Pancho Gonzales, the world's best tennis player, is ruefully belaboring himself in this picture because he has just belted a ball into the blue Atlantic off a place called Paradise Island in the Bahamas. And why has this happened to Pancho? What is he doing with that sawed-off racket anyway? For that matter, what are Jack Kramer, Don Budge, Ellsworth Vines and several other stars who are not in this picture but are in Pancho's predicament doing down there in the tropics, swatting around a ball that isn't even a tennis ball?
The answer is that they are playing a game called Paradise Tennis, the tantalizing joint invention of Huntington Hartford, 50-year-old heir to the A & P fortune and owner of Paradise Island, and Wendell Niles Jr., the New York AC tennis champion. A racket-games enthusiast, Hartford is a former member of the Harvard tennis and squash teams and is a formidable table-tennis player. He is also the founder of a handwriting institute, is writing a book on art, is building an art museum in New York and is interested in extracting fuel oil from shale deposits in the Southwest. He owns the Huntington Hartford Theater in Hollywood and he wrote Jane Eyre, a play based on Charlotte Bront�'s novel. In 1949 he established a colony for artists, writers and composers at Pacific Palisades in California, and he is now launching a show business magazine called Show. And, of course, Paradise Tennis, which is why we are here.
Paradise Tennis might possibly have been called Hog Tennis had it not been for the fact that Hartford changed the name of the island where he first played the game. He did that because he is changing Hog Island, now known as Paradise Island, into a tourist resort. When Hartford is done, Paradise Island, which lies a third of a mile off Nassau, will have a yacht marina, an amphitheater, a golf course and a hotel. Up until recently, regular chariot races were planned there. But the main feature right now is Paradise Tennis.
Considering its newness as a game (for the past year about the only players have been Hartford and Niles), the first Paradise Tennis tournament had a staggering entry list. Vines, Budge, Gonzales and Kramer were only the beginning—there were also a former national table-tennis champion, Dick Miles, who won the title nine times and is probably the best table-tennis player this country has ever produced; Althea Gibson; co-inventor Wendell Niles Jr., and myself. Hartford, unfortunately, was sailing to Europe on the Queen Mary at the time, but he checked in by phone from the radio room. James Wong Howe, one of the world's greatest cinematographers, was on hand to make movies of the game.
Paradise Tennis is akin to both table tennis and tennis, with a little bit of tumbling thrown in. It is played on a table nine feet wide and 18 feet long (roughly the size of four table-tennis tables) and about 28 inches high. The surface is aluminum sheeting bonded to aluminum honeycomb and painted green. A foot-high net bisects the width of the table and a white line bisects it lengthwise. Tennis rackets with aborted handles are what you hit with, and the ball is white inflated rubber about the size of a tennis ball.
The serve is like the table-tennis serve—the ball must bounce on the server's side before crossing the net. In both singles and doubles the serve must land in the diagonally opposite court. After the serve a shot is good if it lands anywhere on the opponent's side of the table. There is only one serve and you are never allowed to hit the ball before it bounces. Scoring is the same as in tennis.
No sport for mollycoddles (among other things, the table gets red-hot under a tropic sun), Paradise Tennis is a game of restraint and discipline rather than naked power, an exercise in placement, tactics and spin. It is a scrambler's game, with the player often contorting himself wildly to thrust his racket at the ball. One stroke—the lunging attempt to poke back a drop shot hit with plenty of back-spin—is a little like leaping on a live hand grenade to keep its havoc from spreading. The cry, "Oh, those table burns!" was heard frequently during the three-day tournament.
I myself invented a shot (since determined to be illegal) which involved flinging myself head first toward the net, as in a diving baseball slide, while holding onto the end of the table with my free hand so I could yank myself off it to hit the return shot (you can't count on a spectator or your doubles partner to be quick-witted enough to roll you off the surface, and presumably if you are hit with the ball while prone on the table, the point goes to the enemy). I know the shot is illegal because when Hartford called up from the Queen Mary I asked him and he said you have to keep one foot on the ground at all times.
The main thing about the game, though, is that most of the time it is very risky to hit the ball hard. If you do, it generally goes off the table. With people like Kramer, Gonzales, Budge, Vines and Gibson around, everybody, of course, tried the "big game," and in such cases the ball often would sail off down the road between an arcade of palm trees, or out to sea. Occasionally there would be the cry of "Look out!" from a player, something in the manner of a solicitous bean-ball pitcher warning a batter his head is in imminent danger.
It proved, therefore, that the best strokes of the great tennis players—Budge's backhand; Vines's, Gonzales' and Kramer's forehands; and myself, naturally, off both sides—could not be put to effective use. The net was too high or the table was too short. Nearly everyone but Niles began to rely largely on slices and chops. The ball was slow to react to topspin.