“It’s an easy sport to learn, but a very difficult sport to master,” said Tim Everitt, 46, an investment banker from Manchester-by-the-Sea who competes at the Essex County Club. “It’s almost in direct contrast to squash, which is a very, very difficult sport to learn. It’s frustrating for a beginner to get through the first six months of squash. But a 10-year-old can pick up a paddle.”
The game’s popularity accelerated when former players on the pro tennis tour, like South African native du Randt (currently the country’s top-ranked player), started playing with a paddle, and winning. At a recent national-level tournament hosted by Essex County Club, the eight semifinalists were “two Brazilian tennis pros, two Argentine tennis pros, two South African tennis pros, one Australian, and one guy from Duxbury,” Everitt said.
“I play a lot of regional tournaments and national tournaments — at the back of the bus, to be clear — but name another sport where I can play against the best player in the game. I can play a match against Johan, and I can face him in the first round. It’s not a very broad crowd, but it’s enthusiastic and growing in the area.”
While league and tournament competition showcases the top talent in the area, the sport’s appeal cuts across all levels.
“It doesn’t take very long for anybody of any athletic ability to get pretty good, and good enough to really enjoy it,” said Whitney Shepard, 52, of Hamilton, a member at Myopia Hunt. “It’s outside, in the winter. But unlike skiing or skating, you’re not dependent on whether there’s snow or ice, and the whole family can get out there.
“I’m really a recreational player, said Shepard. “I play with some women who are really good, so the game is fast and exciting. But I also just play with my husband and my family, with a wide range of abilities, and we can still have an amazing experience.”
Last, but certainly not least, is the sport’s party atmosphere. Wilson Sporting Goods has even introduced a Blitz paddle that features a bottle opener built into the handle. Matches are known as much for the post-action camaraderie over a grill as the friendly competition on the court.
“We’ve got an excuse to go drink beers with the guys on Monday nights,” said Everitt with a laugh.
Barriers to participation remain, however. Most are financial, as the local game is played almost exclusively at private or semiprivate clubs.
“The sport will really take off when a few towns realize we have long winters up here, and this is a good way to raise a little bit of revenue and keep people healthy and having fun outdoors during six-month winters,” said Everitt. “The court down in New Canaan, Conn., at Waveny Park, is one of the most beautiful paddle huts I’ve ever seen, and that’s a publicly funded court.”
Clubs like Cape Ann and Gilfoy (affectionately known as the Truck Stop), which are paddle-specific clubs and charge annual fees, are far less expensive than most private clubs. However, open-membership clubs such as the Manchester Athletic Club are planning to build courts.
“The MAC isn’t the only one catching wind’’ of the sport, said Todd Carpenter, the club’s racket pro. “I’d like to see other health clubs, or even communities, do it.
“I’m trying to offer it as not only something for our existing membership, but I would also love to be able to make it accessible to the entire North Shore community as well.”
Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.