Skip to main content
Original Issue


There is much more to the tennis boom than tennis. A whole host of racket sports—in particular squash, racquetball and platform tennis—have been swept along by the tennis tide, and others may be on the way. The 1980s could produce racket games we have not yet dreamed of. Indeed, several arcane offshoots, such as tetherball and Trac-Ball, already have their ardent supporters.

Which is by way of introduction to a revelatory walk I took not long ago through John Jay Park on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Playing basketball here and one-wall paddleball there was the usual all-ages crowd: blacks, Hispanics, Orientals, Italians, Irish, Jews, perhaps even a stray WASP. On an interior paddleball court, I saw some people hitting a ball against a wall with tennis rackets. Well, sure, I thought, they're warming up for tennis. But what's this? There were lines drawn on the pavement and on the wall, and they were competing! Meet tenniwall.

Devised in 1949 by a tennis, squash and handball instructor named Lyman Appleby, tenniwall incorporates elements of all three of those sports. And it is easy to pick up, as I learned when the accommodating John Jay crowd let me play a game. After the briefest rules presentation, I took the court against Maurice Kunstenaar, a 50-year-old Argentina-born businessman. Kunstenaar stood in front of a line 34 feet from a handball wall, bounced a regulation racquetball and hit it with his tennis racket so it struck the wall above a horizontal service line eight feet up. It came to me on a bounce, and I played it directly to the wall, striking it above a three-foot net line. The rally took quite some time, with Kunstenaar moving me from side to side and finally winning the point on an angled drop shot that bounced twice before I could reach it. Soon I began to get the feel, moving up to volley, chasing down the high-bouncing ball, trying an occasional drop shot. I sometimes fell victim to my own impatience, attempting put-aways when I should have been rallying. The toughest adjustment was trying to get the jump on the angles; it was difficult to visualize how the ball would come off the wall. But Kunstenaar won only 15-10; mine was a humbling but by no means humiliating initiation. Had I not been so winded, I might have asked for another game.

Like squash, tenniwall is played to 15 points (with a 2-of-3 tie breaker at 14-all). Like handball, it is a great game for tireless retrievers, though the best players use uncanny placements. The strokes are not unlike those in tennis, although a bit wristier. Who knows? Perhaps someday tennis elbow may give way to tenniwrist!

"I wanted this game for the vast numbers of people who don't have the money, ability or agility for tennis," says Appleby, a New Yorker who at 70 is still spry enough to leap over a tennis net. "I originally called it wall tennis and we used tennis balls, but I found that tennis balls wear out quickly and can't be used in bad weather. Now we play all year with rubber balls or racquetballs. Racquetballs are official for tenniwall at this time. However, I have applied for permission to make an inflatable ball called the Z-ball, now used in racquetball, official. The game is good training for tennis because it helps your footwork, your endurance and your timing. You're supposed to serve high—above that eight-foot line—after bouncing the ball no higher than your shoulders before you hit it. I sometimes let tennis-oriented people use tennis balls, serve overhead and hit all their shots in the five-foot space between the net and the service lines."

The game involves plenty of running, because the court is roomy. The John Jay participants use a 24' x 16' handball wall, with the baseline 44 feet back. "It's more exercise than tennis," says Filipino Victor Naguiat, 26, the current champion. "A single game can last 45 minutes." Kunstenaar says, "The rallies are usually quite long. Sometimes you move a guy back and forth and he'll try a difficult shot to get out of the predicament. Then he gets in trouble." Added Appleby, "It's best to hit the ball flat. Topspin shots tend to come up on you. My best shots were soft ones to the corner. People used to say, 'That's not skill, that's feebleness.' "

The sport began slowly and might never have become established except for assistance from an unexpected quarter. Early one morning Appleby went out to John Jay and chalked in tenniwall lines. "Later, workmen came out and assumed they were supposed to paint permanent lines on top of the chalk," says Appleby. Even now he chalks the three-foot net line on top of the painted line as a means of determining if a disputed ball has been hit too low. If a shot is challenged, the ball is examined. Find chalk on it, the challenger wins the point. No chalk, he loses it.

In recent years the game has begun to spread. "I wrote an article in Tennis magazine a couple of years ago," Appleby says, "and got about 200 queries. The places I heard from—schools, Ys, military installations all over the country—were very encouraging. You see, you don't need a handball court for tenniwall. You can map out a court on a wall or the inside of a gymnasium."

For complete rules, send $3.95 to Tenniwall, Livingston Manor, N.Y. 12758.