It's a hit!
Paddle may seem like the odd man out of sports…but devotees know better
photograph jessica reeves vandervoort
One can’t help being suspicious of a sport that takes place in an aluminum cage, exists in only a few pockets throughout the country, often occurs on dark winter nights, and occasionally is played while drinking beer. It falls somewhere between squash and tennis and can sound like far-off thunder during a particularly hard-fought point. Despite the sport’s oddities, it is taken seriously by the eighty-four teams that comprise today’s Fairfield County Platform Tennis League. “We have over 1,000 league players,” says Board President Scott Smith.
Today’s match is between New Canaan and Rowayton (Darien, of course, has its own teams, too). Gary Squires of New Canaan arrives at the Rowayton courts first. Squires is royalty in this sport. Not only is he the paddle pro at the fabled Fox Meadow and member and pro of New Canaan’s Lake Club Division 1 team (pros can play on teams in Divisions 1 and 2), he is also the son of Richard “Dick” Squires. Before his death in 2003, Dick was a three-time national champion and wrote the definitive book on the game, How To Play Platform Tennis. He was also a Rowayton team member; a memorial bench rests beside his hometown courts. Gary is nonchalant about his pedigree as he carefully tapes his racket and fuels ups with a mug of coffee.
Next up, Greg Brasher. He’s president of the Rowayton Platform Tennis Association; established in 1966, it is one of the oldest paddle associations in the area. His father, Alan, was a national champion and president of the association; his mother, Pat, was a long-time board member. Brasher oversees eight men’s teams and two women’s teams. “When the league made the switch to aluminum courts years ago,” he says, “all of the members came and tore down the wooden ones. We recently fixed up the warming hut using donations that came directly from the players.” Nostalgia yielded to the advantages of heated court floors.
Brasher’s doubles partner is Troy Pinto. Pinto is a paddle convert; which is to say, he started as a tennis player, like some other players here. He still teaches tennis with the Greater Stamford Tennis Association but finds paddle to be a good fit as he gets older. “I gravitated toward paddle because it’s a sport in which I am still able to improve,” he says.
Rob Hutchinson, who is teamed with Squires today, says, “There is a learning curve for even the best tennis players. Guys with high-level racket skills seem to figure it out pretty quick, though.”
The court is a quarter the size of a tennis court but the net is nearly the same height; this creates a challenging aspect of the game: A player with a good serve is invaluable—unlike tennis, there is no second try.
The players’ good-natured banter and strategy planning cease as soon as the game rockets off with a perfect serve. One hears a steady roll of corrections like, “Not so hard!” and self-directed cursing.
The ball is played off the screen that surrounds the court, so there is an element of geometry. Players have to account for spin, as in tennis, and be able to anticipate at what angle the ball will come off the screen. Hutchinson is a classic paddle player; it’s evident in his short, choppy shots, which lack grace and finesse but clearly get the job done. “Tennis guys tend to look so much better than the pure paddle players,” says Randy Howie, a Lake Club teammate, with a smile. “But they’re not necessarily winning.”
A set can last fifteen to thirty minutes. Teams play best-of-three sets, scored first to six games, and win by two or a tiebreaker at six-all. Each team plays eight players, for a total of four matches each Saturday. “I know the excitement is hard to contain,” says a player from another court as he leaves his court to track down an errant ball.
Hutchinson and Squires win. After the match the players review the scores, which are reported to the captains, and Pinto leaves the court to go to Greenwich Country Club for the Eastern States Singles Platform Tennis Championship.
Two Division 3 squads arrive to play. Greg played Division 3 last year, so the guys give him a hard time for leaving right after his match. It’s good-natured kidding. When he is out of earshot, former teammate Marty Ehrlich says, “Greg is a driving force here. He’s done so much to upgrade our program and facilities.” Paddle is a small world, even if a little quirky to outsiders.