To hear participants talking about one of the region’s fastest growing sports, you’d think platform tennis was a typical beer-league hockey contest, with its thinly veiled promise of a night out with the boys. Played outdoors during the winter months on heated courts, the game offers a super workout and, perhaps more importantly, a boisterous post-match barbecue and beers.
But this scaled-down version of tennis stands on its own merits. Players boast about how easy the sport is to pick up, the opportunity to get outdoors and exercise regardless of the weather, and the game’s social aspects.
All of which helps explain why the game’s popularity is booming.
“Paddle is about to explode in the Greater Boston area,” said Paul Fairchild, an Australian native and racket pro at the Essex County Club in Manchester-by-the-Sea. Fairfield said in the past two years, the Boston area has gone from one coach — Dan McCormick at Eastern Yacht Club in Marblehead — to five coaches: Fairchild, Todd Hiscox at Myopia Hunt in Hamilton; Matt Porter at Brae Burn Country Club in Newton, and Johan du Randt at the Weston Golf Club.
The Greater Boston Platform Tennis League, which began in 1978 with five clubs, has expanded twice to its present roster of 12 clubs. Six of them — Myopia, Essex, Eastern, the North Andover Country Club, Cape Ann Platform Tennis in Gloucester, and the league’s reigning champions, the Gilfoy Platform Tennis Club of Billerica — are north of Boston.
“This bubble was blowing up and blowing up, getting ready to take off, because it has become very, very popular in other parts of the country,” said McCormick, the racket pro at Eastern Yacht Club. “I mean crazy popular. We might have 500 men playing in this Greater Boston Paddle Tennis League, but out in Chicago, they might have 3,000.
“People ask, ‘If it’s such a great sport, why don’t people play it in the summer?’ I tell them there’s a lot of great things to do outdoors in the summer,” said McCormick, a former salesman for Prince Sports. “In the wintertime, you’ve got to get in the car and drive two hours to enjoy the outdoors. This is a great outdoor activity in cold, dank, miserable, dark weather. You get out, breathe fresh air, and get a good workout. That’s number one.”
“Number two is the social aspect of it,” said the 52-year-old Ipswich resident. “If you and I and two other guys are playing on a great big tennis court, we’re not very close to the other guys. But on this tiny paddle court, you can hear everybody breathe, and every little comment. Everybody is in on the same joke. You’re all socially, visually, and verbally interacting in a much smaller area.”
According to the American Platform Tennis Association, the game originated in Scarsdale, N.Y., in 1928, when two enterprising tennis buffs built a raised wooden court to extend their season. James Cogswell and Fessenden Blanchard surrounded their court with wire fencing to prevent the balls from getting lost in adjacent snowbanks. Soon afterward, they decided to incorporate the fencing, allowing balls that ricocheted off the wire to remain in play.
Today, platform tennis features a court half the size of a traditional tennis court (30 by 60 feet, instead of 60 by 120) with heaters underneath to prevent snow and rain from icing over the playing surface.
The ball is made of sponge rubber, the paddles are solid, made of a composite material perforated with holes (for aerodynamics), and the net is slightly lower than in tennis.
The court is surrounded by 12-foot-high fences of heavy-gauge wire, and shots bouncing off the wire can be played, provided the ball doesn’t hit the ground a second time. Players are allowed a single serve (as opposed to two tries in tennis), and “let” serves — when the ball ticks the top of the net — must be played (similar to volleyball). Though officially known as “platform’’ tennis, it is often referred to as “paddle” in the Northeast.
Foremost among the game’s attributes is that almost anyone can take to it fairly quickly. Players with a background in a racket sport, such as tennis or squash, may have an initial advantage, but many players can compensate with hustle and quickness.
“In tennis, you really need to have nice strokes to be a good player,” said McCormick. “In paddle tennis, you can get by with a lot of athleticism. There’s more of an opportunity to play with players of different abilities and different groups, and still really enjoy the game.”
It’s also considered a true lifetime sport because the learning curve is continuous, and the smaller court is generally easier on the joints.Continued...