Before we are athletes we are dreamers. I grew up with the usual Mittyesque fantasies. Living in Boston, I saw myself hitting shots over the Green Monster, sinking jumpers for Red and Russ, warding off sallies at the Bruin goal, catching touchdown passes for Harvard. As a teenager I branched out to individual sports, sinking a long putt to win the Masters, hitting one final overhead to take Wimbledon. But I was weak, slow and uncoordinated. Coming into adulthood I began to make peace with my inadequacies. I would, I conceded, come no closer to a championship contest than the press box.
Then I discovered paddle tennis. I had been rummaging through the racket sports, playing and discarding them one by one. Then one day I was invited to the residents' tennis courts at Stuyvesant Town, a community in Lower Manhattan, where I noticed a game of tennis unlike any I had ever seen. There was a miniature court, a low net, a deadened ball and a wooden racket. It was paddle tennis. In 10 minutes I learned to play. In 20 minutes no other racket sport mattered.
Paddle tennis is the game that Althea Gibson, Bobby Riggs and Pancho Gonzales played before going on to tennis. Gonzales says it is perfect preparation. I go a step further. I say people should play it instead of tennis. The reason is quite simple. How many tennis players are put off by a bad serve or backhand, frustrated by the long racket? The serve in paddle tennis presents no problem—it is underhand. The ball travels slowly enough that backhands are rarely necessary except at the net. And the racket is short enough (15 inches to 17½ inches) that a player never loses touch with his strokes. It is tennis without tears. You need an analogy? My friend Bill Chuck calls paddle tennis "field Ping-Pong."
Stuyvesant Town, a sedate, middle-income development of high-rise apartments, is a perfect setting for such a convivial sport. I quickly became a regular. At 9 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday morning I would report with the three other players—photographer Jim Fesler, preschool director Chaffee Monell and novelist Michael French. The four of us—all otherwise sane, married men in our 30's—would wait, shivering in the cold, until a kid from the local recreation department ambled out to unlock the nets and support poles. Then we would set up and play for an hour. On an adjacent court was the usual raffish assortment, featuring Solly Bickel, who plays with a cigar in his mouth; Rip Camp, a distinguished Yale graduate who carries his equipment in a paper shopping bag; and Harry Murray, a mortgage broker who is unfailingly resplendent in a Pierre Cardin warmup suit.
But every once in a while, some of the best players in the East would come out, local legends such as Sol Hauptman, Jeff Fleitman, Jack Satz and Jeff Bail. Sometimes they would get in a game with us. They were good, all right, but the underhand serve and deadened ball were equalizers. It dawned on me: In what other sport could an average player compete with the best and, sometimes, even win games?
That being so, why not take a giant step? The national men's tournament was held this year on the Stuyvesant Town courts. I signed up with Mike French to take a shot at the doubles title. Murray Geller, president of the U.S. Paddle Tennis Association, thought it a splendid idea. "You can be our George Plimpton," he said.
I found the label mildly offensive. After all, I did not intend to be humiliated. Please note that a few days before the tournament, French and I played Jeff Bail, a quarterfinalist in the previous nationals, and a less competitive friend of his. Bail was favoring a sore arm and didn't unveil his best shots, but the record will show that Kaplan and French won 6-3, 7-6. "You can write your first draft," French said.
Of course, it is tougher to play two top players. Our first-round opponents were Tommy Murphy, 18, and Tim Waugh, 20, two locals with considerable experience.
"You won't win many points," Rip Camp told me.
"Did you say many or any?" I asked.
Neither Murphy, a chunky Columbia student and tennis pro, nor Waugh, a stringy photographer's assistant, looked overpowering. Not that French and I did, either. I had come off a sleepless night, staggering to the court in my ankle and knee braces. French was the only player in the tournament competing with a one-wall paddleball racket, instead of paddle tennis racket. "Did you see that guy?" Greg Lawrence, one of the defending national champions, asked me. "Yes," I said, "my partner."
We lost the first point without much of a rally. In the second, Waugh saw me standing at the net and tested me with a zinger.
In the back of my mind I remembered a shot Jeff Fleitman, a two-time champion in the nationals, had taught me. "Take your index finger off the racket," he had said. "Let the ball knock the racket back, and you'll hit a nice drop shot." I imitated his directions. The ball plopped over the net and died.
Friends, this simple yet exquisite shot is the highlight of my athletic career. An experienced player had thrown his best at me and I had put it away. I knew then that I belonged in the nationals. My fantasy was complete.
Paddle tennis was invented in 1898 by Frank Beal, the man who later popularized paddleball. Visualizing a kind of playground tennis for children, Beal designed an 18-foot by 39-foot asphalt court (half the dimensions of a tennis court) on which a game would be played with wooden rackets and rubber balls, but according to the rules of tennis. Paddle tennis became popular in New York City during the 1920s and spread West, most notably to Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, the players grew faster than the game. By the 1940s paddle tennis had been taken over by sluggers who slammed overhead serves and rushed the net. Beal refused to change the rules and courts soon fell into disrepair.
In 1959 Murray Geller, a onetime national singles champion and a powerful force in the sport, pushed through some rules changes over the halfhearted objections of the aged Beal. The dimensions of the court were standardized at 20 feet by 50 feet. A single underhand serve was substituted for two overheads. The doubles lines were eliminated. The rubber ball was junked for a standard tennis ball that is punctured by a needle or pin so that it bounces 31 to 33 inches when dropped from a height of six feet. The net was lowered from 33 inches to 31—five inches lower than a tennis net at its lowest point. In singles, a rule was adopted requiring each player to hit a ground-stroke before volleying.
Again the game began to grow, and again there were problems. In the 1920s the first West Coast courts had been built 20 feet by 44 feet. For years West Coast architects continued building these undersized courts, all the while skimping on backspace and sidespace. As a result, two different versions of the same game are now played. Eastern players generally cling to the wide-open 1959 rules, while on Western courts a "bucket rule" prevents players from entering an area 12 feet from the net until the receiver makes contact with the serve. The newer Western courts are the standard 50 feet long, but because of insufficient backspace, a "lob rule" reserves the last three feet for shots that have been hit 10 feet or higher.
In the Eastern game, the advantage is heavily with the server. What makes rallies long and frequently spectacular is the ability of receivers to rush 10 feet back and 20 feet to the side to keep the ball in play. The Western game is fast and reflexive, with all four players coming to the net in doubles.
If all these differences aren't confusing enough, the practitioners of platform tennis, a better-known game, insist on calling their sport "paddle." Meanwhile, genuine paddle tennis, a game that should be played in every village and dell, advances fitfully, by word-of-mouth and invitations to play. There are 50,000-100,000 players in the U.S. with strongholds in New York City, St. Augustine, Fla. and Southern California. I can't say I object. Any more and I might have been squeezed out of the nationals.
Murphy and Waugh took a 3-1 lead. We could sense that Waugh was hitting tentatively, and we began driving shots at him. Before long, we were leading 4-3, 40-30. One more point and we would need only to hold serve for the set.
A lob came back to French, high and deep. I started to call "out" but the word stuck in my throat. Mike's overhead—I see it now, frozen in time and space—fell an inch out.
There was no sensation that we were through, but the momentum began to shift. Playing Eastern rules, Murphy and Waugh rushed the net on service, crushing overheads, and slammed passing shots when receiving. Their natural superiority established, they ran out the match 6-4, 6-1.
But we had not disgraced ourselves. We took 50 points, or about 40% of the scoring, and lost some lively rallies. It is a mark of how we felt that by the end we were not thinking, "We've showed we belong in the nationals," but rather, "If only we'd won the first set."
We left the court flushed, feeling the pounding of our hearts and the sweat on our brows. I tell you, there are few thrills comparable to competing in a national tournament. As an indication of my feelings that day, a few hours later I watched the memorable duel between Affirmed and Alydar in the Belmont—and found it mildly entertaining.
Indeed, the only thing that rivaled playing in the paddle tennis nationals was watching the finals. The year before, Greg Lawrence and Brian Lee, two Californians, had beaten Hauptman and Fleitman, two Brooklyn collegians: Staving off four match points in the fourth set, the West Coast team took the match 15-13 in the fifth. "It was the greatest spectator event I've ever seen," the redoubtable Bill Chuck told me.
Well, they were at it again, these classical opposites. There were the erect and casual Californians—tennis pro Lee, suave in his dark shades, and lawyer Lawrence, almost a dead ringer for actor Richard Dreyfuss. Across the net stood the excitable Brooklynites, supported by an assortment of kids that might have come from the cast of Grease.
"This is the alltime psycho sport," Lee had told me before the match. "You're at close quarters, the ball bounces off bodies, and people get ticked off." Indeed, Hauptman-Fleitman and Lee-Lawrence were so equal in ability that the team with one psychological advantage would undoubtedly prevail. How, everyone wondered, had the New Yorkers handled their 12 months of torment? All year long they had carried pictures of Lawrence and Lee in their wallets. Hauptman, the more volatile of the two, had shed 30 pounds and softened his image. "I'm worried about Sol," said a friend. "He's become a mensh." That is Yiddish for nice guy; nice players are not supposed to finish first in paddle tennis.
The friend needn't have worried. "If you don't cover, I'll kill you," Fleitman raged at his partner. Hauptman snarled a reply. They were ready.
Like gladiators in the Colosseum, the finalists stood in a sunken court, the crowd surging around and above them. With the balls making great cracking sounds coming off their rackets, Hauptman and Fleitman won two of the first three sets. This had been the script the previous year, and Hauptman's fans were concerned when their hero blew an overhead on the last point of the third set, threw his racket and went into a sulk.
Ah, but the Brooklyn boys were primed. Yelling, embracing, once kissing like Soviet athletes, Hauptman and Fleitman ran off six straight games to take the match. The court was bedlam. I felt the same as when the Yankees won last year's Series. I had no great love for the Bombers, but I was pleased to see a rasty bunch of men triumphing over all that laid-back love. Eat your heart out, Jerry Brown.
"All this," Fleitman laughed, "for a little cup."
No, Jeff, all this for paddle tennis, the dream game.