Platform tennis, anyone?
While most tennis enthusiasts head inside, or south to warmer climes, when the temperatures turn cold, platform tennis aficionados follow the Yankee dictates of embracing winter, no matter how low the mercury plummets. This scaled-down version of the game — designed as an offseason alternative to tennis — is thriving in Boston’s western suburbs.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon,” said Richard Shultz, the general manager of Nashawtuc Country Club in Concord, where three outdoor platform courts are being installed. “I guess it has to do with Boston suburbia moving in that direction. It’s a younger population. If you look at the demographics, particularly in Concord, Lincoln, Sudbury, Carlisle, it is that age group — 40 to 60 with two kids — that needs those social connections. And platform provides a great opportunity for that.”
Platform tennis can be confused with paddle tennis (usually played indoors, with walls), and the term “paddle” is often used interchangeably with “platform’’ for the sport’s name. “Paddle is really a cross between platform tennis and handball,” said Shultz. “The reason this sport is called platform is that it’s literally played on these raised platforms.”
According to the American Platform Tennis Association (www.platformtennis.org), the game has its origins in Scarsdale, N.Y., in 1928, when two enterprising tennis players — James Cogswell and Fessenden Blanchard — built a wooden court to extend their season. Cogswell bought paddles and spongy balls, and the men surrounded their court with wire fencing to prevent the balls from getting lost in adjacent snowbanks. The game’s signature move, hitting the ball after it bounces off the wire mesh, was develop by accident, after Blanchard smacked a stuck ball and declared he won the point. The two men discussed the advantages of incorporating the fencing into the field of play, and decided it added another dimension to the game.
“That sort of takes power out of the game, because if you hit it really hard past me, I can run back and play it off the back wire,” said Nicholas Kondon, a Concord dentist and member of Concord Country Club, which built its first platform tennis court in 1966.
Johan du Randt, the racket sports manager at Weston Country Club and the sport’s top-ranked player (“I’m ranked No. 1,’’ he admits, but the United States “is the only place they play it, so I guess it sounds more flattering than it really is”), said the game favors tennis players, at least initially.
“Tennis is the father of all racket sports, because it pretty much has every stroke,” said the 34-year-old native of South Africa. “So if you can play tennis, you can play most other racket sports decent. It doesn’t mean you’ll be No. 1, but it translates easier to the other sports than the other sports translate to tennis.”
Kondon, however, said platform tennis is growing precisely because it has a sharp learning curve.
“I didn’t play a lot of tennis. I’m more of a golfer in the summertime,” said Kondon, captain of the Concord Country Club’s “B” team, “and I found I didn’t have to have tremendous racket skills. If you have racket skills, it’s an advantage, but you don’t have to have them to play. I’m an old lacrosse guy, and I was athletic enough, and I loved the fact that I could be competitive with it.”
The game is played on an enclosed platform half the size of a traditional tennis court (30 by 60 feet, instead of 60 by 120 feet) and typically heated from below to melt snow and ice. The ball is made of sponge rubber, the rackets are solid, made with a composite material and perforated with holes for aerodynamics, and the net is slightly lower than in tennis (34 inches at center, instead of 36).
But the rules are what really separate the two games.
The platform court is surrounded by a 12-foot-high fence of heavy-gauge latticed wire (commonly known as chicken wire), and shots off the walls can be played, provided the ball doesn’t hit the ground a second time. Players are only allowed a single serve (as opposed to two in tennis), and “let” serves — where the ball ticks the top of the net — must be played (similar to volleyball).
“It’s very forgiving to learn, but it’s complicated to master,” said Shultz. “You have the wall at the back, so you can save yourself from bad shots, but those who are proficient at it learn to use that back wall corner. If you’ve ever played squash, platform has some of the same aspects.
“If you can have ball placement in that back corner, where your opponent can’t get a racket on it, you can beat the pants off of people,” he said.
Though platform tennis is played in most parts of the country, it is most popular in the metropolitan corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston. The sport’s local rise is reflected in the growth of the Greater Boston Platform Tennis League.
“Paddle is booming in our area,” a former league commissioner, Twig Burke, states on its website, www.paddlepro.com/gbptl. “We started in 1978 with five clubs and have twice expanded the league to its present state of 12 clubs and 29 teams.”
The league is divided into two sections, with the South Division made up of six private clubs — The Country Club in Brookline, Brae Burn Country Club in West Newton, Dedham Country Club, Concord Country Club, Wellesley Country Club, and Weston Golf Club — that each field several teams. Another indication of the sport’s growing popularity is the introduction of the league’s “C” level, to complement its “A” and “B” squads.
“It’s grown big time in the last three years,” said du Randt. “That’s partly because we have a couple of good players now, and also we have some pros teaching at clubs here now, and obviously they promote the game.”
The league’s growth, with Nashawtuc Country Club in Concord expected to join next season, also reflects the game’s diversity, which helps explain it’s attraction.
“You get the A players, the really, really good ones, guys like Johan, the really elite guys, young guys who are cat-like quick, it’s almost impossible to end a point on them because they can literally get everything,” said Kondon. “Because it’s always doubles, if you put two people who can move really well together, it can make for really long points.
“On the other hand, it’s a game you can play the rest of your life, because you don’t have to cover a lot of ground,” he said. “So you can be older and still be competitive, just by virtue of knowing the angles, and knowing where the ball is going to be. A lot of times, if you can play maturely, you can make up for not having great speed or agility.”
But the competition, while robust, is almost secondary to the sport’s gregarious aspects, which include outdoor grilling and on-court banter. “There’s a certain beverage element to the sport,” said Shultz, with a conspiratorial laugh.
“I guess it’s an excuse to have a beer, but that’s what makes it social,” said du Randt. “And the other thing, the court is so small, you’re always close to each other, so you can chat and socialize easier than when the court is bigger, or in singles.”
Kondon, 50, agreed. “It’s funny, because I grew up about a mile from the Concord Country Club, and I’ve been a member all my life, but I never played until I got to be about 40 or 42, when I thought I needed something to do in the wintertime,” he said.
“At our club, and I’m sure this is true for people at other clubs, the people who play paddle, that subset of that country club, is one of the most accepting, one of the most friendly groups that you’ll meet.”Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.