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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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After half a century of refinement in the stuffy company boardroom, platform tennis loosened the collar of its genteel, tweedy image last week and rubbed shoulders with the proletariat. All these simply grand and chipper chaps began playing for money. Next will come grubby agents, recalcitrant player unions, the Goodyear blimp, Wolfman Jack, Bobby Riggs and all kinds of other fiddle-faddle. Well, there goes the old neighborhood. Anyone for squash?

The Masters tournament staged in the landscaped community of Pepper Pike outside of Cleveland was the first sanctioned competition to offer prize money in the history of the august American Platform Tennis Association. But more, it was a look at the sport's potential idol, a player injuring himself with a victory jump and sponsorship by a 50-year-old mountain climber. It was people wearing derbies while playing. It was different strokes for different folks.

There did remain vestiges of the game's clubby aura. Everyone came from Princeton or Harvard or one of those Eastern Establishment private schools, and there were a lot of Chaunceys and Carringtons followed by Roman numerals. Platform (also called "paddle") tennis is a game of Wall Street scions, people you suspect hide their Book-of-the-Month Club selections when company calls. Now they were talking of expanding the game, "taking it to the inner city." There were no courts in Cleveland seven years ago and now there are approximately 70. Can fast sports franchising and Gary Davidson be far behind?

If you are tired of having the kids snicker because you keep discovering last year's fad, try platform tennis and be the first on your block. It is a hybrid of tennis, jai alai and ballroom dancing; it is played on a 30-by-60-foot scaled-down tennis court surrounded by wire screening, and because it is always played doubles, you need a partner. The scoring is the same as in tennis but you get only one serve, and the ball can be played off the screen.

The game never was as stuffy as regular tennis used to be with its antiseptic, medical-center dress code and fastidious protocol. Paddle can put a little light status on you with such right-on clothing as Ivy League letter sweaters with worn-out elbows, or a soft elitist symbol like a jazzy warmup jacket. Reverse snobbery is sometimes employed, like serving lasagna at the Cleveland pretournament dinner last Friday. Italian soul food. But then, to return to the right side of the tracks, there was vintage wine, cute little cookies and orange sherbet for dessert.

"Just take a look around this room," said Chip Baird, drinking in the country club setting with his eyes. The room was filled with beautiful people, outfitted in Kennedy clothes of the '60s. Wine glasses tinkled, silverware twinkled. "This is the aristocracy and a lot of them don't like the idea of opening the game up to outsiders. The prize money is nothing—$1,000 to the winner. Some of these people are worth $1,000 an hour. But what happens when it grows and you get some people out of New York who cheat to win and the game loses its social status? It won't be the game anymore that ends with a kiss at the net."

In anticipation of that, one of the top players, Herb FitzGibbon, an angular man cut in the mode of Tony Perkins, has engaged sports marketing whiz Mark McCormack as his financial adviser. The word on the big board is that FitzGibbon could become a hotter commodity than sugar when the sport explodes. Now it is ticking.

Chip Baird is 21 and a senior at Harvard majoring in psychology. His brother Steve is three years older and works for a New York bank, and their father, Chuck, is a former Undersecretary of the Navy. The pedigree is typical. The brothers are ranked fourth in the country and are by far the sport's youngest challengers. "People always tell us, 'You're young, you have lots of time ahead of you,' " says Chip. "If we married and took a job selling stocks or insurance and then practiced four hours a day, yeah, we could be the best in the game. But now we don't practice. I've played 15 minutes since the last tournament and Steve is on a late flight and not even here yet."

A team that had been practicing and training and leading the ascetic life was the tandem of John Mangan and Bob Kingsbury. They were the best until a decline last year and approached the Masters with the zeal of men charting retribution. Both were running up to two miles a day, and Mangan was lifting weights to strengthen a knee that recently was operated on. Only the previous week they had jogged through the opposition to win a tournament at Amelia Island, Fla., and the word was that they were again kings in the chicken coop.

Their chief rivals were FitzGibbon and John Beck, who dominated last season by winning tournaments in the relentless manner of a combine harvesting wheat. Their emergence affected platform tennis the way the talkies did silent films. Their style was revolutionary, a slashing, powerful game, a deviation from normal strategy bred on patience and defense. Both are tall and rangy, close to 6'5". FitzGibbon strides like Paul Bunyan over the 34-inch-high net when changing sides. "Playing them is like being in the target end of a shooting gallery," says Chum Steele, who with his partner Keith Jennings was the tournament's second seed. "Tennis is long-range warfare," says FitzGibbon. "Paddle tennis is like street fighting."

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