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Paddle is no longer piddling

Eastern suburbanites still rule the game, but now courts are springing up all over the country, and Western natives are growing restless

For a long time platform tennis has paddled along in relative obscurity, a little cousin to the big game of tennis. But in recent years thousands of new fanatics have joined the rolls of a sport whose popularity is suddenly forcing it to expand from the suburbs of New York where it has been chiefly confined for years. The game is growing so fast that it has outpaced its administrative association, and statistics are, therefore, somewhat hard to accumulate with accuracy. Reasonable estimates, however, show that there are 1,500 to 2,000 platform tennis courts in the country, that 150 new ones are being built each year at a cost of from $7,000 to $8,000, and that the sport now has about 50,000 very active participants.

"We have a growth rate of a steady 25% a year and the game is really spreading out nationally," says Paul Molloy, president of the American Platform Tennis Association, which has 220 member clubs, from Maine to the West Coast.

The APTA puts on national championships in men's doubles, women's doubles, mixed doubles, men's senior doubles (50 and over), men's senior veterans doubles (60 and over), women's senior doubles and boys' junior doubles. (Singles seldom are played in platform tennis because the game is too difficult.) The APTA also sanctions a winter circuit of six tournaments. One of these, the Rye, N.Y. Invitational, has been so swamped with entries that its sponsors took a hint from the pro golf tour and this winter conducted a satellite tournament nearby. This year, for the first time, the Association will also determine national rankings in all categories.

Platform tennis was created in Scarsdale back in 1928 by Fessenden S. Blanchard and James K. Cogswell and was derived from the playground game of paddle tennis. The two men were ostensibly looking for some vigorous winter exercise, but they may also have been trying to figure out how to use up a lot of old discarded sweaters and slacks, which are usually what pass for platform tennis uniforms.

The playing area is similar to that of a tennis court except that it is mini-sized, 20' by 45' in area, and is painted onto a 30' by 60' platform that is surrounded on all four sides by a tightly strung wire screen 12' high. The scoring is the same as in tennis, but the solid rubber ball is a bright orange and the paddle is made of wood.

What really makes platform tennis so different from the game played at Wimbledon and Forest Hills is the fact that the server has only one chance to get his serve in, and shots can be returned after they have caromed off the wire screening. The server must, therefore, concentrate on putting the ball in play, and not try to overpower the receiver. A killing overhead smash is not much use either because the ball will often simply bounce off the wire and gently float back into play. Platform tennis is a game for boxers, not sluggers. At the highest level a player must combine the qualities described in the well-known fable by Aesop, the speedy reactions of a hare and the infinite patience of a tortoise.

For the most part the game's devotees are Ivy Leaguers—prosperous supersuburbanites, male and female, who play on winter nights and weekends, sip highballs between sets to keep warm and call the game "paddle." The man who has probably done as much as anyone to trigger the boom is Dick Reilly, master builder, who took the game out of an era of warped boards and sagging screens. Reilly—true to form—is an Ivy Leaguer who lives in the suburbs and calls the game paddle, but there his resemblance to an archetype ends. Reilly doesn't smoke or drink and hates party-type socializing. He'd rather be camped out in the woods. After graduation from Dartmouth in 1957 Reilly did some teaching, some coaching, some postgraduate work in science and education, and built large houses with his own hands. He lives now with his wife Gail and four children in an eight-sided house he built in New York's Westchester County, and bosses Richard J. Reilly Jr., Inc., the largest builder of platform courts in the country.

"When you get into my background, things look kind of weird and confused," Reilly said recently, sitting behind the desk in his Stamford, Conn. office, dressed in a green plaid wool shirt, paint-spattered dark blue work trousers and heavy leather boots. "My parents were always apologizing for me."

Reilly's father was a dentist who lived in Scarsdale, next door to paddle's creator. Fessenden Blanchard. Young Reilly's youthful ambitions were to be an All-America football player and then a country doctor. These early goals were thwarted by an excess of enthusiasm on the football field (which led to seven brain concussions at Scarsdale High and Dartmouth) and a lack of it in the class room (he rebelled against the competition for grades he found himself embroiled in as a pre-med student). Reilly's ambition now is to start what he calls a school for creatively gifted dropouts, bright youngsters who couldn't stick it out elsewhere long enough to earn a high school or college diploma. The transition is not exactly logical, but this ambition is what brought Reilly into the business of building platform tennis courts eight years ago.

"It went completely against my basic nature, but to get money to start my school I was looking for ways to make a fast buck," says Reilly. "One day I was playing paddle on a public court in Scarsdale that had loose joints and screens the ball would go through. I thought, 'There's got to be a better way than this to build a court.' "

So Reilly started building. He sold only eight courts the first two years, but the word got around and in 1965 he took orders for more than 20 and hired an extra crew. Today Reilly uses 10 crews and builds more than 70 courts a year. Until he went into business, about the only way to get a platform court built was to send off to the APTA for specifications and turn them over to your friendly neighborhood carpenter. Now there are half a dozen other firms in the East alone that build some 50 courts each year.

Reilly introduced several imaginative innovations. He used boards 30' long so that the joints, which rot and warp, are located only directly under the net. He developed hinged sideboards so that snow can easily be shoveled off the court. He designed a special tension system that makes tighter screening possible. He discovered that crushed walnut shells, when mixed in with paint, provide superior traction for the players and firmer bonding for the paint. A year ago he started work on something that could easily revolutionize the platform-building business, the all-aluminum court.

"I resisted the whole idea at first," says Reilly, who is a somewhat poetic back-to-nature type. "I've always loved the feel of wood and I've always preferred wood in a house rather than cement or other such unfriendly elements. Finally, I just couldn't resist the possibilities of the end result."

The end result has several notable advantages. The most obvious one is longevity. Not even Reilly can build a wooden platform court that will survive more than about 10 years. Aluminum, presumably, can last pretty nearly forever. Unlike wood, aluminum is an excellent conductor of heat. A gas or kerosene space heater can be installed under an aluminum court and melt snow and ice as fast as they accumulate.

Reilly has built courts in 19 states, as far away as Aspen, Colo. Other courts are going up all over the country—in Kansas City, Seattle, Louisville, Atlanta. As yet, however, the best playing talent is still from the New York area.

"Most of the rest of the country still plays only mini-tennis, they hardly play shots off the wire at all," says paddle prexy Molloy. "I've seen teams from Massachusetts and Colorado literally swagger into our national championships, so confident because they'd defeated everyone at home. Then they were quickly beaten because we play a different game here."

Molloy's assessment held good for this year. Last month at the Nationals, held at the Fox Meadow Club in Scarsdale, only 10 of the 128 entrants came from beyond the New York City area. Only one of them got as far as the quarterfinals. "The trouble with these Eastern players is that they think they're the only ones who can play the game," muttered Fred Oman, a businessman who came up from Dallas to pair with Reilly, but lost in the first round. "The greatest thing that could happen to this game would be for a couple of guys in San Francisco to go off and hide for a year and then come here and wipe these guys out."

Something like that could conceivably happen very soon. When it does, platform tennis will truly have come of age as a national sport.