PADDLING ALONG TO A TITLE

While Warren Gamaliel Harding fans shuddered, the nation's best platform tennis players set up their stage at hallowed Forest Hills
April 12, 1976

The West Side Tennis Club is an elegant enclave located hard by the Long Island Railroad, directly below too many airplanes paying imminent calls on New York's LaGuardia Airport and smack in the shadows of high rises. Huddled in the Forest Hills section of the borough of Queens, the old club pays no nevermind to the encroaching shabbiness. Rather, it dwells on its own 12‚Öú acres of beauty, its 61 tennis courts and its pride in hosting, every year, the U.S. Open Tennis Championships. As if they inhabited a sort of Camelot in the midst of a trailer park, club members point their noses at jaunty angles.

Until recently the club has been participating most reluctantly in the last half of the 20th century. Members much prefer the '20s and '30s. Those who belong can spot a gentleman at 100 yards by the tie he always wears; they talk a lot about Warren Harding. The sign outside the clubhouse prescribes: ONLY WHITE OR OFF-WHITE SHALL BE WORN ON COURT AND CLUB GROUNDS. For slow learners, the sign goes on to advise that this includes sneakers, socks, sweaters, suits, warmup jackets. The sign doesn't mention underwear, but the implication seems clear. One gets the drift. Forest Hills is steeped, steeped in tradition; it believes in the old but good ways of doing things. Change is great if you're a hot-dog stand, but not if you're Forest Hills.

Not long ago, however, players in the U.S. Open started showing up wearing clothes to match their personalities. White was not their favorite color. In 1975 bulldozers appeared and plowed up the grass of the fabled courts. The grass was replaced with—ugh!—a combination clay-and-rock surface. Traditionalists clutched their chests.

And finally, two weeks ago, some funny little structures called platform tennis courts were plunked down atop the Har-Tru courts in the stadium. And for the first time in the memory of club members—memories that stretch back just shy of Aristotle's adolescence—a sport other than real tennis was played on this hallowed site. Again purists clutched their chests.

Poor dear Forest Hills. Perhaps the place needs another sign to go with the one outside the gate that says CURB YOUR DOG. It could read HEAP INDIGNITIES HERE. A club member (identified by his tie) tugged at a visitor: "Isn't it just awful?"

Well, no. For Forest Hills has survived Ilie Nastase, it has survived Jimmy Connors, it has survived Bobby Riggs and it will survive platform tennis.

Platform tennis, known popularly as paddle, suffers from always having to explain what it is: a tennis-like game played with a sponge-rubber ball and wooden paddles 17 inches long on a court about one-quarter the size of a tennis court—all of it inside a wire cage. This makes platform tennis a forgiving game. You can volley the ball or hit it on the bounce, as in tennis, or let it go past, bounce off the screen, then hit it. Rallies are long—routinely 20 hits and occasionally more than 100. People in paddle are terribly good-natured about explaining their game, far more so than George Allen of the Washington Redskins would be if asked by a reporter: "Say, George, what do you call that fat little guy who hovers over the ball and then suddenly passes it backward between his legs to a buddy?"

What was occurring at Forest Hills was the First Tribuno World Paddle Championship. Sponsorship by Tribuno, makers of vermouth, fit right in with the incongruity of the event, for proceeds were given to the New York City Affiliate of the National Council on Alcoholism. A spokesman told the meager crowd, "Thanks to those of you who can drink for helping those who can't." From out of the stands came a slurred voice, "I'll drink to that."

At stake was $4,000 for the winning team, twice as much money as had ever been given in paddle. The 16 best men's teams (paddle is mostly played only as doubles) were invited. The total prize pot for this tournament was $12,000.

On one side in the finals were the brainy and abrasive Baird brothers. Steve, 25, with degrees from Bucknell and Columbia, is a personnel officer for a New York City bank. Chip, 22, from Harvard, is with an investment bank. On the other side were Doug Russell, 31, who runs a platform tennis club in Manhattan, and his partner, Gordon Gray, 42, a financial consultant from Greenwich, Conn. In earlier play the tournament's only significant upset had come when the highly regarded (third-seeded) team of Herb FitzGibbon and Hank Irvine lost in the quarterfinals.

The excitement over the final match was heightened because neither team cares much for the other. This was confirmed when each team said that it liked the other team just fine. But the fans—about 100,000 if you believed the paddle fanatics, 1,000 if you believed paddle haters and 2,200 if you believed the truth—knew bad blood was in the air. Up to the finals the teams had played seven times. Gray-Russell had won four matches, the Bairds three. But the Bairds had won the biggie, last month's National Championship, while Gray-Russell had floundered in the quarterfinals.

A poorly kept secret is the tale of a match not long ago. Gray, a pleasant man with a nice-guy approach to nearly everything, muttered before that match, "I'd love to go out there, hit 48 straight winners, mash my paddle down Chip's throat and walk off the court smiling." With that, Gray and Russell stormed out and got thrashed.

Gray has been playing the game since he was 10 years old; he won a number of championships and almost retired from competition a couple of years ago. But he couldn't stand that. "It's such a lovely sport," he says, "and I was so eager." So he got together with Russell in a classic odd-couple matchup. In life-style, Gray is steady, conservative; Russell is unsteady, unconservative. Except that when it comes to paddle, it is Gray who attacks, attacks, attacks and Russell who meditates 30 minutes a day, then takes to the court and plays defensively, cautiously. "Doug has all the shots," says Gray. "The only problem is when he decides to play not to lose instead of to win." Says Russell, "I think Gordon sometimes plays too aggressively and takes too many chances." Obviously a partnership made in heaven.

Russell is flexible, though. In an early job as a bag salesman, he could handle plastic, paper or burlap. As a stockbroker, he got laid off while in training for one firm. He joined another and advised a number of his customers to buy Con Edison at between 18¾ and 27 "because they had paid dividends for 171 years or something," then watched in dismay when the company skipped a quarterly dividend and the price dropped to six. His phone rang a lot with customers offering their views on his ability and parentage. One more brokerage house, and he quit. He taught tennis for three months, then spent a month in Europe. "Already I knew things were better," he says.

Russell was serious the day before the Tribuno tournament, saying, "I won't do anything stupid tonight. I'll go to bed early." Gray didn't look convinced.

The Bairds are so competitive that they have agreed not to play against one another. Steve recalls the time Chip "threw a ball at me from about 15 feet, so I turned and threw my paddle at him." Boys will be boys. Says Chip, "I am tightly strung. I froth at the mouth. I'm the eccentric."

On the court Chip hollers, stomps, questions calls, throws rackets. Steve is more stoic but understands. "All good athletes have a temper," he says.

Paddle is normally a pleasant game, a sort of hit-and-giggle endeavor that is far easier than tennis to play and good for all levels of players. But Saturday's finals were decidedly different. The Bairds easily won the first two sets 6-4, 6-3 as the normally steady Gray played somewhere between the categories of awful and dead. Moaned Russell, "The Bairds are the greatest front-runners in the world. I don't know."

Then, imperceptibly, things started going better for Gray-Russell. And when Chip's racket started flying and the fans started hissing, Gray and Russell were on the move. They won the third set 6-1, the fourth 6-3. Gray was not so dour anymore; Russell regained his easy smugness. In the deciding set Chip complained that he had not been ready for a Russell serve; the crowd offered the Queens version of a Bronx cheer and the referee made it unanimous. Gray and Russell were ahead four games to one. So, naturally, several of their shots hit the tape on the net and fell fairly, which is what often happens once it starts raining on somebody's parade. In a whoosh, Gray and Russell took the set 6-2 and the match. Said Steve Baird, "We ran out of steam. It was embarrassing."

Meanwhile, back at the bar, Tournament Director Billy Talbert, who also directs Forest Hills, said, "This was fun. It's like tennis used to be. These guys even have jobs."

Talbert is right. It was fun. It didn't harm the West Side Tennis Club. And it may be the first little step for paddle en route to brighter lights. Whatever the number of spectators, it was agreed that the first U.S. tennis championships here in the early 1900s had an even smaller crowd.

PHOTODown by two sets, partners Gordon Gray and Doug Russell whaled away, won the title.

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)