Above: Amy Shay
Darien, New Canaan and Rowayton are “paddle” central, home to more than sixty courts in a ten-mile radius. Thousands of paddle players fill our courts days, nights and weekends from October through May at community hangouts like Waveny Park, Weed Beach and the Rowayton Platform Tennis Association (RPTA), as well as in private clubs such as Wee Burn and the Country Club of New Canaan, to name a few. Indeed, platform tennis might just be one of the few sporting activities around in which the country-club set comfortably comingles with community folk. If you’re new to the sport, here are a few things you should know.
PATIENCE AND POSITION
Platform tennis is played on an aluminum court a quarter of the size of a traditional tennis court, often at night under the lights, regardless of plunging temperatures. A “screen” or “cage” of chicken wire surrounds the court and killer shots that would win the point in traditional tennis simply bounce up into the wire then flutter back down to a waiting racquet. Paddle is mostly a doubles game, and with little downtime spent chasing after errant balls it’s ideal for kids and families, as well as players of different levels. In platform tennis, strategy, patience and positioning trump power and speed. Many tips and techniques can be gleaned from an easy chair, simply reading and watching.
“In traditional tennis, one of the objectives is to hit a winner. In platform tennis, the objective is not to hit a winner. It’s to not make an error,” says TOM KRATKY, who runs the Fairfield County Platform Tennis league, which counts about 1,500 players. He was chatting during a game break recently at Woodway Country Club in Darien, where he and his partner were losing, but not terribly, to pros AMY SHAY and CYNTHIA DARDIS. Shay, who is the pro at Woodway, and Dardis, who presides over paddle at the RPTA, are currently tied for first in the women’s national rankings. Kratky tries to keep up. “In platform tennis you can be a level apart and still have fun.”
Matches can get very competitive, but paddle players pride themselves on being a genial lot. Many pros play alongside amateurs, doling out advice for free and socializing afterward. And there’s plenty of time for socializing. One paddle game can last a couple of hours and while the foursome on each court battles it out, players-in-waiting tend to keep warm in the “huts,” many of which are filled with fancy furnishings and state-of-the-art appliances from which adult beverages freely flow. Some huts are home to Saturday and Sunday football games on the big-screen television, weekend socials for couples and pizza parties for kids.
PRICE IS RIGHT
Besides annual dues, the sport doesn’t cost anything to play, unless you count the cost of layer upon layer of fleece clothing, the better to ward off frostbite when the temperature drops below freezing. Paddle players don’t seem stymied by low temperatures, though, as long as they can get in a game after work or between carpools with the kids. Says ANTON MAVRIN, the pro at Wee Burn Country Club, “Who needs to pack up skis and gear and drive for hours on the weekend to get a winter workout? Paddle allows you to get your outdoor fix, be competitive at a high level, and socialize.”
BETTER WITH AGE
Mavrin was a twenty-six-year-old tennis pro when he first picked up a platform tennis racquet for a match against a player in his sixties. “I thought it was going to be over quickly, and it was, but it didn’t turn out the way I thought it would,” he says. Mavrin, who is now thirty-three, soon learned what good vets know: Like a fine wine, the game of paddle can improve with age. “As an adult you can get better,” says Shay, who at fifty years old is tied at the top tier of the rankings with players twenty years her junior. She says she has slowed down since her traditional tennis days, but her paddle game continues to improve. “I’m learning more and getting better every day.”
What’s in a Name?
Newbies take note: The game is called American platform tennis, or “paddle” for short. Don’t call it paddleball or paddle tennis. Those are different sports altogether.
Theory of Evolution
A pair of tennis-playing neighbors in Scarsdale, New York, invented platform tennis in 1928. They built their court on a platform to keep it level and ease snow-removal. Today, heating systems tend to be tucked underneath the courts. Players sometimes still need to shovel snow, but heat prevents ice from forming.
The chicest paddle accessory on area courts is literally hot, hot, hot. The $300 Calor women’s heated vest by Gyde Supply Co. comes with “microwire heating zones,” and its own battery and wall charger.
RACQUETS IN ROWAYTON
Some say soccer brought platform tennis to Rowayton. In 1965, Olympic soccer player Dick Packer moved to town and a year later his quest for four-season fitness spurred him to lead a community-wide effort to build a platform tennis court behind the library. Packer’s work and the efforts of his neighbors still stand, along with three other courts, a fancy fire pit and a new patio.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Rowayton Platform Tennis Association and while a host of national “paddle” champs have played for the RPTA over the years, the focus at the club remains fun. It’s a social gathering place for residents of all ages. Membership at the RPTA is at an all-time high—more than 600 family members play—and it’s not unusual to find three generations playing paddle together, reports Brendan O’Brien, president of the RPTA. And just like in the old days, socials welcome new members who are encouraged to play alongside the pros. Even with its community feel, the RPTA boasts “a lot of tradition,” O’Brien says. Hall of Fame paddler and former Rowaytonite Dick Squire, who won thirty-eight national championships, literally wrote the book on the game. World champ Jared Palmer hails from Rowayton, and the RPTA’s current pro, Cynthia Dardis, is co-ranked first in the country in the American Platform Tennis Association.
Want to improve your game?
The American Platform Tennis Association website, platformtennis.org, includes dozens of free videos demonstrating the finer points of spin serves, drop shots, volley tips, lob strategies, positioning and more.
Photographs – Amy Shay: contributed by Wilson; equipment: istockphoto.com © Syldavia; Cynthia Dardis workshop: Paula Winicur