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They just love-love it

As beach tennis enters its second spring as a tournament sport, more players are discovering how cool it is to serve and volley in hot sand.

April 17, 2006|Janet Cromley | Times Staff Writer

On the sandy proving grounds of Santa Monica beach, Steve Goldfield, 60, looks down the makeshift court at his opponent -- 52-year-old contractor Dan Casey. Casey hitches up his pants and plants his bare feet. Waves crash in the distance and sea gulls trace lazy arcs overhead, squawking as they go.

Goldfield steps up to a piece of volleyball tape marking the baseline and tosses a ball over his head to serve. But this is no volleyball match. Goldfield deftly swipes a racket across the ball -- a tennis ball -- sending it spinning over the net. Just before the ball hits the sand, Casey dives and just barely catches it with his racket, lobbing it high over the net. Sand flies everywhere as he scrambles to his feet. The two begin to volley, whacking the ball with conviction, but with less force than one would on a hard court -- giving it just enough love to coax it over the net.

On the nearby bike path, joggers, bicyclists and even a few Segway riders stop and stare at Goldfield, Casey and the 20 other sweaty players flailing away. Many are covered in sand, looking a little like giant breaded chicken cutlets.

"What is it?" says one pedestrian. "Beach tennis? Cool!"

In Southern California, where all new ideas are treated equally, a sport combining swimsuits and tennis might just have legs. After all, of the 24 million tennis players in the U.S., 2 million are in Southern California, says Annette Buck, of the United States Tennis Assn./Southern California Section.

Underscoring Southern California's love affair with tennis, Cardio Tennis -- a workout combining tennis and high-intensity drills -- hit the ground running after its official launch at the U.S. Open last summer. By September it was already being offered at 70 facilities, and today that number has risen to about 80.

Mike May, a spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn., says playing tennis on a sandy court isn't as wacky as it might seem.

"Tennis is traditionally played on a number of different surfaces: grass, clay, wood," May said. "It's very flexible as a sport, so it's not surprising that there would be a new form of tennis rising."

By all accounts, beach tennis provides an excellent workout for the glutes, quads and hamstrings and, to a lesser extent, the arms. The sand not only forces the muscles to work harder, it slows the game considerably, making it adaptable for seniors and kids -- if not the ambitious couch potato.

"Compared to tennis, the points are a little longer, so the game develops more," said Phil Whitesell, currently shares the top-ranked spot in the Beach Tennis USA men's division. "In doubles on the men's pro tour, the game is about 80% offense, whereas in beach tennis it's about 50-50." With experienced players, a typical rally might go seven to 10 shots, or about twice that of traditional men's doubles.

Tennis vets have an edge

In short, the smaller court used in beach tennis tends to be an equalizer, favoring seasoned, strategy-minded tennis players who've slowed a step or two.

On a competitive level, "in tennis, you're pretty much done by [age] 29," adds Whitesell, who is 35. "In this sport, I've still got 10 more good years. I can't get any better at tennis, but I can get better at beach tennis."

It also has Walter Mitty appeal. Marc Altheim, a New York real estate developer who brought the sport to the United States, gets to be the commissioner -- and many of the seeded players are novices.

The No. 1-ranked team in the world, Whitesell and Chris Henderson, 34, won the first tournament they entered. Both former tennis pros in Charleston, S.C., the men then practiced the game "a little over the summer" on their own and won the U.S. Beach Tennis Open championship tournament in Long Beach, N.Y. Defeating the heavily favored team from Aruba, as well as teams from Amsterdam and Brazil, they took home $10,000 in prize money.

"I was on the tennis team at USC," Whitesell said, "and I spent a lot of time riding the bench. But with beach tennis, I can hang in there and be a champion."

The game appeals most to die-hard tennis players -- true racket lovers who can't get enough of the sport.

It's played with standard tennis rackets and balls, and the goal is to get the ball over the net. The scoring sequence -- 15, 30, 40 -- is the same as in tennis, but there's no deuce point, and players are allowed only one serve. Beach tennis is played like badminton, in that the ball is swatted back and forth, like a shuttlecock, and doesn't hit the ground. The net is four inches lower than a beach volleyball net, and the court is 60-by-30 feet, similar to a beach volleyball court. The winner is the first to win eight games, rather than the standard six in tennis.

Watch out for rackets

Ideally, the game is played with two people on each side, like doubles tennis. Singles games are strenuous, and games with more than two players per side can be dangerous -- teammates tend to get beaned by flailing rackets.

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