Pancho Gonzales, the world's best tennis player, is ruefully belaboring himself in this picture because he has just belted a ball into the blue Atlantic off a place called Paradise Island in the Bahamas. And why has this happened to Pancho? What is he doing with that sawed-off racket anyway? For that matter, what are Jack Kramer, Don Budge, Ellsworth Vines and several other stars who are not in this picture but are in Pancho's predicament doing down there in the tropics, swatting around a ball that isn't even a tennis ball?
The answer is that they are playing a game called Paradise Tennis, the tantalizing joint invention of Huntington Hartford, 50-year-old heir to the A & P fortune and owner of Paradise Island, and Wendell Niles Jr., the New York AC tennis champion. A racket-games enthusiast, Hartford is a former member of the Harvard tennis and squash teams and is a formidable table-tennis player. He is also the founder of a handwriting institute, is writing a book on art, is building an art museum in New York and is interested in extracting fuel oil from shale deposits in the Southwest. He owns the Huntington Hartford Theater in Hollywood and he wrote Jane Eyre, a play based on Charlotte Bront√´'s novel. In 1949 he established a colony for artists, writers and composers at Pacific Palisades in California, and he is now launching a show business magazine called Show. And, of course, Paradise Tennis, which is why we are here.
Paradise Tennis might possibly have been called Hog Tennis had it not been for the fact that Hartford changed the name of the island where he first played the game. He did that because he is changing Hog Island, now known as Paradise Island, into a tourist resort. When Hartford is done, Paradise Island, which lies a third of a mile off Nassau, will have a yacht marina, an amphitheater, a golf course and a hotel. Up until recently, regular chariot races were planned there. But the main feature right now is Paradise Tennis.
Considering its newness as a game (for the past year about the only players have been Hartford and Niles), the first Paradise Tennis tournament had a staggering entry list. Vines, Budge, Gonzales and Kramer were only the beginning—there were also a former national table-tennis champion, Dick Miles, who won the title nine times and is probably the best table-tennis player this country has ever produced; Althea Gibson; co-inventor Wendell Niles Jr., and myself. Hartford, unfortunately, was sailing to Europe on the Queen Mary at the time, but he checked in by phone from the radio room. James Wong Howe, one of the world's greatest cinematographers, was on hand to make movies of the game.
July 30, 1961
Paradise Tennis is akin to both table tennis and tennis, with a little bit of tumbling thrown in. It is played on a table nine feet wide and 18 feet long (roughly the size of four table-tennis tables) and about 28 inches high. The surface is aluminum sheeting bonded to aluminum honeycomb and painted green. A foot-high net bisects the width of the table and a white line bisects it lengthwise. Tennis rackets with aborted handles are what you hit with, and the ball is white inflated rubber about the size of a tennis ball.
The serve is like the table-tennis serve—the ball must bounce on the server's side before crossing the net. In both singles and doubles the serve must land in the diagonally opposite court. After the serve a shot is good if it lands anywhere on the opponent's side of the table. There is only one serve and you are never allowed to hit the ball before it bounces. Scoring is the same as in tennis.
No sport for mollycoddles (among other things, the table gets red-hot under a tropic sun), Paradise Tennis is a game of restraint and discipline rather than naked power, an exercise in placement, tactics and spin. It is a scrambler's game, with the player often contorting himself wildly to thrust his racket at the ball. One stroke—the lunging attempt to poke back a drop shot hit with plenty of back-spin—is a little like leaping on a live hand grenade to keep its havoc from spreading. The cry, "Oh, those table burns!" was heard frequently during the three-day tournament.
I myself invented a shot (since determined to be illegal) which involved flinging myself head first toward the net, as in a diving baseball slide, while holding onto the end of the table with my free hand so I could yank myself off it to hit the return shot (you can't count on a spectator or your doubles partner to be quick-witted enough to roll you off the surface, and presumably if you are hit with the ball while prone on the table, the point goes to the enemy). I know the shot is illegal because when Hartford called up from the Queen Mary I asked him and he said you have to keep one foot on the ground at all times.
The main thing about the game, though, is that most of the time it is very risky to hit the ball hard. If you do, it generally goes off the table. With people like Kramer, Gonzales, Budge, Vines and Gibson around, everybody, of course, tried the "big game," and in such cases the ball often would sail off down the road between an arcade of palm trees, or out to sea. Occasionally there would be the cry of "Look out!" from a player, something in the manner of a solicitous bean-ball pitcher warning a batter his head is in imminent danger.
It proved, therefore, that the best strokes of the great tennis players—Budge's backhand; Vines's, Gonzales' and Kramer's forehands; and myself, naturally, off both sides—could not be put to effective use. The net was too high or the table was too short. Nearly everyone but Niles began to rely largely on slices and chops. The ball was slow to react to topspin.
This provoked considerable discussion—"You can't hit it hard," Don Budge cried out once in despair, "you just can't hit it hard!"
Toward the end of the first set in the doubles final Vines showed himself to be a real stoic. Racing after a short, sharp-angled shot by Gonzales, he almost tore his leg off on a corner of the table. He said not a word, though some players hollered every time they got a little burn from touching the edge of the table while reaching for a drop shot. You might say that Paradise Tennis is a fun game but has aspects that are not entirely paradisiacal.
Watching all this, analyzing my own play, I finally felt constrained to give the players some advice. "Let me tell you something about this game," I told them. "I've played a certain amount of tennis and ping-pong [Miles winced] and my theory is you have to put a lot of the strings on the ball every shot. The longer the ball stays on the racket, the more control over it you have." I then recommended to Budge that he choke up on the racket for better control. He never did.
I was wiping my face off with a towel after a tough match later that afternoon when Hartford called up from the Queen Mary. Kramer was playing a match and the other players were swimming, so Gonzales was summoned to the phone. "Where the hell are you?" demanded Gonzales, who had spent most of the night playing backgammon. Hartford told him he was on the Queen Mary. "Oh, yeah?" said Gonzales. Wendell Niles Jr. got on the phone and said the tournament was going along great, with all four of the tables on the island in constant use.
"Tell him about my match with Vines," I said.
"Vines beat Lardner," Niles said, giving me a perplexed look.
"7-5, 7-5," I reminded Niles, and the information was transmitted across the water. Then I got on the phone. Hartford's voice was quite faint, but among other things he said he had a Paradise Tennis table set up on the promenade deck of the Queen Mary with a net around it to keep the balls from landing in the ocean. He also mentioned he was going to buy the replica of the Bounty which Marlon Brando was using for his movie out in Tahiti when Brando was through with it. "I'm going to anchor it off Paradise Island," he said.
"Be sure to put a table on it," I told him.
The climactic match in the tournament took place when Gonzales met Dick Miles in the semifinals. Though Gonzales had learned the game only the day before, his strokes were so stylish and his knowledge of spin so thorough that he was expected to win the tournament. In the Miles match, Gonzales hit formful shots with plenty of spin and bite, showed fine anticipation and seemed determined to win. But everything he hit came back. The game developed a pattern: Gonzales would loop the ball, chop it or put sidespin on it, varying his length—anything to confuse Miles, since he could not overpower him. But Miles, holding the racket short and hitting knifelike chops off both sides, seemed always to win the final exchange of their long rallies. The few times Gonzales belted the ball—to the excitement of the crowd—he lost the point. At one juncture late in the first set Gonzales muttered in despair, "It's like hitting against a board." After losing the first set at love, he appeared to become disheartened, missing shots he would ordinarily have no trouble with. When he was down 4-0 in the second set, he abruptly changed strategy and blooped every ball back into the center of the court. This won him his first game, and the roar that went up from the crowd was deafening.
However, Miles, a small, slight man, adjusted to the new pattern, swallowed the tacit rebuke, resisted the temptation to swat the setups and outlasted Pancho in long rallies to win the set 6-1.
A victory for hypnotism
Pancho later mentioned that the length of the rallies and the short interval of time between shots made him a little dizzy. Miles said that when he played table tennis he looked forward to long rallies because after a while he became "at one" with the ball. "It was a victory for hypnotism," a disgruntled Gonzales rooter said.
It was not expected, however, that Miles would beat Wendell Niles Jr. in the finals. Niles had eliminated Vines and Kramer to reach the finals, while Miles's other notable victory was over Budge. Niles had a formidable variety of strokes and a great familiarity with the game. In the past year the only person who had been able to give him competition was Hartford, and over-all Niles had won the most matches.
The Miles-Niles match started evenly, with each player holding service. As James Wong Howe's camera buzzed Niles topped, chopped, sliced and slammed, running Miles from corner to corner. Miles continued the pattern of placing the racket up by one ear or the other, cocking his head as he hit and knifing everything back. Little by little his consistency wore down even such a versatile player as Niles. After Miles won the first set 6-4 a case of what might be called the Paradise Tennis jitters hit its co-inventor. He began to wallop shots hard whether there was a mathematical chance of hitting the table or not. He hit one ball a mile high. Miles kept poking everything back with a deadpan expression and won the second set 6-0 for the singles championship.
Althea Gibson, as expected, won the women's title, beating Nelle Longshore, who is on the staff of World Tennis, 6-3, 6-0. "The drop shot is the thing," Althea had announced when she hit her first few Paradise Tennis shots and that is what she mainly won with—drop shots that bounced sideways and backwards and were virtually unretrievable.
Probably the most bizarre rally of the tournament took place when Gonzales and Kramer played a pair of Bahamians in a doubles semifinal. In the first set a ball was dumped short by one of their opponents. Gonzales, darting wildly up for it, lost his balance, whirled and fell down, landing on the table on the flat of his back. A leg gave away, causing his side of the table to sag at a 45° angle. As Kramer, with some difficulty, kept the rally going, Gonzales slid off the table, held it up with one hand and gave Kramer a little help with the other, meanwhile trying to kick the leg back in place. His team lost the point, but their opponents were through after that.
Shortly after this match, when the table had been repaired, Gonzales and I played an exhibition against Miles and Niles. We were doing pretty well, but Gonzales, who was on my left, kept taking shots off my backhand with his forehand. "No wonder they call this Hog Island," I said; but Pancho didn't hear me. Maybe that's why we lost.