Platform tennis: Dark, cold and a whole lot of fun

Platform tennis is an unusual sport because it seems that those who have been exposed to it quickly become obsessed; everyone else has never heard of it.
The rules of the game are much like doubles tennis and the court looks very similar, albeit about a third the size of a tennis court and built on a platform (hence the name) with 12-foot-tall walls that come up on all sides made out of chicken wire fencing that is held in high tension so that players can hit the ball as it bounces off the wire (similar to racquetball or squash).
The game was created in 1928 in Scarsdale, N.Y., by a couple of neighbors looking for a winter sport they could play outdoors. They adopted the equipment from paddle tennis, an adaptable street game using wooden paddles and spongy balls to play on urban streets and playgrounds developed around 1922 by Frank Contessa.
Platform tennis and paddle tennis slowly merged into one game as courts were established with the iconic wire walls and the rules of the game were set (most people around here call it paddle tennis).
Over several decades the sport has grown in popularity in New England, throughout the Midwest and in other cold weather zones. As originally intended, it is most commonly played in the winter on courts that are fashioned with lights to play in the dark and heaters under the aluminum decking to melt ice and snow.
That’s a beautiful thing in a place like Vermont where it is cold and dark and snowy for much of the year, leaving many athletes without many great outdoor options.
“For me it’s just fun to have another option for being outside in the winter,” says bourgeoning paddle tennis player Carolyn Weir. Weir is an accomplished tennis player and recently began playing paddle tennis with her husband, Ben.
The Weirs were 2011 graduates of Middlebury College and married in Bridport in 2013. Despite going to school at Middlebury (which boasts two platform tennis courts on campus), they only started playing paddle tennis after college.
“I’m glad to see that more students seem to be playing now than they were when we were in school,” Carolyn says. “It’s a great game that requires a lot of mental focus and gets you moving around, having fun and breathing fresh air.”
Middlebury College hosts two paddle tennis courts on campus, which they generously allow members of the community to use when not in use by college students and faculty.
With the small size of the playing surface (44 feet by 22 feet) and four people on the court at a time, there’s a relatively small area of space for each player to cover. It doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily easier, however, just that it requires a lot of composure and tact to master the game.
“The lure of the game is being able to go out in the coldest weather — or at least close to the coldest weather — and have a ball in a relatively short amount of time,” says Sue Byers, who has been playing paddle tennis since the early 1960s in North Jersey.
“For me it’s more fun than tennis because everyone on the court is up close together,” Byers said. “That face-to-face contact makes it a much more verbal and friendly game, with a lot of eye contact, talking to each other and a lot of laughing.”
Points can last a relatively long time in paddle, as competitors can keep a ball in play by playing it both off the court or off the wires.
“A fast ball whizzes by you in tennis and the point’s just over,” Byers says, “but in paddle tennis you get another chance to chase that ball down and get it as it comes off the screen.”
That strategy changes the game significantly, as it requires an element of calculated skill and experience to read balls as they come off of the wires. The best players, therefore, aren’t always the strongest ones on the court who like to slam the ball.
Instead, the best players are often the most composed, relaxed and ready on their feet. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have well-developed, fast-twitch muscles, a knack for hitting a stinger right down the gully and a great lob, too.
Sue and Bruce Byers moved to Cornwall full-time from their New Jersey home in 2000. At that point they had grown quite attached to their paddle tennis lifestyle in New Jersey and had been a part of a state-wide league that was very active and competitive.
“When we moved up we were definitely concerned that there wouldn’t be a paddle culture in Vermont. But we were pleasantly surprised to find courts at Middlebury College and an increasingly active community around the sport,” Sue said.
The Byers’ move coincided with a development of the Allen dorm at Middlebury College that would require the four paddle courts on campus to be moved. The college decided at the time to only relocate two of the courts to their current location behind the sports complex and sell the other two.
“We jumped on the opportunity to buy one of those courts,” Bruce Byers said, “and I’m so glad we did.”
Now in their 80s, the Byers say they have lost a little of their speed in the game, but they still have their tact. Because it’s a couples game, it’s easy to have friends over for a dinner party and the entertainment is going out for a game before dinner, they say.
“One of the big reasons I’m so happy to stay up here all year round is because I don’t want to miss a game,” Bruce says. “It keeps you happy, young, and in Vermont … you can’t play paddle in Florida.”
BEN WEIR KEEPS his eyes on the ball as he recovers from a quick return during a paddle tennis game last week. Behind the courts the Middlebury College indoor sports complex lights glow in the night.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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