Neither rain, nor sleet ...
All-weather sport of paddle tennis has a niche in Newport County
By Rick McGowan
Daily News staff
Reprinted from: http://www.newportdailynews.com/
|Steve Heath serves Thursday during a game of paddle tennis. (David Hansen/Daily News staff)
JAMESTOWN — The inclement weather Thursday afternoon meant for ideal conditions to swing a racket on an outdoor court while the American sporting world focused on indoor courts.
As the NCAA tournament in men’s basketball got under way in arenas throughout the country, a mixed doubles match amid the threat of rain and low temperatures holds sway on a platform tennis court at Conanicut Yacht Club.
“A perfect paddle day,” Evan Smith said as he looked up at the gray sky. “No sun. Forty degrees. On a day like today, you work up a sweat like you have no idea.”
Smith and partner Mary Hutchinson traded shots with Steve and Mary Heath.
“This is great winter exercise,” Smith said between points. “People love it. You can play when it’s zero. It’s a wonderful winter activity.”
Platform tennis players are the postal carriers of racquet sports.
“On a snowy day, you shovel off the snow, turn on the heater (below the deck), which melts the residue off the top,” Smith said. “It’s 15 minutes between the shoveling time and when you can go out and play.”
Platform tennis began in Scarsdale, N.Y., in 1928. There are believed to be five of these screen-enclosed courts on Aquidneck Island and Jamestown: two each at Conanicut and Newport Country Club and one at a Newport residence.
St. George’s School and Goat Island used to have a court.
A platform tennis doubles court is 44 feet in length and 20 in width, compared to 78-by-36 for tennis doubles.
Modern illuminated platform tennis courts have aluminum decking, so water can run off between the slats. The paint on them has metal chips to improve sneaker grip.
The perforated paddles of composite material are 18 inches in length and 9.5 inches in diameter at the widest hitting surface. The brightly colored balls are spongy and rubber coated with flocking material to prevent skidding.
Scoring is the same as in tennis, but there is just one serve.
Net height ranges from 34 inches at the center to 37 inches.
A ball in play that hits the deck in the proper court and then touches the back or side screen, which are 12 feet in height, may be played, but only back to the opponents’ court.
Doubles dominates. There is very little singles play in platform tennis
Conanicut has about 150 players and NCC close to 90.
The latter hosted the Island B for Men tournament last Sunday. The event attracted 16 teams from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New Jersey.
Smith and Barclay Douglas of Newport, and Steve Heath and Peter Harvey from Stonington, Conn., will be among the entries at the American Paddle Tennis Association Senior Nationals on Saturday in Scarsdale.
Heath, 50, is considered the top player in Newport County. A native of New Canaan, Conn., the Jamestown resident was on the Colgate tennis team and twice was the Newport city singles champion.
He played paddle tennis as a youngster before getting back into the game as an adult when he moved to Jamestown.
He said it takes a while for tennis players to change their style to fit into the friendly confines of paddle tennis.
“You think you know what to do, but there’s a lot to learn from a strategy standpoint. There are also some basic skills that don’t cross over. It takes a few years to develop those.”
Big servers, often dominant in tennis, are less so in paddle tennis. “If someone hits a hard serve it will come off the screen, so the screens neutralize power,” Heath said.
Do players experienced in court tennis, played at the National Tennis Court at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, have an edge because court tennis has its walls in play?
“No,” Heath said, “because (of) funky strokes, they have that undercut, which isn’t all that effective on the paddle court.”
What is effective in tight quarters, according to Heath, is a backhand volley more than the forehand volley.
“It’s a little like a hockey goalie. The reflexes are much faster,” he said. “You’re not trying to put the ball away, you’re trying to get one more ball back.”
Heath said in the backcourt you’re primarily hitting your forehand and working with your partner because you’re working territory much smaller than a tennis court.
“In tennis, I was primarily a singles player,” Heath said. “Out here, it’s a team game. If you have a weak partner or aren’t working together, you’re going to break down.”
Heath said what makes a winner in platform tennis is patience, persistence and smarts. “And mentally you have to be tough. The tendency is you want to hit a glorious shot, but there aren’t many winners. The smart play is to be consistent and play within yourself. Wear ’em down.”
At the highest level, that may take a while. Rallies between skilled sides can go well beyond 40 hits. Such exchanges work up a lather, even in cold weather.
“The clothes will be coming off, you’ll be running around in your shorts when it’s 20 degrees, and having a blast playing with three other people, usually your friends,” Heath said with a smile. “It’s a good time.”
And not just for accomplished athletes.
“It’s easy for people of different abilities to play together,” Heath said. “Someone can’t run or overpower them out here.
“It takes less skill to enjoy this game more than it does tennis. It’s easier to pick up. A lot of people get more enjoyment playing this than tennis for that reason. You can play with a wider range of people.”
The range of platform tennis facilities was once limited to the suburban country clubs in commuting distance of New York City. Now there are thousands of players throughout the country, according to the APTA, whose Web site, platformtennis.org, lists an extensive tournament schedule in seven regions in the U.S. and Canada.
But paddle tennis is still a long way from being a sport where the public can just walk on to one of the courts, which cost about $50,000 apiece.
“In Chicago they have a number of public courts, and in New York and New Jersey,” said Heath, who noted his hometown has public courts. “In certain towns, it’s a great opportunity for outdoor recreation.”
The old court on Goat Island was used by the public as well as by hotel guests. Smith, president of the Newport County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said there are no current plans by local hotels to construct a platform tennis court.
“From my perspective, I’d like to see them do that,” said Smith, who also would like to see the International Tennis Hall of Fame add platform tennis to its portfolio. “It’s something that would give them a winter activity.”
Heath said once people are introduced to the sport, they’re hooked.
“People love being outdoors in the wintertime. It’s a good social activity, a good form of recreation,” he said. “Jamestown and Newport could support a couple of public courts without a problem.”
Send sportswriter Rick McGowan e-mail at McGowan@NewportRI.com.