PADDLING OUT OF THE COUNTRY CLUB

The game of platform tennis has come down from its amateur perch in an attempt to attract the masses and sponsors with plenty of money
December 02, 1974

After half a century of refinement in the stuffy company boardroom, platform tennis loosened the collar of its genteel, tweedy image last week and rubbed shoulders with the proletariat. All these simply grand and chipper chaps began playing for money. Next will come grubby agents, recalcitrant player unions, the Goodyear blimp, Wolfman Jack, Bobby Riggs and all kinds of other fiddle-faddle. Well, there goes the old neighborhood. Anyone for squash?

The Masters tournament staged in the landscaped community of Pepper Pike outside of Cleveland was the first sanctioned competition to offer prize money in the history of the august American Platform Tennis Association. But more, it was a look at the sport's potential idol, a player injuring himself with a victory jump and sponsorship by a 50-year-old mountain climber. It was people wearing derbies while playing. It was different strokes for different folks.

There did remain vestiges of the game's clubby aura. Everyone came from Princeton or Harvard or one of those Eastern Establishment private schools, and there were a lot of Chaunceys and Carringtons followed by Roman numerals. Platform (also called "paddle") tennis is a game of Wall Street scions, people you suspect hide their Book-of-the-Month Club selections when company calls. Now they were talking of expanding the game, "taking it to the inner city." There were no courts in Cleveland seven years ago and now there are approximately 70. Can fast sports franchising and Gary Davidson be far behind?

If you are tired of having the kids snicker because you keep discovering last year's fad, try platform tennis and be the first on your block. It is a hybrid of tennis, jai alai and ballroom dancing; it is played on a 30-by-60-foot scaled-down tennis court surrounded by wire screening, and because it is always played doubles, you need a partner. The scoring is the same as in tennis but you get only one serve, and the ball can be played off the screen.

The game never was as stuffy as regular tennis used to be with its antiseptic, medical-center dress code and fastidious protocol. Paddle can put a little light status on you with such right-on clothing as Ivy League letter sweaters with worn-out elbows, or a soft elitist symbol like a jazzy warmup jacket. Reverse snobbery is sometimes employed, like serving lasagna at the Cleveland pretournament dinner last Friday. Italian soul food. But then, to return to the right side of the tracks, there was vintage wine, cute little cookies and orange sherbet for dessert.

"Just take a look around this room," said Chip Baird, drinking in the country club setting with his eyes. The room was filled with beautiful people, outfitted in Kennedy clothes of the '60s. Wine glasses tinkled, silverware twinkled. "This is the aristocracy and a lot of them don't like the idea of opening the game up to outsiders. The prize money is nothing—$1,000 to the winner. Some of these people are worth $1,000 an hour. But what happens when it grows and you get some people out of New York who cheat to win and the game loses its social status? It won't be the game anymore that ends with a kiss at the net."

In anticipation of that, one of the top players, Herb FitzGibbon, an angular man cut in the mode of Tony Perkins, has engaged sports marketing whiz Mark McCormack as his financial adviser. The word on the big board is that FitzGibbon could become a hotter commodity than sugar when the sport explodes. Now it is ticking.

Chip Baird is 21 and a senior at Harvard majoring in psychology. His brother Steve is three years older and works for a New York bank, and their father, Chuck, is a former Undersecretary of the Navy. The pedigree is typical. The brothers are ranked fourth in the country and are by far the sport's youngest challengers. "People always tell us, 'You're young, you have lots of time ahead of you,' " says Chip. "If we married and took a job selling stocks or insurance and then practiced four hours a day, yeah, we could be the best in the game. But now we don't practice. I've played 15 minutes since the last tournament and Steve is on a late flight and not even here yet."

A team that had been practicing and training and leading the ascetic life was the tandem of John Mangan and Bob Kingsbury. They were the best until a decline last year and approached the Masters with the zeal of men charting retribution. Both were running up to two miles a day, and Mangan was lifting weights to strengthen a knee that recently was operated on. Only the previous week they had jogged through the opposition to win a tournament at Amelia Island, Fla., and the word was that they were again kings in the chicken coop.

Their chief rivals were FitzGibbon and John Beck, who dominated last season by winning tournaments in the relentless manner of a combine harvesting wheat. Their emergence affected platform tennis the way the talkies did silent films. Their style was revolutionary, a slashing, powerful game, a deviation from normal strategy bred on patience and defense. Both are tall and rangy, close to 6'5". FitzGibbon strides like Paul Bunyan over the 34-inch-high net when changing sides. "Playing them is like being in the target end of a shooting gallery," says Chum Steele, who with his partner Keith Jennings was the tournament's second seed. "Tennis is long-range warfare," says FitzGibbon. "Paddle tennis is like street fighting."

Tennis players have a natural propensity for the paddle game. Steele and Jennings were once a high-ranked tennis doubles team and most of the other players were renegade tennis addicts. FitzGibbon formerly was 14th in U.S. men's singles. Now he is a stockbroker living in Manhattan, commutes to the suburbs on weekends to play platform tennis and practices sincere smiling in case Central Casting calls. "Our style is such that our error rate is very high," says Beck. "But if we're on, we'll win. It's that simple."

The players were competing for $3,200 in prize money, part of it put up by Jess Bell, the owner of the Cleveland-based Bonne Bell cosmetics firm and a man whose frenetic style suggests he is mainlining vitamins. He rushed back from a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro to attend the tournament and arrived wearing African bracelets. Bell jogs four miles to work each day, has a platform tennis court alongside his plant and is considering a 25-mile run. Whatever became of the sedentary executive life-style?

Early in the week winter put its frigid bite on the Midwest's neck, but Saturday turned out to be a beautiful, crisp day, assuring that while there might be bluebloods about, there would be no blue noses. The script appeared pat; there are only a few outstanding teams in the sport and generally the same four meet in the semifinals of every tournament. But then tennis used to be that way, too, before the riffraff took over.

Four rounds were scheduled for Saturday, meaning the players would finish the day as limp as the Dow Jones average, with the semifinals and finals to follow Sunday. First Mangan and Kingsbury were beaten, falling in the third round to 10th-seeded Scott Rogers and John Brownlow of Cleveland, 7-6, 6-4. So much for the ascetic life.

Meanwhile Oliver Kimberly and David Jennings, past national champions, were winning their third-round match, buoyed by the notion that with Mangan and Kingsbury gone they now could sail into the semis. At the winning point Kimberly exultantly jumped into the air. and crumpled to the ground with a pulled leg muscle. After 90 minutes of delaying tactics, the pair finally met the fortuitous Rogers and Brownlow and lost 6-2, 6-3. So much for exultation.

Sunday was rainy with a brisk Lake Erie wind raking the center court of the Cleveland Racquet Club as Machine Gun FitzGibbon and Beck strafed the opposition. They made Saturday's Cinderellas, Rogers and Brownlow, look like pumpkins in glass slippers and trounced them 6-1, 6-1 in the morning semis.

Earlier Chum Steele had considered the prospect of prize money: "I'm better for money, even if it's only a dime." Steele and partner Keith Jennings live in Boston and are self-styled "wetbacks" because they are outside the New York enclave. They struggled to beat the precocious Baird brothers 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, and moved into the finals against the long-ball hitters.

The rain got worse in the afternoon, turning the ball mushy and playing surfaces slippery, and blunting FitzGibbon's and Beck's nuclear forehands. Two years ago in the rain, Steele and Jennings gave them one of the worst beatings of their careers. This time it was closer, but the sitting ducks still upset the favorites 6-4, 7-6, 4-6, 6-7, 9-7 and struck a blow for the judicious lob.

Considering the weekend's excitement, someone should apologize for keeping platform tennis hidden upstairs. Well, it's not too late to get started. We can make the ball purple and violet, expand to Amelia Island, put in a designated umpire, defer bonus payments over the next two centuries and install Judge Sirica as commissioner. Play ball, and smile on camera, Carrington.

PHOTOJennings and Steele took home $1,000 from the first money tournament in Cleveland.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)