This page is part of the Atlas of Popular Culture in the Northeastern United States by John E. Harmon
Terminology in sport can sometimes be confusing. There are three games sometimes called "paddle tennis." Two had their origins in the New York metropolitan region. A third, mentioned only briefly, is a more recent game of Mexican origin but it is included because of the confusion about these games. But they are all descendants of tennis - played with paddles, not racquets, with balls very similar to tennis balls and on smaller versions of tennis courts with nets. They sprang out of tennis for different reasons and at different locations but they share that common heritage.
Paddle tennis on the courts at Venice Beach, CA
Paddle tennis is either an outdoor or indoor game originally played on a court 1/4 the size of a tennis court with a lower net. The major equipment difference is that it is played with a laminated hardwood paddle with (usually) a U-shaped pattern of holes and a soft, spongy ball. There are minor differences but paddle tennis principally uses the rules of tennis.
While the sport originated in Albion, MI (1898) , the sport's inventor, Frank Peer Beal, did not really begin to develop it until he took over as Episcopal minister of a church in lower Manhattan. He wanted to provide some recreational activities for the children in the neighborhood and convinced the city's parks and recreation department to lay out a set of paddle tennis courts around the fountain in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village in 1915. These courts proved very popular and the sport spread rapidly around the New York metropolitan region. The intent of the game was to provide an introduction to tennis for people in the cities who had limited space and money for recreational activities.
In the days of less vehicular traffic it was possible to lay out paddle tennis courts on city streets; you only had to move the net when a truck or cart wanted to get by. The game also became very popular at public beaches in the New York metropolitan region.The first tournament was held in 1922, standards were agreed upon and the United States Paddle Tennis Association was formed in1923. Although the National Recreation Association listing of sports did not list it in 1925, by 1941 it was being played in recreation departments in almost 500 cities around the UnitedStates.
Because of the minimal equipment needed and the small size of the court, it was very popular in urban YMCA's and recreation facilities and has also become a popular sport in school physical education programs. Initially, the sport was played by people of all ages and there are still senior as well as junior tournamentsof paddle tennis. Some see the sport as a way to learn the skills of tennis at an early age - a gateway sport. The late Bobby Riggs, former US national champion best known for his loss of a demonstration match against Billy Jean King in 1973, was a paddle tennis champion before turning to tennis and was an important promoter of paddle tennis. (Blanchard 1944).
While the Rev. Beal is the "inventor of the game," MurrayGeller of New York City is referred to in paddle tennis circles as "the architect of the modern game." Geller was a paddle tennis player in the 1940's and '50s and was elected chairman of the USPTA rules committee. He wanted the game to become more attractive to adults while Beal opposed the change wanting to continue the focus on children. Geller wanted paddle tennis to be a game that stood alone and separate from tennis. He proposed a number of changes that included making the court larger, going to an underhand serve and a number of other features that characterize the game as it is now played. The association adopted the new rules. The game was picked up by some beach clubs in Southern California and the California clubs played with the new rules.In the 1980's the east coast and west coast organizations merged with the understanding that each area could play under their local rules (Ender 1997).
Today there seem to be only two true "centers " of paddle tennis - the five boroughs of New York City (and some of the public beaches on Long Island) and southern California. There are also about 20 courts in Florida, most in the St. Augustine area. Elsewhere in the country it is very difficult to find a paddle tennis court. The east/west differences continue in the courts [east coast court][west coast court]and in the relationship with tennis. Paddle tennis is a more a distinct sport for all ages in Southern California. On the east coast paddle tennis is still popular in New York, Florida and South Carolina and is still seen more as an introduction to tennis for children. There are more courts and players in California, because of the climate, and the game has a national association with around [????] thousand members but the bi-coastal nature of the game is still important..
In California the center of the game is clearly the courts at Venice Beach. I made a visit there in January of 1999 and there was still a lot of use of the courts. I spoke with three players that afternoon about the unsuccessful attempt for a professional tour with Almaden as a sponsor. They seemed to feel that it was the personalities of two of the top players that brought about Almaden's withdrawal as a sponsor. So while the game appears to be holding its own in this region, the failure of the professional circuit and a concern that younger players are not picking up the game give some concern to paddle tennis' future as a popular game.
Platform tennis is often called paddle tennis by its players and sometimes only "paddle" but it is a very different game from the paddle tennis above. The game is played outdoors usually on a raised court similar in size to a paddle tennis court. The major difference from tennis is the enclosure of the court with a tensioned chicken-wire like cage and the ball can be played off the wire as in the indoor court games. The ball is soft sponge rubber, the paddle a perforated solid paddle, only one serve is allowed and most play is doubles. Because of the particular origin of the game, it is still played principally in winter by tennis players who want a year-round game.
The inventors of platform tennis lived less than 50 miles from Rev. Beal but claim that they knew nothing of paddle tennis whent hey developed their sport in 1928. Scarsdale, NY, then was exactly the sort of place it is today - a bedroom community of upper-income families with high-paying jobs in Manhattan. The fact that Fessenden Blanchard and James Cogswell had no idea that paddle tennis was a craze in New York City speaks very clearly of the role of social class in games in the United States, as these quotes attest:
Tennis and golf were the fashionable sports of the 1920s. This decade saw the establishment of dozens of high-status suburbs around eastern cities and country clubs (usually offering both golf and tennis) came along with these suburbs. But winter was a quiet time for the serious athletes in these clubs who either did not want to play or did not have access to the indoor racquet sport of the elite, squash. Blanchard and Cogswell wanted an outdoor game to keep up their tennis skills during the winter, still the principal season for platform tennis. They began by constructing a badminton court (44 by 20 feet) on an elevated platform to help keep snow off. They also marked the court for deck tennis (played on the cruise ships of the day) and began playing badminton and deck tennis on the court in Cogswell's backyard in the early winterof 1928. They built a wire frame around the court to keep the balls and birdies on the court. They soon got the idea of a soft ball and paddles and considering balls hitting the wire to be still in play.
This game did not have, nor did its originators seek, the advantage of the parks and recreation movement to spread the idea. A small group of 25-39 families formed the core of people who first played the game at the single court and some built courts at their own homes or summer places. Many believe that the second court was built at the summer home of the Blanchard family in Nova Scotia; it was recently replaced with an aluminum courts. Visitors also took copies of the plans that the inventors had made up and a few courts were built outside of Scarsdale. The development of a tension system for the wire surrounding the court and putting sand in the platform paint improved the game and made it playable in rain as well. By 1932 there were7 courts in Scarsdale and the New York Times covered the first official tournament. In 1939 there were courts in upscale neighborhoods of many eastern cities with Scarsdale still having the most (28) but Greenwich, CT and Englewood, NJ, were #2 and#3 in number of courts.
Note: This is a partial listing but there were "platforms too many to mention in the suburban area of New York City," also courts in Los Angeles and Nova Scotia. Responses to inquiries about the game had also come from Russia and South Africa. Source:"Growth of the Game," Report to members of the AmericanPaddle Tennis Ass"., in (Blanchard 1944, 45).
The early courts were built in people's backyards but the first club to adopt the game for its members was a beach club, the Mansuring Club of Rye, NY. The first tennis club to build platform courts was the Fox Meadow Tennis Club of Scarsdale in 1931. By 1934 the club went "all out" as a winter club in response to declining membership due to the Depression and other clubs adopted the game as well for the same reasons.
Diffusion outside the United States has been slow.
Map of platform tennis locations in Europe as of late 1995 (Source: R.J. Reilly Co.). Clubs may have more than one court so this does not indicate the number of courts. There are so many courts in the Netherland because R.J. Reilly worked in the Netherlands about 20 years ago and assisted a Dutch company to install about 50 courts in the country. The sport was not well organized there, however, and failed to take off. The company, which plays an active role in disseminating the sport, has stronger hopes for recent efforts in Germany (Reilly-Gross 1977).
Today platform tennis is more widely spread but still concentrated in the Northeast,
particularly New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.While there are platform tennis courts
available for all to use in public parks in many places, it is still largely a sport of
the elite and played by avid tennis players during the winter.
Map of customers of the R.J. Reilly Co. (Brewster, NY), the largest manufacturer of platform tennis courts, Summer 1997. Each dot is the five digit zipcode of a customer but some have more than one court. While many private wealthy individuals (a court can be as much as $40,000 depending on site preparation), most of the installations are at private clubs - country, tennis, golf, yacht, polo, cricket, etc. All the schools with Reilly courts are private schools as well. Some condominium and apartment buildings, hoping to attract this client base, have built courts outside the Northeast. There are few courts in the South but a rule change in the 1980s which allows courts to be built in the ground (this lowers the cost) may result in additional courts coming into this region as well.
Neither paddle nor platform tennis should be confused with thegame of paddle, sometimes seen in its Spanish spelling "padel." Paddle is similar to paddle tennisexcept for the addition of back and side walls off which the ball can be played and the use of a tennis ball rather than the more spongy ball of paddle tennis. [The paddle court] This game was neither invented in the region nor is it played at all in the Northeast but it seemed such an interesting and logical direction to go that I had to include it.
ORIGIN AND DIFFUSION
Although most of the web pages claim that the game was invented in 1968 in Mexico, the web page of the Mexican Paddle Federation (Federacion Mexicana de Padel, A.C) says it was 1969 in Acapulco. According to their brief account, Enrique Corcuera Pimental made the modifications to the tennis court at his home there.
The game spread first to Spain along the Costa de Marbella, part of Spain's southern tourist coast, and from there it spread to Argentina in 1977. It has become so popular in that country that there are more than 4.5 million who play the game, probably the source for this estimate of the world's total which is probably much more than this. It has spread widely through wealthierareas of South America (principally Mexico, Argentina and Brazil) andin Spain and France. The US Paddle Association claims the game is played in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, Chile, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, England, Australia, and Canada. In Spain the sport is played mostly at private tennis and golf clubs and in Brazil it is more widely played in the affluent, more European, southern states, further evidence of paddle as a sport for the elite.A 15,000 seat arena was being built in Franceto host professional tournaments but I have not been able to discover whether it was actually built. An international tournament held in 1991 in Mexico drew contestants from 14 different countries. The international federation is in Buenos Aires, further evidence that Argentina and not Spain or Mexico is the current core region of the padel world.
There have been some attempts to spread the game in the United States by having demonstrations at professional tennis tournaments in this country but it is not played in the Northeastern United States. There is now a US Paddle Association based in Chatanooga, TN, which is trying to spread the game in this country. This association, however, appears to largely be the work of the company that is selling the courts and other equipment for the game. One of the marketing tools they are using is a portable court which can be set up for demonstration purposes. In the "Frequently Asked Questions" section of their website they admit that there are only seven private paddle courts in the United States.[http://www.chattanooga.net/paddle/padfaq.htm]
If paddle were ever to become popular in the United States, it might attract the current players of paddle tennis and there have been some initial attempts to connect the two games. In a discussion with some paddle tennis players at Venice Beach, CA, in early 1999, they said that paddle players do not do too well playing paddle tennis; they have a tendency to wait for the ball to come off the back wall. Two paddle tennis players recently made a trip to South America expecting to do well and make some money playing paddle but they had difficulty adapting to the game.
There are no regions of the United States where this game is played. If paddle has a core in this country it is Chatanooga, TN, with the US Paddle Association and Paddle Sports Equipment, Inc.
Anon. 1976. Paddle tennis: Holding court on today's campuses.American School and University. Vol. 48, No. 10: 42.
Archibald, S.1995. Recreation management - paddle tennis has potentialas a solution for underutilized tennis courts. Athletic Business.Vol. 19, No. 12: 20.
Blanchard, F. S. 1944. Paddle Tennis. New York: A.S. Barnes& Co.
Ender, P. 1997. Treasurer, US Paddle Tennis Ass.,Personal communication,Jan. 28, 1997.
Fisher, J.M. and K.A. Tritschler. 1983. Paddle your way throughwinter days. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation andDance. Vol. 54, No. 5: 39.
Goldfome. B. 1995. Have students play paddle tennis! Strategies. Vol. 9, No. 2: 5.
Reilly Gross, K. Winter 1997. "Germany." In Behind the Screens..
Newsletter of the R.J.Reilly Co.
Photographs and Images
[insert link to B&W photo of city street court - playing paddle]
[scanned image of platform tennis court play]
American Paddle Association
Paddle Tennis Home Page
American Platform Tennis Ass. Home Page
The American Platform Tennis Association has approximately 4,500 members with 6 regional groups.
Viking Athletics - platform tennis paddles and accessories
To find a paddle tennis court...
Home page for paddle or padel (in Spanish)
US Paddle Association
Federacion Mexicana de Padel, A.C.