Craig LeMoult
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Platform tennis draws winter fans

(Published in the Chicago Tribune and New York Resident)

Craig LeMoult
Columbia News Service

Kerri Delmonico stood at the service line, arched her back and sliced a perfect serve that caught the line on the other side of the net.

Her opponent, Winnie Hatch, met the serve with a forehand lob that landed well within the court, but when the ball's topspin kicked up, the ball did something that you will never see at the U.S. Open. It hit a wall of chicken wire.

The idea of being caged up within four chicken wire walls on a Sunday afternoon in January may seem like an unusual form of punishment. But for thousands of mostly wealthy, often middle-age enthusiasts across the country, it's the setting for an increasingly popular, if obscure, winter sport--platform tennis.

While it may not have the international appeal of, say, curling, this winter game--also known as paddle tennis or simply paddle--is a rare breed of outdoor competition that can be played anywhere a 60-by-30-foot court will fit. It is best played in temperatures at which anyone not on skis would prefer to be inside. And while you won't see any teams bouncing off chicken wire walls at this year's Winter Olympic Games in Turin, you can still get tickets to see Delmonico and her partner, Aila Main, defend their national title at the platform tennis national championship in Chicago this March.

The rules of platform tennis are almost identical to tennis, except the court is a quarter of the size of a standard tennis court, and it is made of aluminum. Players get only one shot at a serve, and the ball is fair if played off the chicken wire walls. The ball is similar to a tennis ball, but slightly smaller and without the seams. The stringless racquet is a lightweight metal paddle dotted with pencil-size holes.

“My friends are like, ‘Oh, my God, it's outdoor Ping-Pong!'” said Nancy Budde, who teaches the game in Cincinnati and plays up to five hours a day.

“Once people do it, they really enjoy it,” she said.

In fact, more than a few people are enjoying it, according to David Kjeldsen, CEO of Viking Athletics, which manufactures platform tennis paddles and other equipment. He estimates that 15,000 paddles are sold each year. Viking, which makes almost every platform tennis ball sold, expects to sell around 175,000 this year. That may seem like a lot, but Kjeldsen estimates that by comparison, a million tennis balls are sold every day.

Still, the growth of the game is remarkable considering that it started as a backyard project by two friends. Fessenden Blanchard and James Cogswell, neighbors in Scarsdale, N.Y., came up with the idea in 1928 when they were looking for a fun activity to provide some exercise in the winter months. They started with the platform, which was built on their adjoining yards, and soon installed chicken wire to keep the balls from rolling down into the street.

“At one point the ball stuck in the chicken wire,” recalled 79-year-old Molly Blanchard Ware, who was just 2 years old when her father invented the game. “And I don't know if this is more apocryphal or true, but my father ran around to the outside and swatted the ball and it landed on the other side of the net.”

The friends decided to continue playing off the wire walls, securing the game's fate as a cross between tennis, squash and, one might say, a more dignified version of cage fighting.

The often freezing temperatures may scare some off, but paddle players say it's the only way to play. Gary Kasner, who plays at the Flagship Health Club in Eden Prarie, Minn., has hit the courts when the temperature was 10 degrees below zero.

“If someone calls and says it's too cold to play, they might not be invited back for a while," he said.

The small court makes for a fast game, meaning that players quickly heat up, and many games can start to resemble a striptease as players lose layers between sets. To keep the ball from losing its bounce in the cold, some Minnesota clubs use birdhouse-like boxes with lightbulbs as incubators. In Milwaukee, players sometimes pop the ball into a microwave for about 20 seconds.

To keep snow and ice at bay, many courts are heated from underneath. At a national qualifying tournament in Short Hills, N.J., in early February, players moved through clouds of steam rising from the heated aluminum courts. Dozens of fans and players stood on the club's covered balcony, drinking beer and watching Dave Keevins of Chicago advance to the semifinals of the tournament.

“It's a great cure for cabin fever,” Keevins said. “I'd have moved out of Chicago years ago if it weren't for paddle.”

Overwhelmingly a country club game, platform tennis is popular in the wealthier suburbs of cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Denver, but the bulk of the players are in the Northeast, where packs of SUVs ferry players to tournaments in the ritzier towns in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.

The small court limits the amount of running, making it more a game of strategy than endurance, which is attractive to middle-age athletes who may not be able to cover a tennis court the way they used to. An unofficial rule of the game calls for teams to have a beer--or the occasional Gatorade--after a match.

“It's the culture of the sport; the people who play, play hard, and are out to have a good time,” paddle player Mark Kellstrom said at a Greenwich, Conn., tournament.

The American Platform Tennis Association, an 8,000-member organization, is trying to broaden the appeal of the game by establishing municipal courts in towns around the country and holding clinics and exhibitions where courts already exist. But few municipalities have welcomed the idea of spending the roughly $50,000 it costs to build a court.

The American Platform Tennis Association wants to build a hall of fame in the town of Scarsdale. But don't look for an Olympic bid just yet. Platform tennis would have to first become a truly international sport. Right now, there are an estimated 11 courts in Europe, and some of those are at American embassies.

And all of the Winter Olympic sports are either on snow or ice, so the heated platforms would have to go.

Paddle hockey, anyone?