It was dusk at the Sand and Sea Club, a private haven on prime oceanfront property in Santa Monica. As sunbathers grabbed the last of the day's light, silver-haired bridge players dealt the final hand at poolside. A busboy in a white jacket collected cups against the backdrop of the gently rolling surf.
The serenity seemed inviolable, even as rush hour traffic edged by in a cloud of fumes along Pacific Coast Highway. But in a nearby room where the lights were turned low to afford a better view of MTV, one man cracked the silence with a booming discourse on life as the King of Paddle Tennis.
'I Am the Champion'
"I am the current national champion," said a dead-serious Sol Hauptman, as he pounded the Formica table. "I'm the national open paddle tennis champion. In other words, I'm the professional champion. It's the highest division. You saw me win the L. A. City Championship. Write that down. You were there."
Hauptman wanted everything written down, despite the presence of a tape recorder that shook whenever he whacked the table. A full day of teaching people how to play paddle tennis--a fast-paced combination of racquetball and tennis--had left him weary. With his receding hairline, he looked older than his 27 years. But the eyes that darted behind a pair of oversized black-rimmed glasses revealed an intensity that has helped Hauptman and a trio of partners capture 16 national titles in the sport's doubles division.
The unprecedented winning streak is chronicled in the pages of the Paddle Tennis News, the game's official publication. "Beckendorf and Hauptman March Their Way to 1984 Doubles Title, Premier Team in Paddle Tennis," reads one headline. "Fleitman-Hauptman Take National Open Doubles Championship, Eighth Time in Nine Years," heralds another. "Spectacular," trumpets a third.
Even on a bad day, Hauptman might be described as "real good." He claims to have won as many trophies as John McEnroe, a role model. But McEnroe doesn't have to give lessons to toddlers to pay the rent on a one-room apartment. That's the cost of committing yourself to a sport that ranked somewhere between target shooting and sky diving in a recent Gallup poll.
"Paddle tennis simply needs more publicity," said Hauptman, a Culver City resident who estimated that top prize money for one season equals about $5,000. "But I love it. I guess it must be in my blood. I just hope I'm not an old man before there's any money in it."
As Hauptman spoke a small diamond sparkled in his left ear. Around his neck was a thick gold chain with a pendant in the shape of the numeral 1. A bracelet with his name written in Hebrew circled his wrist and his left hand sported a large gold ring. With his brawny, compact build he looked more like a weightlifter than a paddle tennis player. But people who have followed Hauptman's career say no one can match him for sheer intensity and drive.
Mistakes Bring Groans
Twirling, lunging and slamming balls like a man stuck in fast forward, he makes each point seem pivotal. Mistakes bring agonizing groans and self-deprecating remarks. A partner's error is regarded as a personal affront, and opponents can expect to encounter the full force of his determination.
"When you've got to kill someone, you've got to kill him," Hauptman said. "You don't give them a chance. I've always believed that if you find a good loser, the guy will never be a winner. I hate to lose more than I like to win. If you beat me you deserve it. I don't give away anything at all."
Hauptman didn't have to press the point. For three months he'd bested the competition in a series of matches stretching across the country. Some of the wins had come easily. Others were the result of 11th-hour rallies. The overriding factor was consistency. Hauptman, who could be found disco-dancing till the wee hours before a match, seemed almost incapable of losing.
"In men's doubles, Sol is the best player to have played the game," said Bill Brothers, a paddle tennis organizer. "He just never seems to miss."
That was the word around Venice Beach earlier this summer when paddle tennis players gathered at the southern end of Ocean Front Walk for the Los Angeles City Championship, one of the first major stops on the way to the national championship matches in South Carolina and Florida.
On a day when 1.5 billion people stayed indoors to watch the Live Aid benefit concerts for Ethiopia, a couple of hundred paddle tennis fans could be found milling around the courts, checking the match-ups and debating whether anyone would beat the man organizers had called the world's best player.
With his first match more than an hour away, Hauptman was standing apart from the crowd. A look of bewilderment crossed his face when a stranger approached and asked for an interview. Then a long silence ensued while Hauptman considered the merits of publicity. Finally, he handed over a business card and muttered, "Call me late" as he walked away.