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Barry McDermott
December 02, 1974
The game of platform tennis has come down from its amateur perch in an attempt to attract the masses and sponsors with plenty of money
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December 02, 1974

Paddling Out Of The Country Club

The game of platform tennis has come down from its amateur perch in an attempt to attract the masses and sponsors with plenty of money

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Tennis players have a natural propensity for the paddle game. Steele and Jennings were once a high-ranked tennis doubles team and most of the other players were renegade tennis addicts. FitzGibbon formerly was 14th in U.S. men's singles. Now he is a stockbroker living in Manhattan, commutes to the suburbs on weekends to play platform tennis and practices sincere smiling in case Central Casting calls. "Our style is such that our error rate is very high," says Beck. "But if we're on, we'll win. It's that simple."

The players were competing for $3,200 in prize money, part of it put up by Jess Bell, the owner of the Cleveland-based Bonne Bell cosmetics firm and a man whose frenetic style suggests he is mainlining vitamins. He rushed back from a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro to attend the tournament and arrived wearing African bracelets. Bell jogs four miles to work each day, has a platform tennis court alongside his plant and is considering a 25-mile run. Whatever became of the sedentary executive life-style?

Early in the week winter put its frigid bite on the Midwest's neck, but Saturday turned out to be a beautiful, crisp day, assuring that while there might be bluebloods about, there would be no blue noses. The script appeared pat; there are only a few outstanding teams in the sport and generally the same four meet in the semifinals of every tournament. But then tennis used to be that way, too, before the riffraff took over.

Four rounds were scheduled for Saturday, meaning the players would finish the day as limp as the Dow Jones average, with the semifinals and finals to follow Sunday. First Mangan and Kingsbury were beaten, falling in the third round to 10th-seeded Scott Rogers and John Brownlow of Cleveland, 7-6, 6-4. So much for the ascetic life.

Meanwhile Oliver Kimberly and David Jennings, past national champions, were winning their third-round match, buoyed by the notion that with Mangan and Kingsbury gone they now could sail into the semis. At the winning point Kimberly exultantly jumped into the air. and crumpled to the ground with a pulled leg muscle. After 90 minutes of delaying tactics, the pair finally met the fortuitous Rogers and Brownlow and lost 6-2, 6-3. So much for exultation.

Sunday was rainy with a brisk Lake Erie wind raking the center court of the Cleveland Racquet Club as Machine Gun FitzGibbon and Beck strafed the opposition. They made Saturday's Cinderellas, Rogers and Brownlow, look like pumpkins in glass slippers and trounced them 6-1, 6-1 in the morning semis.

Earlier Chum Steele had considered the prospect of prize money: "I'm better for money, even if it's only a dime." Steele and partner Keith Jennings live in Boston and are self-styled "wetbacks" because they are outside the New York enclave. They struggled to beat the precocious Baird brothers 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, and moved into the finals against the long-ball hitters.

The rain got worse in the afternoon, turning the ball mushy and playing surfaces slippery, and blunting FitzGibbon's and Beck's nuclear forehands. Two years ago in the rain, Steele and Jennings gave them one of the worst beatings of their careers. This time it was closer, but the sitting ducks still upset the favorites 6-4, 7-6, 4-6, 6-7, 9-7 and struck a blow for the judicious lob.

Considering the weekend's excitement, someone should apologize for keeping platform tennis hidden upstairs. Well, it's not too late to get started. We can make the ball purple and violet, expand to Amelia Island, put in a designated umpire, defer bonus payments over the next two centuries and install Judge Sirica as commissioner. Play ball, and smile on camera, Carrington.

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