its 16th-century Dominican church which the Indians painted over uninhibitedly with flowers and stars, suns and moons, Oaxaca is the ultimate in peasant baroque, hardly a centimeter of its Santo Domingo Church free from ardent decoration, not to mention all those wounded saints reclining most mortally on their litters.

Indeed, as my pilgrimage took me southward to Tehuantepec, gloriously Indian-decorated old churches drifted in their decay in the plains. The sequoia or sabino beside the church at Tule is said to be 3,000 years old, nearly as ancient as my racquet. We drove cautiously along the “beaten” road—Jesus Hernandez died here 60 years ago, I noticed on an askew sidetrack shrine.

As we descended, only a minimum of Hollywood Mexico, long cured by realism, overtook us: palm trees drunk with sim, as the old song had it; an Indian matron with a high huipil or blazingly white starched headdress; a hoop-earringed cantina girl, all kiss curls and ringlets, inviting us under thatching to piles of tortillas and a sign for Hat Docs (phonetic franks); a Warner Baxter cop with pearl-handled pistols, in the plural.

Examining the lace work on a Virgin at Tlacolula, I hear what appears to be some girls giggling behind a chain-mail door leading into a side chapel with goldleaf churrigueresque at its most perfect. I’m wrong. It is a heavyset Indian woman on her knees, wet lashes pouring out some sorrow to God.

Finally, Yagul. I embrace the entrance column as directed and am told I’ll live another seven years as a consequence. Past some cruciform tombs, I am directed to a shabby mini-museum annexed to a sleepy hacienda called La Sorpresa. I am shown shrunken heads and flayed faces, some of which are the size of small beads. The proprietor is slumped over his counter, semi-conscious. He allows me, however, to pull out from under an adjacent table the neglected stone slab I have sought—the first racquet handler in the Western hemisphere.

Bearing the outlines of a fierce Zapotec, ecclesiastically robed, the has relief shows to my joy a well-gripped racquet (Western or continental?) with a ball awaiting impact at the top. The shape of the racquet is akin to that used today in court or real tennis, fast vanishing as a sport. I played that code, with its dedans, tambour, and chases, at Oxford and was horrified to hear recently that its court, one of only a relative few extant, has been chopped up into little cubicles worthy of some motel. That court was 400 years old. Shakespeare refers to the game: “Tennis balls, my liege?” asks a page.

It is thus enormously exciting for me to meet that sunny presence from the athletic past, since it links us in a common sporting pursuit across the centuries. The difference is that the priesthood did the playing then, and I’d wager umpires’ decisions went uncontested, since the sacrificial knife was the arbiter. In any case, though neither played in heavy robes, I doubt that McEnroe or Rodman would have disputed that striding, frowning figure from the past. I duly took photos, but the furrows in the stone did not respond dramatically to shadowing. Finally, I searched in vain for stringing. After all, there must have been such in that long-handled racquet. I wondered what those of another century or so would think of the player-priest, or whether he would gradually disintegrate under a Coca-Cola sign.