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FITNESS BOUND

Sand, surf and a mean game of paddle tennis

March 08, 2004|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

As a longtime tennis player, I'd always thought paddle tennis looked kind of silly. The game's mini-courts, mini-racquets without strings and punctured tennis balls seemed more like props in a circus clown act than the tools of a serious sport.

My dismissal was perhaps understandable. After all, my first exposure to the activity was amid the carnival-like atmosphere of Venice Beach. Just about everything on the boardwalk is a sideshow, and the paddle tennis courts were between the pumped-up weightlifters on Muscle Beach and the chainsaw juggler.

But after an afternoon of friendly doubles competition, I'm forced to renounce my smug and condescending attitude toward the sport. The game is fun, easy to learn and an exhaustive workout, demanding nimble feet, swift reflexes and quick thinking. Also, at Venice Beach (considered the focus of the sport in California, if not the nation), the seaside view isn't half bad either.

Today's aura of surf, sand and fun would seem to have little in common with the roots of the game. It was created in 1898 by the Rev. Frank Beal as a way to keep the children of Albion, Mich., out of trouble. The clergyman roughly halved the size of a tennis court and shortened the racquet size to make it easier for the kids to play.

Since then, the game, modified and updated a couple of times, has become popular in 15 countries, including Spain and Argentina. Part of its appeal is that it's a game the entire family can easily play, and, like tennis, in either singles or doubles.

In the United States, the main centers of play are New York, Florida and Southern California. Many private racquet clubs feature paddle tennis courts, but there also are plenty of public ones -- usually free -- in the Los Angeles area. (A good resource for finding a local pub- lic court can be found at www.paddletennis.biz.)

Because I had never picked up a paddle tennis racquet before, I thought a lesson would be in order. Scott Freedman, widely recognized to be one of the best players in the country, agreed to give me some pointers on the Venice Beach courts. It was home turf to him; he's been playing there since he was 5.

I was expecting the usual lessons -- the somewhat boring, but necessary, fundamentals of how to hit a forehand, a backhand, a serve, etc.

Instead, once Freedman found out I played tennis, he explained that the rules are almost the same in both games, with two key differences: The server gets only one attempt, not two as in tennis, and the ball must be hit below waist level.

Then he asked to see me hit a few shots, declared we were ready to face a couple of other players, and said, "I'll teach you as we go." And he did. It was all part of the freewheeling spirit of the sport.

In tennis, the first serve is critical. Land it with some velocity, get the defense on its heels, and the point is practically yours. But with the below-the-waist restriction of paddle tennis, the power of the serve is largely neutralized. The object then becomes to serve deeply and rush the net as soon as the returner strikes it.

Thus, for a beginner like me, handling the serve wasn't nearly the problem I thought it was going to be.

The most enjoyable part of the match was putting plenty of zip in my returns, and placing a few at the shoe tops of the advancing server. In tennis, there would be little chance that novices, no matter how much experience they had in another racquet sport, would be able to score such lively hits so soon after entering the game.

As Freedman quickly made clear, the object is to capture control of the net. In tennis, particularly doubles, the team that does this typically wins. But in paddle tennis, you're practically a lock for victory if you can take the net. With the shorter court and faster pace, hitting a lob over an opponent's head is much more difficult than in tennis.

Paddle tennis rallies usually last longer than those in tennis, but they are typically performed with both teams at the net, and players must race like mad to get there. Over and over and over again. The game has an almost frenetic feel. I can't begin to count the times I rushed the net, far more than would be possible in the same amount of time in tennis.

Most of our rallies took place at the net, with both teams crisply volleying back and forth -- a task that takes speed, agility and skill. I had trouble with this in the first set because I was used to a bigger racquet head and a longer handle. But Freedman helped me along the way, not only with tips, but also with direction about where to be on the court.

His mantra of the day was "Get to the net. Go! Go! Go!"

Baseline shots must be hit on the return of serves, and they can't be hit on the run. Freedman pushed me to bend my knees lower than I do in tennis, because the ball wasn't going to be lifted off the stringless racquet in the same way it is in tennis.

By the third set, I was tired from the sprinting. Even my return of serve, which had quickly become my best shot, began to fly into the fence. After losing the first set in a tiebreaker and taking the second, we lost the third handily -- mostly because I was exhausted.

After the third set, we called it quits. We'd been playing for 90 minutes, and I was as glassy-eyed tired as the tourists from Kansas wandering Ocean Front Walk. My hamstrings and quads were sore for a couple of days afterward.

Looking back on it, I wish I'd tried paddle tennis years ago -- although I still think it looks funny.

*

Martin Miller can be reached at martin.miller@latimes.com.

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