What we need to attract the public," the platform tennis people must have said, "is a dynamite chick. A superstar. All we've got now are these country-club gals with their station wagons, needlepoint and pitty-pat serves. We want a bona fide, all-American, knock-your-socks-off girl. What we need," they mused, "is a cross between Farrah Fawcett and Chris Evert."
They got what they needed in Hilary Hilton. Age, 26; hair, blonde; eyes, blue; height, 5'5½"; weight, 129; occupation, professional platform tennis player.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Hilton has burst into the national consciousness. But last week she and 63 other platform tennis (also called paddle) professionals were trying to do so as they went to work at Forest Hills. The occasion was the second Tribuno World Championship, the final stop in a 14-event, $82,900 tour that runs from November to April.
The tournament was not exactly a promoter's dream. The attendance was sparse on Thursday and Friday and only about 500 showed up on Saturday to brave the rain and watch the women's finals. It was almost as if the revered West Side Tennis Club resented the intrusion.
Despite the paucity of fans, platform tennis has come a long way in the past few years. With more Americans playing (400,000) and more courts available (5,000 to 6,000) than ever, paddle is developing a following outside the Ivy League-country club set. The game remains Eastern-dominated, however, 83% of the players in the Tribuno being from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut.
Hilton is a notable exception. She is pure California. Her dazzling teeth have promoted Gleem on TV. She was even—and this is too good to be true—on The Dating Game once and won a trip to Paris with a boxer. Hilton was weaned on the version of the game known as paddle tennis, which is played on a miniature tennis court, with no screens, the same paddles and a punctured (to deaden the bounce) tennis ball. The step up to platform was a logical one, and in the third tournament she ever played Hilton and her partner won the national championship in 1975. (The game is almost invariably played as doubles.)
When she heard that Tribuno was sponsoring a women's tour for the first time this season, Hilton decided to enlist her friend, Margie Gengler, as a partner. But Margie had to travel with her tennisplaying husband, Stan Smith. Well, what about her younger sister Louise? Well, why not? Coming into the Tribuno, Gengler-Hilton had won all six tournaments on the circuit without dropping a single set in any final.
Because of the confined quarters in paddle, many shots can be taken by either player, especially when both are at net. Partners avoid confusion by talking to each other constantly. On most teams, "mine" or "yours" is sufficient. But Gengler and Hilton have carried it one step further, and not long ago they were presented with matching T shirts, one emblazoned "Me, Me, Me" and the other reading "You, You, You."
They are a well-matched pair. Gengler, 24, was captain of the women's tennis, field hockey and ice hockey teams at Princeton. She has been playing racket sports all her life and had no trouble picking up paddle. She has a menacing two-handed backhand and a powerful forehand drive and is a fine screen player. Hilton complements her with a strong serve and sizzling service returns from the ad court. She is the best volleyer in the women's game.
Before Friday afternoon's semifinal match against last year's national champions, Wendy Chase and Linda Wolf, Hilton was lunching on yogurt, honey and soybeans. She was talking about the book she plans to write about mental fitness in sports, geared toward women. The working title is La Belle Aurore, which should mean something to all Casablanca trivia experts.
Gengler-Hilton won the first two sets 7-6, 6-3. Normally the match would have been over, but because Tribuno was putting up equal prize money ($15,000) for men and women, the women voted Friday morning to play three out of five in the semis and finals, just as the men do. Take note, Billie Jean. Gengler and Hilton lost the next two sets 4-6, 1-6, before pulling the match out 6-4.
The men's draw ran true to form and the two top seeds made it to the finals. Hard-hitting Herb FitzGibbon and Hank Irvine, former Davis Cup tennis players for the U.S. and Rhodesia respectively, breezed through the top half of the draw, losing just 11 games en route. Although they beat master tactician Doug Russell and Gordon Gray, the other Forest Hills finalists, to win last month's Nationals, FitzGibbon-Irvine were seeded second in the Tribuno and felt a need to set the record straight.
The weather was delightful and the crowd still sparse for Sunday's finals, even though admission was free. Contrary to custom, Gray-Russell started strong and won a hard-fought first set 7-6. But suddenly they found themselves in trouble. FitzGibbon became increasingly confident and accurate with his passing shots, while Irvine was impenetrable at the net. Gray and Russell simply folded and sleep-walked through the rest of the match to lose 6-7, 6-2, 6-0, 6-2.
Thus ended an unusual partnership. The highly competitive Russell will be playing with former tennis star Clark Graebner next year while Gray will team up with John Mangan. "I'm looking forward to it," said a drained Gray in the locker room. "I may not win as much money with Mangan, but I'll have a lot more fun."
The women's finals were better than expected, considering that Sis North, one of Gengler and Hilton's opponents, got on camera beforehand and said, "I'm sure they'll beat us because they're so good." She couldn't have been a better prophet. Gengler and Hilton beat North and B.J. DeBree 6-2, 7-6, 7-6 and lest that sound close, it should be noted that the combined point score of the two tie breakers was 14-2.
Ironically, all the built-in equalizers (small court, one serve, screen play) that make paddle such a good social game may limit the future of championship-caliber play. There are just so many shots that can be made on a platform tennis court. "Where is the ace, the home run, the 300-yard drive?" asks Dick Squires, platform tennis promoter and former national champion.
Meanwhile, as paddle ponders its future, the present is pleasing. It has FitzGibbon the pounder, Russell the tactician, Gengler the shotmaker and, of course, Hilary Hilton the all-important Hollywood Connection.