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.
“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 email@example.com.