2012-01-19 / News

Platform tennis catches on with members at Conanicut Yacht Club

The 80-year-old sport is played by people of all ages and in sunshine or snow

Lisa Kirby slams a ball behind the net while partner Betty Kinder covers the backcourt. The duo was playing platform tennis – a year-round sport that is often referred to as paddle – at the Conanicut Yacht Club. 
PHOTO BY MARGO SULLIVAN Lisa Kirby slams a ball behind the net while partner Betty Kinder covers the backcourt. The duo was playing platform tennis – a year-round sport that is often referred to as paddle – at the Conanicut Yacht Club. PHOTO BY MARGO SULLIVAN Isabel Coyle set up at the net and waited to pounce on the ball as her foursome from Jamestown matched wits over a game of platform tennis.

This winter made ideal conditions for platform tennis, called paddle for short, but Coyle, her doubles partner Linda Brown and their opponents, Lisa Kirby and Betty Kinder, said they would have played no matter the weather.

“This winter’s been nice,” Kirby said. “But paddle keeps you warm.”

Tuesday morning, weather seemed about the last thing on Kirby’s mind, as she zipped back for a shot into the wall at the Conanicut Yacht Club court.

In fact, paddle is a sport for all seasons, according to Skippers’ tennis coach Jacques Faulise. Even when snow does fall – and the snow has snubbed Jamestown and Newport since April 1, 2011 – the heaters under the aluminum courts melt it. And the courts also feature snow boards around the perimeter. The boards lift, so cleanup crews can sweep away any accumulation.

The players are hardy, too, he said. At the Newport Country Club, where he teaches lessons, people play all day long, regardless of weather. Paddle players handle changing conditions by dressing in layers, and the exercise inevitably warms them up.

“It’s invigorating,” he said.

Paddle started in the 1930s in Scarsdale, N.Y., after some friends from the Fox Meadow Tennis Club decided they wanted to keep their tennis game going through the winter. There were no indoor courts in their area, so they adapted a deck in one of their back yards. They put a net in the middle of the deck, started playing and designed solutions to each problem that developed. When the ball squirted off the deck and into the snow, they came up with the concept of a screen – or chicken wire – around the court. The rest quickly evolved.

A platform tennis court is onethird the size of a regular tennis court but laid out the same way. The net is the same height, and like tennis, only one bounce on the floor is allowed. But paddle tennis has a perimeter wall set 10 feet out of bounds, and balls that bounce off the screen can be played.

Faulise said the points last a long time because of the bouncy ball and the screen.

According to Faulise, paddle is scored like tennis, and it takes about 90 minutes to play a set. Most paddle players come from tennis or squash.

The big difference between paddle and tennis is the serve, he said. There’s no second serve in paddle, and that takes the ace out of the game pretty effectively.

“Men and women can play together because the serve is neutralized,” said Faulise. “There’s nothing like a really hard, ace type of serve.”

The other big difference is paddle doesn’t have any strings. It’s made of layers of balsa wood shot through with holes. The surface is gritty. Many people compare the paddle to a table tennis paddle, but the platform tennis paddle is 17 inches long.

Faulise is the state’s only certifi ed paddle pro. He teaches platform tennis in Newport and Barrington. He also travels around New England giving clinics and teaching classes at private clubs.

He said platform tennis, which peaked in the 1970s, is undergoing a resurgence of interest. Some communities, such as New Haven, are building public courts.

But the main growth is coming at private clubs, which already has courts built and now are opening them to nonmembers during their offseason. According to Faulise, it’s been a boon for clubs.

A court costs about $50,000 to construct, including the aluminum surface, the heaters, the walls and outdoor lights. Upkeep is minor. Every nine or 10 years, the courts need a paint job. (The paint is flecked with grit to make the ball stick.) Otherwise, the courts are maintenance-free.

Kinder started playing paddle when the Conanicut Yacht Club built the platform tennis courts, around 1997. (Former club pro Roger Chase was the driving force behind platform tennis in Jamestown, Faulise said.) Kirby is the relative newcomer with five years experience. She plays a couple of times a week.

Brown and Coyle have put eight or nine years into the sport. Brown took it up because she likes outdoor sports

“I’m not a very good tennis player,” she said. But when her friends protested that Brown is very competitive, she laughed.

“I am very competitive,” Brown said. “But you can enjoy this at all levels.”

And at all ages.

For example, the players pointed to a foursome of 80-year-old women who play at the Conanicut Yacht Club.

Actually, the only age group that really struggles with platform tennis, Faulise said, is the toddlers. The small rubber ball is too bouncy, he said, and tends to go over the little children’s heads. So, there’s no tiny tot league in paddle, but the sport does sponsor junior championship tournaments for youngsters up to age 12.

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